Saturday, 12 January 2008

The rise and fall of the quartz watch

To those of us old enough to remember it, the autumn of 1973 was not perhaps what Charles Dickens would have classified as “the best of times”. War had broken out in the Middle East, the Watergate scandal was making life difficult for the newly-re-elected Richard Nixon and the late and thoroughly unlamented General Pinochet had just seized power in Chile. Britain had begun the year joining the EEC (the forerunner of the EU) but was now in the grip of the Three Day Week as the confrontation between the Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath and the miners showed no sign of abating. Inflation was spiralling out of control and recession seemed inevitable.

It would have been about that time that I saw in the window of a jewellers shop in Wendover in Buckinghamshire something that caught my imagination – a Seiko quartz watch. I knew from the encyclopaedia that we had had at home since my early childhood that a quartz clock was an extremely accurate timepiece, but it was completely news to me that somebody had managed to shrink the complex electronics to the size of something that could be fitted into a wristwatch. In fact the first quartz watches appeared in Japan in 1969, but it obviously took time for them to make their way to the Home Counties (it must also be remembered that wide-spread access to the internet was still a quarter of a century off).

The watch had a claimed accuracy of 1 minute per year, which was quite sensational because even a well-regulated mechanical watch could – and still can – be off by that amount in a few days. It cost £100 – a considerable sum of money for the time. Soon after Seiko began marketing their watches very actively in the UK with the advertising tag “Some day all watches will be made this way”.

Rarely if ever has an advertising slogan proved more accurate; within a decade the mechanical wristwatch had all but disappeared from the windows of high street retailers. The first cheap quartz watches appeared around the second half of 1975. Unlike the analogue Seiko, these watches featured digital displays. The first models used light emitting diode (LED) displays of the type used by the electronic calculators of that time (calculators were also considered cool cutting-edge gadgets in the mid ‘70s) but had the major disadvantage that it was necessary to press a button in order to read off the time (I possessed one made by Samsung – a company virtually unknown in the West at the time). This type of display soon gave way to the now-familiar liquid crystal display (LCD) still found in brands like the ever-popular Casio G-Shock. A watch where one can read of the time as – say – 1:52 PM rather than “just after ten to two” might seem to be at a major advantage, but here the quartz revolution stuttered slightly. Most people actually preferred the older analogue displays and these days the majority of wristwatches have this type of display.

For the Swiss watch industry, quartz represented a major challenge. What happened next is best considered through the very different directions taken by two of Switzerland’s most prominent watchmakers – Rolex and Omega. Omega embraced the new technology full on. In 1974 they launched the Megaquartz Marine Chronometer, which remains to this day the most accurate wristwatch ever made. But – not helped by the adverse economic conditions of the time – Omega struggled and only within the last decade has the brand begun to regain its former strength. Rolex for their part did absolutely nothing. They carried on making exactly the same models – and they kept on selling! This policy was successful - today Rolex is by far the world's largest producer of luxury wristwatches. It was many years before they even bothered to produce a quartz watch – the Oysterquartz. But despite an accuracy of 5 seconds per year – not far off the Omega Megaquartz – it was not a success and was eventually discontinued.

Round about the end of the 1980s the tide turned as more and more purchasers of high-end watches bean to reject quartz in favour of traditional mechanicals. Why one might ask, when a quartz watch is so much more accurate? There are a number of possible reasons – one obvious advantage a mechanical watch has over its quartz counterpart is that it never needs a battery. But battery-less technologies such as eco-drive (solar) and kinetic (rotor-driven dynamo) have largely failed to penetrate the high-end market. And in any case changing the battery every few years is far cheaper and less time-consuming than the regular servicing mechanical watches require to keep them in working order.

The answer is to some extent to be found with the so-called “display back”. Many mechanical watches now have a transparent back, so the movement can be viewed. Look at the intricate and exquisitely-finished movement in a Patek Phillippe or a Lange and compare it with an electronic chip. No contest! Even the nicely-decorated UNITAS hand-wound movements found in many mid-range watches such as the Stowa Marine Original beats a quartz movement hands down in the beauty stakes. To be blunt, one is a micro-machine, a marvel of precision engineering; the other is nothing more than an electrical appliance.

Today the vast majority of luxury watches are mechanical. Most of the high-end quartz watches, such as the Omega Megaquartz, the Rolex Oysterquartz and the Longines Conquest VHP, have long since ceased production. The Citizen Chronomaster, rated to within 5 seconds a year, remains a current model but it is not widely available outside of Japan. The advent of radio control, whereby a watch can synchronize itself to the time signals from Rugby, Frankfurt, Colorado etc has meant that super-accurate quartz movements are now largely redundant, virtually killing off innovation in the field. Most modern quartz watches, when not synchronized to a time signal, are actually far less accurate than the Seiko I saw in that jeweller’s shop window almost three and a half decades ago.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Anonymous said...

If you want a really accurate (but not radio controlled) watch, look for the Bulova Precisionist watches to come out this fall. They will be good for 10 sec/year. The least costly model should be $300 not including taxes.

The ultimate would be if NIST succeeds at making their "grain o-rice" atomic movement use a lot less power allowing a watch accurate to one second in three centuries!

CPS said...

Unfortunately the Precisionist has largely failed to live up to its claimed accuracy (mine seems to be good for about 1 sec/wk), and has not been helped by some truly ugly designs. Bulova's belated decision to repurpose the Accutron brand for the Precisionist movement and release a range of 'homage' models such as the Spaceview and Astronaut is very welcome & hopefully this genuinely innovative movement will be further developed.

Anonymous said...

The Rolex Oysterquartz is accurate to 1 minute per year = 5 seconds per month, not the 5 seconds per year quoted in the article.

CPS said...

I was led to believe the figure I quoted, which was consistent with my own experience over 6 years of ownership. However, a number of websites do support your 60 sec. figure - which compares poorly with other t/c quartz movements eg Grand Seiko 9F, Citizen A660 or Longines VHP.