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Digital disruptions: Fifty years after the quartz revolution, a new era is upon us

In 1969, the first quartz watches paved the way for digital timepieces. Half a century later, a new kind of digital revolution is shaking up the world of horology.

Digital disruptions: Fifty years after the quartz revolution, a new era is upon us

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first quartz watch, the Seiko Quartz-Astron. (Photos: Seiko, Unsplash)

Technology has a funny way of upsetting the status quo. Take reading, for example: We used to literally burn the midnight oil to read when it got dark. Then came electric lightbulbs. Today, LEDs are the norm. And with each successive invention, how we consumed the written word changed completely. This was exactly what happened to the watch industry during the quartz revolution, which began in 1969.

Fifty years on, we take a look at how digital technology changed the wristwatch for consumers back then, and how the new digital revolution is impacting watch consumers today.

THE QUARTZ CRYSTAL COMETH

The Seiko Quartz-Astron. (Photo: Seiko)

The year was 1969. On Dec 25, it was the Japanese watchmaker Seiko who brought forth the bane that was quartz upon the kingdom of mechanical watchmaking. The very first quartz wristwatch was known as the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ. Contrary to what the quartz movement would go on to become (a cheap, mass produced power source), the first quartz movement was priced at JPY 450,000. According to some sources, this was equivalent to the price of a medium-sized car back then.

How did it evolve into the inexpensive quartz watch we know today? Throughout the 1970s, Seiko continued to develop their quartz technology, even doubling down on liquid crystal displays (LCD) for their watches. In 1973 they were the first to produce a six-digit LCD display, and two years later the first to offer a multi-function digital watch which essentially created a whole new market for highly functional watches powered by quartz movements.

The Seiko 35A was the first quartz movement. (Photo: Seiko)

A 1985 Harvard Business School report on Seiko noted that by 1975, Seiko had invested in plants to make integrated circuits, batteries, and LCD panels. Employees were retrained to work with the new technology. Seiko also increased its investment in robots and equipment for high-volume, automated production.

So where exactly were the Swiss in all of this? The same year Seiko launched the Astron, 20 Swiss maisons banded together to develop and unveil the Beta-21 quartz movement. Apparently, about 6,000 of these quartz movements were made and used in watches like the Omega Electroquartz, IWC’s Da Vinci and Patek Philippe Ref. 3587. But even with this, the Swiss hesitated to embrace quartz technology. At the time, their mechanical watches dominated world markets and the art of traditional watchmaking was regarded as a large component of their national identity. Thus, where the world saw a quartz revolution, the Swiss experienced a quartz crisis.

Swiss watchmakers developed their own quartz movement, the Beta-21. (Photo: Hodinkee)

By 1983, the crisis reached a critical point. The Swiss watch industry, which had had 1,600 watchmakers in 1970, had declined to 600. A consortium of Swiss banks had to band together to bail out SSIH (Tissot, Omega, etc) and ASUAG (Certina, Hamilton, Longines, etc), the two biggest watchmaking firms in Switzerland at the time. It was then that businessman (and future Swatch Group founder) Nicolas G. Hayek (1928 – 2010) came up with the plan of merging under a holding company called SMH (Societe de Microelectronique et d'Horlogerie).

This allowed all the brands now under SMH to consolidate movement production under the manufacturing company ETA, which also fell under the group’s umbrella. Meanwhile, the brands who previously had to make their own movements, could now focus on design, marketing and sales.

Nicolas G. Hayek. (Photo: the Swatch Group)

The powers that be at ETA devised an idea for a watch design that could eliminate the use of a baseplate and instead attach all the parts directly onto the caseback. This, and the fact that the entire watch would be – gasp – made of plastic and powered by a quartz movement meant that its cost could be drastically lowered. This nifty little plastic watch would come to be known as Swatch. The fact that it had a Swiss-made reputation and could compete at the low end of the market made the Swatch an instant success.

By the 1990s, the phenomenal popularity of the Swatch brought SMH back to profitability. So much so that in 1998, Hayek renamed SMH the Swatch Group. Ironically, when the Swatch was launched, Swiss industry pundits were certain that it would be the downfall of the Swiss watch industry. But if not for this plastic quartz watch, who knows what the industry would look like today.

THE NEXT ACT BEGINS

Half a century has passed since the first major disruption to the watch industry and now, we are at the cusp of another. With many aspects of our lives moving into the digital sphere, it would only make sense that the way we, as consumers, experience watches shifting into this paradigm as well.

The first and most obvious way this digital revolution has disrupted the industry is through e-commerce. Although it’s been a slow start, major retailers in Singapore, such as Cortina Watch and Sincere Watch, are now jumping on the bandwagon, while globally, prices that consumers are willing to fork out to buy a watch online have been going through the roof.

Secondly, the wealth of information on watches has expanded exponentially. Where once you had to scour bookshops and libraries for a copy of that elusive book or watch magazine, now a quick Google search will give you more information than you will ever need. Influential online publications like Hodinkee (which just celebrated its 10th anniversary) reach about two million readers monthly.

Portals like these serve not only as a source of information, but also build a community of watch enthusiasts. Through this online community of enthusiasts, such publications can then work with different watch brands to offer unique, limited edition releases from popular brands. To date, Hodinkee has had collaborations with Seiko, TAG Heuer, Omega, IWC and others. But perhaps the most interesting one to date is a collaboration they did with Vacheron Constantin, which saw 36 watches that cost US$45,000 (S$61,000) each, get sold in under 30 minutes.

The Omega Speedmaster Hodinkee 10th Anniversary Limited Edition. (Photo: Hodinkee)

And then there’s Instagram, which is a whole different beast altogether when it comes to watches. If you follow the right accounts (@pbandwatches, @atommoore, @bexsonn etc), Instagram offers a fascinating glimpse into contemporary watch culture and collecting habits, all at your fingertips. It’s like magic.

Some Instagram accounts are both a feast for your eyes and a bane on your bank balance. @analogshift, for example, posts brilliant images of vintage finds and gives you the ability to then read more and even buy the watches if you choose. And with more big brands taking Instagram seriously (check out what Patek Philippe is doing with its account @patekphilippe), this social media platform basically becomes one massive digital catalogue of watches.

Source: CNA/ds
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