While mechanical watchmaking has been around for centuries, the concept of quartz-powered watches has roots that date back just to the 1960’s. The advent of the quartz watch in 1969 was revolutionary and entirely changed the watchmaking landscape. Here, we take a look at what exactly a quartz watch is and how it came into being.
Essentially, a quartz movement consists of an electronic circuit board with a small piece of synthetic crystal etched into it that acts as an oscillator, and a battery. There are no moving mechanical gears, wheels or other components. To break it down in very simple terms, the power to track time is generated via a relay system, with a button-cell battery that relays an electric current to the circuit board that counts the vibrations and tells the quartz crystal oscillator to provide regular electric pulses, or power, to turn the hands.
Most basic quartz watches vibrate at a frequency 32,768 times per second, though there are some very high-precision quartz calibers (VHP) on the market that beat even faster. Those beats per second are divided by the microchip and equate to 60 pulses per minute. Often, you can tell a quartz watch from a mechanical watch by the way the seconds hand moves. On quartz watches, it generally jumps at each second’s passing, while the movement on a mechanical watch is steady.
Many customers prefer a quartz watch to a mechanical watch because the watch keeps running all the time, even when you put it down for a few days or weeks – as long as the battery doesn’t die. This means the watch doesn’t have to be regularly reset, as is the case with a mechanical watch once the power reserve runs down. Generally, as well, today’s quartz watches have batteries that last even longer than those in the past, anywhere from two years to five years.
Most of the top watchmaking countries build their own quartz movements, but other than country of origin, they are all pretty much the same. Interestingly enough, the first quartz watch to come to market was from Japan. The Swiss had the idea but didn’t think that consumers at large would want a non-mechanical heart inside their watches. Here, in a tiny nutshell, is how it played out
The Quartz Revolution
In the early 1960’s in Switzerland, several Swiss brands formed the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchatel to try to develop a Swiss-made quartz movement. The same research and development was taking place in Japan, with Seiko leading the way. It was on Christmas day, 1969, that Seiko unveiled the world’s first quartz watch: the Astron. The movement was accurate to within five seconds a day – making it very precise. Just 100 pieces of the Astron were made – all in 18-karat yellow gold.
Meanwhile, the first Swiss quartz analog watch, the Ebauches SA Beta 21, made its debut in 1970. However, with centuries of mechanical watchmaking prowess behind it, and the title of the world’s leading makers of luxury mechanical watches, Swiss brands did not pursue serial production of quartz watches. Collectively, most high-end Swiss brands thought it was a fad, and that the idea of a luxury watch running on a battery with an electronic circuit board would not take hold when it came to buying luxury timepieces. They were wrong. The fad became famous.
By the mid 1970’s, as Seiko continued its production of quartz watches, brands like Pulsar, Citizen and others around the world, including brands in China and America, moved forward with quartz technology. By the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, quartz watches had largely become preferred over mechanical watches. They were easy, didn’t need servicing, were precise and less expensive. A significant decline in interest in Swiss mechanical watches almost decimated the industry, with many companies going out of business due to the economic turmoil of what has become known to the Swiss as the quartz crises. For most of the rest of the world, this era was seen as the quartz revolution.
It was in the early 1980’s that things began to change. Nicholas G. Hayek, Sr., was brought in to revamp the industry. He formed ETA SA, a movement company focused on making quartz calibers that were available for purchase by other Swiss brands, enabling many to offer quartz watches alongside their mechanical pieces. Additionally, Hayek created the now-famed Swatch watch, The $35 plastic watch became a global craze and helped lift the Swiss exports of watches numbers higher. Watchmakers who were floundering, found jobs. Brands that couldn’t produce their own quartz calibers had access to them now. By 1985, the Swiss watch industry was regaining its foothold.
Today, most Swiss watch brands offer quartz watches along with the haute horology mechanical wonders.