Since the 16th century, Switzerland has been at the forefront of mechanical watchmaking made possible by generations of men whose ingenuity surpassed that of their time.
The collective effort of different brands and watchmaking houses drove constant innovation, solidifying the Swiss’ reputation as true masters of their craft.
At the height of World War 2, when nations involved transited into a state of ‘total war’, whereby all economic resources would be dedicated towards the war effort e.g. metal plants refitted to manufacture weapons, farm harvests taken to make combat rations, the countries’ domestic watch industry was not exempted.
All consumer production was halted in favour of making watches bearing military specifications for the army.
Switzerland – being the country of neutrality that it was and still is – was spared, putting them ahead in the consumer market and eventually to their near-monopoly of the global watch industry.
But something was brewing..
Electrical watches emerge
Mechanical watches get their power from a mainspring, which had to be wound to accumulate energy and subsequently released to move the watch; there were no electrical components within them.
In 1952, a partnership between 2 watchmakers, Elgin (US) and LIP (French), gave birth to the first generation of electric watches whose mainspring was powered by a battery.
While Elgin and LIP laid the groundwork for electric watches, it was a Swiss engineer, Max Hetzel, working at Bulova who identified the lack of accuracy in them due to the usage of a traditional balance wheel.
He subsequently came up with a solution: replacing the balance wheel with an electronically charged tuning fork which could divide a second into hundreds of sections.
His research led to the Bulova Accutron in 1960 – a genre defining watch and arguably the greatest icon of the Bulova watch company.
Ironically, Max Hetzel and the Bulova Accutron (both Swiss), with their forward thinking principles on marrying technology with mechanical would set in motion the events that would cripple the entire Swiss watch industry.
The discovery of quartz
In the early 60s, engineers started researching into methods which could make time telling more accurate and efficient; they found the answer in quartz.
Quartz is a natural crystal that can be found in abundance on earth. Its single most important property in watchmaking was its piezoelectric nature, meaning that it generates a small electric current upon squeezing. Conversely, when electricity is passed through a quartz crystal, it vibrates at a fixed frequency.
Theoretically, a quartz watch could potentially solve all the problems common to mechanical watches:
- Using a battery to electrically charge up the quartz crystal causing it to vibrate and moving the gear train, thus eliminating the balance wheel whose oscillating movement was susceptible to shock, temperature and magnetic fields
- As only a minimal amount of electricity was needed, batteries can last for years and replacement would be fuss-free
- No more watch servicing – an arduous and often expensive process which was required to keep mechanical watches in good condition.
- Better timekeeping. An electrical signal is dead consistent; the most accurate mechanical watch would not beat the worst quartz watch in precision
As the benefits and marketability of such a product seemed viable, prototyping commenced simultaneously in Europe, the United States and Japan.
In 1962, the Swiss followed suit by setting up a research facility – Centre Electroniqie Horloger (CEH) – with a goal of providing quartz movements to Swiss watch companies, which was not well received by the industry at large (but more on that later).
Ultimately, Seiko won the race and introduced the Astron in 1969.
The darkest days of the mechanical watch
As quartz technology became increasingly prevalent, American companies (Fairchild, Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor) with expertise in electrical engineering also got into watch production; not forgetting Seiko who was starting to gain a foothold in global markets.
As mentioned above, traditional Swiss watchmakers did not embrace the idea.
Economically, the watch industry provided close to 100,000 jobs: craftsmen, watchmakers and servicing specialists.
Most importantly, country pride was at risk. The mechanical watch and its synonymity with Switzerland were a centuries-old heritage; its association so strong that it has formed a significant part of their national identity.
In the early 80s, as more companies started producing quartz watches driving prices down, market share for Swiss watches fell to an alarming 10% and employment in the industry shrunk by 50%.
The end of Swiss domination, and on a much larger scale, the death of the mechanical watch has begun.
Now or never – the rise of Swatch
In 1982, the quartz crisis reached a critical point – Swiss watchmakers needed to do something or face the inevitable end of an industry they spent centuries to create.
A research consortium was formed and in March 1983, they launched the Swatch – a low cost Swiss-made plastic quartz watch with endless colour variations to recapture the market share lost to earlier adopters of quartz technology.
Through a combination of clever marketing and dirt cheap (for a Swiss made watch) prices, Swatch succeeded in helping the Swiss watch industry to gain its footing back in the market place and pumped in much needed funds to revive traditional watchmakers.
In time to come, Swatch would become Swatch Group, the biggest watch company in the world, with its acquisition of brands – Omega, Blancpain and Longines among others – in financial trouble, along with ETA, the world’s largest movement maker.
There was also a shift of focus for mechanical watches to target at the high end market (still apparent today).
By the 90s, appreciation for mechanical watches was restored putting an end to the quartz crisis.
What does the future hold
It is ironic that the future of mechanical watchmaking was saved by a quartz watch.
Today, sales of quartz watches far outshine mechanicals (in terms of pieces sold) but the latter has been enjoying a steady rise of total market share.
The quartz crisis was the most trying of tests for mechanical watches and serves 2 important lessons.
One – Empires built up over centuries can be torn down in months.
Two – There existed and will always exist well learned connoisseurs who look beyond function; they appreciate history and heritage, and will pay a premium for an ‘outdated’ mechanical watch as it represents old school innovation in its finest form.
Would the current prevalence of smart watches be the second coming of the ‘quartz crisis’? I guess you know the answer.