The crystal amaze: The rise and fall and rise again of quartz technology

 
Alex Doak

Christmas, 1969. Nixon is in power and the Vietnam War is dragging on.

The second manned mission to the Moon has just returned to Earth and the Boeing 747 recently flew passengers for the very first time, from Seattle to New York. Meanwhile, Abbey Road tops the UK album charts and Rolf Harris is Christmas No.1 with, er, Two Little Boys.

To so many people – mostly Japanese and Swiss people, mind – all of that pales in comparison to one other momentous event; an event that, rather strangely, dates precisely to the 25 December. That particular day (a Thursday, actually) Tokyo’s favourite son Seiko launched onto the market the world’s very first wristworn timekeeper regulated not by spring-driven mechanics tick-tocking at a clunky 4Hz, but by a tiny, electrically charged quartz crystal vibrating precisely at 8,192Hz. The “Astron” watch was produced in a limited edition of only 100 pieces and sold for 450,000 yen – then, about the same price as a Toyota Corolla.

The tiny crystal tends to vibrate four times faster these days, battery life is vastly improved and the pricetags are much, much lower, but what Seiko pioneered almost half a century ago has barely changed since. Even the extraordinary accuracy of quartz watches, losing just 10 seconds a year, was firmly established way back then.

But what has changed massively is the traditional, mechanical Swiss way of things – first at the mercy of Seiko’s gamechanging technology and the ensuing flood of cheap Far Eastern tickers (a period not-so-fondly referred to as the “Quartz Crisis”), then again in stubborn defiance of it (the purple patch of beautifully crafted anachronism we have now).

But the other thing, somewhat less expected, is the recent repatriation of quartz as an exciting and luxurious product. Even the Swiss themselves are getting over their crisis and revelling in the tech, as demonstrated by some of the watches featured here.

Back in the Sixties, the phenomenon of quartz timekeeping was not new (Pierre and Marie Curie had discovered the significance of the crystal’s piezo-electric behaviour back in 1880) but the ability to miniaturise the components to fit within the confines of a wristwatch had taxed the finest brains for many years.

No surprise when you consider that the first viable quartz timekeeper, made for a radio station just a decade prior, was the size of a filing cabinet. The quartz timing equipment Seiko made for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was still as big as a shoebox. But despite so many citing Switzerland’s luddite reluctance to adapt to the newfangled tech as the reason the Quartz Crisis happened, few are aware that the Japanese and the Swiss were in fact neck and neck in the race to be first to market a quartz wristwatch.

Sadly but crucially for them, the Swiss watchmakers were pipped to the post by just a single year. But the quartz engine they collaboratively brought to market, the Beta 21 is still an admirable thing, fast gaining cult collector status (which could be something to do with quartz’s newfound respect).

While researched and prototyped by the specially established Centre Electronique Horlogère (CEH) research centre in Neuchâtel, it’s the calibre of the 21 brands that pooled their resources at the CEH that garners even more kudos. Names like IWC, Audemars Piguet, Piaget, even that esteemed maison of all things haute de gamme, Patek Philippe, whose own incarnation of the Beta 21 watch is a gorgeous piece of Seventies bling and a totem of historical fascination.

So why did the Swiss fall victim in the long run, if the tech was already domesticated? As Mr Tsuneya Nakamura observed at the time, “One big difference between the Swiss industry and us here at Seiko is, in contrast to the distributed style of the Swiss, here we are an integrated manufacturer. If we believe anything to be a requirement, it’s within our management’s scope to take all the measures needed to act.”

More simply, Seiko was able to expand production of quartz watches faster than any Swiss manufacturers. Beta 21 on the other hand had been developed by CEH, who designed the movement and produced the integrated circuit.

Meanwhile, Ebauches SA made the mechanical parts and the quartz crystal oscillator and Omega produced the micromotor. The finished products were assembled in three different factories that produced final products to the designs of the 16 Swiss companies that eventually placed orders. Tortuous, in a word.

