Perhaps no other invention has been quite as influential in the history of watchmaking as the quartz movement. Almost singlehandedly, it drove the Swiss industry to near extinction because quartz was cheaper and easier to make. More than 40 years after Seiko released Astron, the very first quartz watch on the market, electronic timepieces have come a long way—claiming their position in a field that continues to hurtle forward even as it looks to the past for inspiration.
Newer models function like wrist computers. The Swiss now embrace the technology that almost killed their centuries-old industry. Most of the major Swiss brands will inevitably have lines of electronic watches alongside their signature mechanical selections.
Though quartz timepieces are less valuable than mechanical watches, they are now collectible objects of desire—something old-school collectors see in wistful terms as the end of the age where mechanical watchmaking was the only way to go.
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Before the quartz watch was invented, the Swiss had already been working on electronic movements. Using a tuning fork as the time standard, these watches were battery-driven, and constantly emitted a humming sound, earning them the nickname “hummers.” For a limited time, IWC produced tuning fork watches, labeling them electronic models.
Tuning fork technology was one of the first forays into electronic watchmaking, and Bulova was the first to define the craft, releasing the Accutron in the 60s after being heavily developed by Max Hetzel. The Accutron fascinated the watch community when it was revealed, and, though the quartz watch would be created some time later, it remains a landmark model for its contribution to electronic timekeeping.
Following the success of electronic watches, manufacturers decided to take a different approach to their design, and thus the LED display was born. While considered very advanced for its time, these watches consumed a prodigious amount of energy, and some models, including this particular Computron, did not display the time continuously. The wearer had to press a button, which would then flash the time in a digital display for a short period.
1. Grand Seiko Quartz
Until recent years, Seiko’s luxury line—Grand Seiko—was mostly sold in Japan, and the outside world knew very little of the brand’s history as a maker of mechanical watches. Highly precise, even by international standards, the brand remains coveted by collectors, and some of its models can fetch prices far in excess of its Swiss counterparts. While known for its mechanical movements, Grand Seiko also developed quartz watches and manufactured them in elegant, simple designs.
Seiko has a long history of competing in the diving watch arena, and the 6159 series is one of its most popular lines in this regard. Over time, the brand refined the 6159, making use of titanium—then known as a space-age metal—and encasing the watch in rubber to prevent the entry of gas while diving.
3. Blind Man’s Watch
Recognizing the need to develop a functional watch for the visually impaired, Seiko created a watch that could also be read by touch. The crystal is designed to flip open, enabling the wearer to touch the dial and tell the time.
4. Prospex 7C46-7011
The Prospex line is Seiko’s answer to the fashionable sport watches of the Swiss. With a prominent bezel and a highly wearable design, the 7c46-7011 dive watch is made to sit casually on the wrist while also being a professional tool for use underwater.
In the 1980s, Giorgetto Giugiaro—having long been a recognized name in the automotive industry—was approached by Seiko to come up with designs for their racing line. The result was a series of watches whose cases could be rotated, allowing the driver to set it in an upright position even while his hands held the steering wheel.
One of the first to accept the challenge of making quartz watches in a field dominated by mechanical movements, Omega continues to develop its quartz lines, most notably in the Seamaster range. The line has gathered quite a following over the years, being associated with the newer James Bond films and having its own signature aesthetic. While the Seamaster is known for its mechanical versions, the quartz models are likewise popular, and even Pierce Brosnan wore a quartz Seamaster while filming the movie Goldeneye.
Breaking away from the simpler, plastic designs of its original models, Swatch came up with the Irony range, which greatly updated the look of their timepieces. Larger, and fitted with chronograph functions, the Irony range possessed the Swiss sport watch aesthetic while still being affordable, further establishing its place in the new watch market. The Irony range is still in production today and has proven to be one of their more popular lines.
Alongside Seiko, Casio was one of the companies that capitalized on the popularity of electronic watches, coming up with its own ranges to bring to the display cases. While one of the younger brands, it used its proficiency in electronics to design watches that had a distinctively futuristic appeal. Two of the brand’s most recognized products are the G-Shock, a watch that can endure 10-meter falls and survive being underwater; and the calculator watch, a timepiece that doubles as a practical tool.
Seahope Signboard Watch
Japan has seen a large share of the watch market since Seiko’s rise to prominence during the Quartz Crisis, and the brand has led the way for other companies to follow suit. The cheaper production costs of quartz watchmaking has given birth to many new watchmakers, each with its own style. With its bold concepts, Seahope is a Japanese brand that creates some of the most unconventional designs, with the Signboard watch, which is based on the light-up signs in train stations, as an example.
Photograph by Paulo Antonio Valenzuela
This story first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.