The "Quartz Crisis" Explained

May 26, 2013


Watches used to be a true luxury item reserved for the aristocracy, the military, and those who needed to tell the time to work.  Initially, all watches were "mechanical," that is, the watch had to be wound in order to store power and keep time.  Watches, then, were either wound by hand, or automatic, and wound by a rotor propelled by the motion of the wrist.  (Perrelet was the first to design a self-winding watch in the 1770's). In the 1970's and 1980's battery powered “Quartz” watches took hold of the watch market with shocking accuracy and low-cost durability. This caused a spike in production from Asia (think Seiko, Citizen) and put extreme pressure on the Swiss mechanical watchmakers who could not compete in terms of price, accuracy, and most importantly quantity. This is a brief description of how the Quartz Crisis began.

During World War II, long before tax shelters, the Swiss dominated the watch industry due to neutrality. This allowed them to continue making consumer time keeping apparatus while the major nations of the world shifted timing apparatus production to timing devices for military ordnance based upon alliances. As a result, the Swiss watch industry enjoyed a well-protected monopoly.


After the war (and during the war if you were a German Officer) the Germans were making wonderful, normally hand-wound mechanical watches. Hence, the Swiss and German watch makers rolled durable and beautiful hand-wind and automatic movements off the factory lines, and raked in substantial profits from around the world. The post World War II era was when the present bug names in the business emerged. Omega, Longines, Tissot, and Breitling made their names. (Interestingly the Swatch Group is trying to re-create this situation presently by restricting ETA movements.)


Ironically, a Swiss watch maker is responsible in many ways for the Quartz crisis and turning the watch world on its ear. In 1954, Swiss engineer Max Hetzel developed an electronic wristwatch Rudimentary by today's standards, it used an electrically charged tuning fork powered by a battery. The tuning fork resonated at precisely 360 Hz and it powered the hands of the watch through an electro-mechanical movement.. This watch was called the Accutron and was marketed by Bulova (Bulova still markets the Accutron today) watch today starting in 1960. This was the first mass marketed quartz, battery powered watch.


In 1957 the first battery-driven watch in production was the American-made Hamilton 500. This watch has a story of its own, and many believe that it nearly bankrupted the company. This watch is highly collectible today.


Accutron was a game changer, a large market was not familiar with quartz watches—and the Accutron was incredibly accurate to boot. At the same time the Swiss, and the Japanese scrambled to come to market with quartz watches, and the Quartz crisis was born. American companies took a technological lead in part due to microelectronics research for military and space programs. Texas Instruments, Fairchild, and National Semiconductor, started the mass production of digital quartz watches and made them affordable. Again, As with the Swiss watches, these were staggeringly accurate, and very popular. This trend continued until the 1980's with Swatch group gaining popularity for its avant garde styling and affordability. In the present time, most manufactures carry quartz watches in their lines, Smith & Bradley included. That said, the art of mechanical watchmaking is still alive and well at the Smith & Bradley workshop.  



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