These days, watch enthusiasts revel in tortuous. The exquisitely over-engineered nature of a mechanical watch is a precious and eternal antidote to our disposable digital age. Yet with the advent of “connected” smartwatches, mostly made by Apple, the Swiss have rushed to avoid being caught napping just like in the Seventies. In just two years, we now have luxury smartwatches from TAG Heuer, Montblanc, Frederique Constant, De Grisogono jewellers even. All keeping perfect time, thanks to a Bluetooth signal from your phone.

Which could be the real reason behind our slight return to a once-threatening technology that now feels charmingly antique. Things happen glacially in the watch business, but the long-overdue respect for quartz has finally arrived, albeit necessarily in the shadow of a new threat.

TICK, TICK, TICKING THE RIGHT BOXES­­­

Breitling Colt Skyracer
£1,810, breitling.com

A men’s Breitling for less than £2,000 will always get noticed, and in this case for all the right reasons, despite being non-mechanical. For a start, every commercial pilot’s favourite watchmaker has kitted it out with their own, in-house thermocompensated Breitling SuperQuartz movement, which is ten times more accurate than standard quartz. What’s more, the ultra-light and ultra-sturdy case is made of “Breitlight”, a high-tech polymer composite spiked with carbon (found in a slightly different form in the Glock pistol). It’s 3.3 times lighter than titanium and 5.8 times lighter than steel, yet significantly harder.

Grand Seiko SBGX063
£2,250, seiko.co.uk

It’s not widely known that Seiko makes proper, high-end mechanical watches to rival Omega or Rolex – under the “Grand Seiko” diffusion line, and all hand-crafted deep in the snowy mountains of northern Japan, rather like the Swiss do. However, as the brand responsible for the very first wrist-worn quartz watch, the Astron of 1969, Grand Seiko gets away with including a few quartz watches under its luxury label. The 9F62 calibre’s technology has been refined to the extremes of haute horologerie, right down to hand-polished gold plates and the fact Seiko’s actual quartz crystals are grown in-house. And the rest of the watch is everything you’d want in a top-quality dress watch, from its crisp dial to the solidly engineered steel case and sapphire-crystal dome.

Longines Conquest V.H.P.
£690, longines.com

Based on its years of experience with quartz, Longines is revisiting a rare Swiss success story from the ’60s and ’70s, when it correctly predicted the prohibitively expensive pricetag of the collaborative Beta 21 effort from Patek, IWC, Piaget et al. and developed the far simpler Ultra-Quartz – the first quartz wristwatch conceived to be mass-produced. This year’s “Very High Precision” is equipped with a newly developed, in-house movement from parent Swatch Group’s ETA mega-atelier, precise to ± 5 seconds per year and able to reset its hands after an impact or exposure to a magnetic field, using a clever “gear position detection” system.

F.P. Journe Élegante
£13,500; available exclusively in the UK at William & Son, williamandson.com

“Watchmaker’s watchmaker” François-Paul Journe makes fewer than 1,000 pieces a year from his revered atelier in Geneva city centre, employing the finest craftsmanship and the greatest respect for horology’s founding tenets. So it was quite a shock when he unveiled a quartz-powered ladies’ watch last year. But once the vapours evaporated, connoisseurs began to notice how clever the Élegante really is. Not only is the in-house movement hand-finished to high-end levels and made of red gold, but the little window at 4 o’clock reveals a mechanical motion detector; if the watch is still for 30 minutes, power-saving mode is triggered and the hands stop ticking. Pick it up again, and the hands remember where they should be. Meaning the battery could last for 10 years.

Bulova Curv Chronograph
£699, bulova.com

In terms of electronic watches, American watchmaker Bulova (now owned by Japanese giant Citizen) was the very first, launching its tuning-fork regulated “Accutron” in 1960. Now, despite quartz ruling the roost on the electronic front rather than those clunky “hummers”, Bulova is still ahead of the game with its “UHF” tech, boasting a quartz crystal with three rather than two prongs. A resulting vibrational frequency of 262kHz means it’s eight times greater than a standard quartz crystal. And now, the Curv chronograph dares to do what so many brands don’t, showing off its movement through a clear caseback – all the more impressive for being curved, sitting on the wrist all the comfier.

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