When the mechanical watch was invented centuries ago, it brought the idea of timekeeping to a new direction. People no longer had to look at the clocks in their study to tell the hour. Timepieces could now be worn, making them vastly more convenient.
Powered by a mainspring that needed to be manually wound on a regular basis, the mechanical watch was the marvel of its time, a device that was kept in motion by human hands and one that could be brought almost anywhere. Soon, it developed an entire story of its own and the mechanical watch went through many changes. Complications that could tell the date, lunar calendars, and chronographs were built into the pieces as watchmakers continued to develop the art.
Switzerland, which traces its watchmaking history back to the 16th century, sat at the pinnacle of the industry and many manufacturers subsequently moved there. Steeped in mechanical watchmaking tradition, the Swiss later employed new technology to add to their arsenal of traditional timepieces.
In the 60s, they developed the Beta 21, the first Swiss analog quartz watch created by the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH). Drawing its power from a battery instead of a mainspring, the movement was regulated by a quartz crystal, which used a precise frequency to keep time and made it more accurate than mechanical movements. By 1967, the prototypes made by the CEH had won awards for their accuracy and it was then apparent that technology was to be the great new breakthrough in timekeeping.
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During this time, Japan was also developing its own watch technology and directly competed with the Swiss in a race to see who could bring the industry to the new era. In 1969, Seiko released the Astron, the first commercially available quartz watch in the world. The following year, watches with the Beta 21 movement were released to the public as well but, by then, Japan had already won.
The Swiss watchmakers, whose trade had long been a source of pride for the country, were initially reluctant to use quartz movements in their timepieces. Quartz, they believed, was incompatible with the tradition and art that mechanical movements represented. Even though the Swiss had been instrumental in developing the technology, some of the manufactures carried on as before. A few, like Omega, took on the new challenge, coming up with the prototype for the Megaquartz 2400 in 1970. It was the first wristwatch to have been certified as a marine chronometer, a device accurate enough to serve as an actual time standard.
While the Swiss dabbled in quartz, the Japanese and the Americans embraced the technology with brands like Citizen, Casio, and Texas Instruments developing electronic watches. By the late 70s, quartz watches finally overtook the dominance of mechanical movements.
The Swiss saw sales of their traditional watches wind down. For the first time, watches, once obtainable only at considerable cost, were mass produced and sold on the cheap. Swiss watchmakers were forced to shut down and, towards the 80s, Geneva found itself in the midst of a dying industry, a period which would later be called the Quartz Crisis.
With mechanical watchmaking approaching extinction, the Swiss decided to approach the crisis head on. Watches were as much a part of Switzerland’s heritage as it was their business, and if quartz was to be the way forward, then they would not allow themselves to be driven to the ground by denying it. In a gathering to come up with a solution, the Swiss eventually found their answer. That answer was the Swatch watch.
Machine made, with no possibility of repair, the Swatch was a disposable quartz timepiece. It was distinguished by its bright, pop designs and affordability and became a popular product with the entry-level market. The disposable wristwatch pumped blood back to Switzerland’s watch economy and the company eventually expanded to become the Swatch Group, the largest manufacturer of timepieces in the world.
Since then, quartz watchmaking has claimed more breakthroughs. Some of the most significant advances include the creation of the thermocompensated quartz movement, which can correctly keep time despite fluctuations in temperature—making it many times more reliable than a normal quartz watch. The atomic wristwatch regularly receives radio signals from an atomic clock and adjusts the time accordingly, eliminating the need to check it for accuracy.
While mechanical watches have seen a resurgence in recent years, with people appreciating the artistry and tradition behind their creation, quartz remains top dog, free to roam uncharted realms to pursue breakthroughs. But technology, being the game-changing shapeshifter that it is, is almost certain to trump anything we now see as state of the art.
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.