Time for a change

Whether you consider it the start of a revolution or of a crisis, the development of quartz technology profoundly changed watchmaking and society upon its release in the last decade of the 1960s.

December 1969 was a pivotal moment in horological history. This was the moment Seiko released the first commercially available quartz wristwatch – the Seiko Astron – powered by a battery.

It was an astonishing technological achievement. Consider for a moment that the Apollo 11 lunar landing took place in June 1969, a good six months ahead of Seiko’s time-telling landmark. (When you think about it, this probably makes the Moon landing that much more incredible.)

Wristwatch purists refer to this moment as the beginning of the Quartz Crisis – for them it’s the fall of Pompei, the rise of the Black Plague and the demise of Holden all rolled into one.

Until this moment, if you wanted to sport a watch on your wrist, it had to be one of the traditional kind – a clever configuration of gears, cogs and springs powered either by the movement of the wearer’s body (automatic) or by winding (mechanical). The same method, in other words, as watches had hitherto been constructed for hundreds of years.

The new tech was warmly embraced by the masses, and for them (us), the Quartz Revolution ushered in a new age of more efficient and accessible time-keeping. Quartz watches are cheaper, more accurate and considerably more reliable than their analogue predecessors, and require no expensive maintenance.

As with all uprisings, there were winners in this revolution, but also victims. In the former category were companies such as Casio, and later on Swatch, which sold (and sells) affordable, colourful, collectable and semi-disposable watches in extraordinary quantities.

Later on, brands such as Fossil got in on the act with its classy (albeit made-in-China) aesthetic.

Among the vanquished in the new environment were centuries-old houses of horology located in remote picturesque Swiss cantons.

Designing and assembling automatic and mechanical timepieces the old-fashioned way is a rather time-consuming and labour-intensive enterprise. Each part of the process requires skill and patience to expertly and painstakingly assemble the wrist instruments, piece by complicated piece. (But realistically, perhaps nothing like the 11 months Breitling claims it takes to put together, balance and test its Navitimers.)

Mechanised processes have speeded things up since the days of yore, and many brands today use hastily assembled generic automatic movements rather than those created from scratch in-house. Still, it doubtless takes time.

Many traditional watch brands initially survived the Quartz Revolution, and then thrived. Consolidation kept some brands alive. For instance, Longines, Omega, Certina, Tissot, Hamilton, Rado, Blancpain and Glashutte are all part of the epic Swatch Group.

In the 90s mobile phones took off. White-collar workers who already had the time available to them on their computer screens now had it at the ready on their phones as well. For many, a wristwatch, however unobtrusive, became an unnecessary encumbrance.

Luxe brands such as Rolex had long played up the exclusiveness of their offering. Now, with the need to tell the time via a watch less compelling than ever – time was, after all, everywhere, all at once – wearing a fancy timepiece became something else: a display of status, an act of defiance, even.

Traditional watchmaking isn’t going anywhere. Sure, it may have been superseded, but it has its steadfast adherents, just as vinyl records do.

Although they must have taken a hit during 2020, the luxury traditional watchmakers know there is a ready collectors’ market for their shiny wares. Whether it’s a Vacheron Constantin Overseas (upwards of $25,000) or an Orient Bambino ($200), there are afficionados, obsessives, fanciers, collectors and horological geeks collecting them.

Early on in the Quartz Crisis, some luxury marques panicked, thinking the superior performance of their battery-bearing brothers would mean their own swift demise without immediate wholehearted adaptation. Roger Moore’s James Bond wears a square-shaped quartz digital Omega in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Most of the upmarket houses have at one stage or another produced a quartz offering in their portfolio. Some still do. In fact, most ladies’ luxury watches are quartz-based.

The luxury brands tend to focus on the superior performance of quartz, sometimes investing in advanced versions. Longines, Breitling, Bulova and Grand Seiko all produce a super-accurate quartz timekeeper.

And what of quartz now? Well it’s still around too, still ticking along. The 50th anniversary of the technology came and went without a lot of fanfare, even in the horological world (an alternative dimension for sure, which prioritises matters timepiece-related above all others). Seiko released a special-edition solar-powered GPS Astron to mark the occasion and the achievement. Although the Astron name has been shared by other solar-powered models, it seemed a strange and somewhat careless way to recognise the ground-breaking technological advance of 1969. It’s somewhat akin to releasing an electric vehicle to honour the anniversary of the V8, perhaps.

Like many these days, Lee Child’s indestructible fictional action hero Jack Reacher has no need for a timepiece. Wherever he is, Reacher has the uncanny ability to simply know the time.

As for me, I prefer to wear a watch, despite the fact I can check my phone or PC to determine the hour of the day. Like the original Astron, I was born in 1969, so sticking with quartz feels like a kind of loyalty. We’re both kindred spirits of the late 60s.

Part of the reason might also be a way of thumbing my nose at the past. More than 30 years ago the watch I was wearing was dragged off my wrist during a car accident, taking with it the skin on my left palm and two-thirds of my middle left finger. Yet here I am still – I took a licking and kept on ticking.

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