The Quartz Revolution
written by J.Goodall - 24th Oct 2011
Quartz watches account for around 90% of all watches sold, but mechanical watches have more appeal to keen watch collectors – although there are some notable exceptions. When the first quartz watches were introduced they shook the Swiss watch industry to its core – but quartz timepieces were not new. John Goodall investigates.
Energy is needed to power any timepiece movement and for centuries it was provided first by falling weights and later by means of a spring. When electricity became available, Alexander Bain produced the first functioning timepieces powered by electricity around 1840.
The piezoelectric effect was discovered by French brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie (the latter was the husband of Marie Curie). In 1921, Walter Cady used the piezoelectric effect to produced a quartz oscillator and in 1927 Warren Marrisen and JW Horten at Bell Telephone Laboratories made the first clock using a quartz oscillator. These clocks needed valves and were very bulky, so they were used mainly in laboratories. Over the next three decades quartz timekeeping was developed to provide precision time standards for use in laboratories, but they required the use of bulky and delicate counting electronics to divide the vibration frequency of a quartz clock to a level suitable for timekeeping.
The next step forward was the first wristwatch with an electrical movement – made by Elgin in 1952, but much more important were the tuning fork watches developed by Bulova and called Accutron. This marked the beginning of a decades-long collaboration between Bulova and NASA and led to Accutron technology being used on the Vanguard 1 Satellite in 1958 and being involved with the first moon walk in 1969.
The first electronic movement with a transistor-driven balance was the Ebauches SA 9150 calibre, made in 1966. It had one battery and a frequency of 21,600vph – but it was still not a quartz movement.
Seiko began its research into quartz technology in 1958 and the Swiss followed in 1962, when 20 brands and producers formed the Centre Électronique Horloger (CEH), based in Neuchâtel, to develop a quartz movement. In 1964, Seiko produced a handful of quartz clocks and used them, as well as mechanical stopwatches, to time the Tokyo Olympics. It was the first time quartz technology had been used to time any events at the Olympic Games. Soon afterwards the company began to try to miniaturise the technology to fit inside a wristwatch.
A race was soon underway between the Japanese and the Swiss to produce the first quartz wristwatches. The CEH unveiled a prototype in 1967 called the Beta 1, but it wasn’t ready for production. Seiko won the race to sell the first quartz watch, called Astron, on December 25, 1989. The Swiss followed in the first half of 1970, with a number of brands all sharing the benefits of the same development programme, using the Beta 21 calibre, but only about 6,000 were made and collectors now pay very high prices for them.
The inherent accuracy and low production cost of quartz watches resulted in huge demand. Because the Japanese were able to respond and ramp up production quickly, there was a huge increase in the popularity of Japanese watches and sales of mechanical watches declined rapidly. The Swiss were unable to step up production quickly, perhaps because so many different suppliers were involved in making parts, whereas Seiko designed, developed and made them all in-house.
In the 1970s the decline in the sales of mechanical watches was very sharp – catastrophic for most traditional Swiss brands, many of which went to the wall. The Swiss fell so far behind in the quartz race that it has been reported that by 1975, Seiko made more 50 times quartz watches than the entire Swiss watch industry.
All over Switzerland, mechanical watch factories closed and production tools, some of them hundreds of years old, were thrown onto scrap heaps. Many thousands of skilled watchmakers and engineers were made redundant, almost overnight. It was the biggest crisis the Swiss watch industry had ever encountered and brought it to its knees. It didn’t being to recover until the launch of Swatch (quartz) watches revived interest in Swiss timepieces and innovative, fresh design and this coincided with a revival of interest in mechanical watches– although a few companies had continued to make them throughout.
The success of quartz watches led some companies to improve on the technology. The frequency of the quartz crystal increased from 8,291Hz, used in early movements, to settle at 32,768 – which is still most common frequency. Ultra high frequencies have been used with success too. The Omega 1510 calibre in 1974 had a frequency of 2.4Mhz (2,359,296) vibrations a second. It was accurate enough to be called a marine chronometer.
As one of the pioneers of quartz technology, it was no surprise when Seiko introduced the Twin Quartz, which had greater accuracy than ±5 seconds a year. This was achieved by means of a two quartz crystals, one with a frequency of 32,768 and the other a 196KHz oscillator that checks and corrects the frequency of the first. Citizen in Japan produced a 4MHz model the Crystron Mega, sometimes known as the Mega Quartz, accurate to ±3 seconds a year, but only 3,000 were made.
In 1988, Seiko produced a Grand Seiko watch with a quartz movement and by 1993 added the calibre 9F, which changed the date in 1/2000th second.
In December 2009, to mark the 40th anniversary of the sale of the world’s first quartz wristwatch, Seiko began a year of celebrations and at BaselWorld 2010 it launched a totally new Quartz Astron, true to the heritage of the original, but setting a new standard for the whole technology of quartz timekeeping in its innovation and refinement. It featured 10 seconds a year accuracy, instantaneous date change, a high-torque stepping motor, and super-precise alignment of the seconds hand. Seiko believes it may be the most advanced quartz calibre ever built.
It uses entirely new technology to control accuracy and to permit the use of longer hands, while increasing the watch’s longevity. The performance characteristics of each quartz crystal are fed into the watch’s IC, which then compensates for any variation throughout the life of the watch. Its unique IC delivers two pulses per second, rather than one, as found in most quartz movements. This model is also able to change the date in 1/2000th second; it has a 3-year battery life and is water resistant to 10 bar.
Rolex made the Oysterquartz, but it was not very well received. Production continued for a while, at low volumes, but it is has now been phased out altogether. It made corrections not only for temperature, but also for ageing of the crystal, which affects its frequency over some years.
At BaselWorld in March this year, Omega announced that it will cease production of most of its quartz watches (and soon almost all models will use the mechanical Co-Axial movement). One quartz model that is still in the collection is the Diver 300m – but even that may be phased out next year.
The Swatch Group, of which Omega is a part, has recently relaunched its Certina brand in the UK and this includes the DS Master, a thermo-compensated quartz chronograph model that has COSC chronometer certification. Another Swatch Group brand, Longines, has a number of quartz watches in its collection, all fitted with ETA calibres made to the highest standards in terms of reliability and accuracy. The most popular of these are the DolceVita steel and gold models launched at BaselWorld this year.
Around one billion quartz watches are made every year, but few of them now are in the quality end of the market. Quartz is not dead or buried, but it is almost forgotten in quality watch collecting circles.
Note: The simple way to tell if a watch has a mechanical or a quartz movement is to look at the seconds hand. If it moves in one-second steps it is nearly always a quartz watch – but there are a few notable exceptions.
John Goodall has spent most of his working life writing about watches and the watch industry. For 20 years he was the editor of the leading UK watch and jewellery trade newspaper and since then has edited two watch magazines aimed at collectors. He also produced the first ever watch supplements for British Vogue and for The Daily Telegraph. He has also written for the Financial Times, GQ, the Spectator, Town & Country House magazine. His articles have been published in the USA, Italy, Hong Kong, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. He researched and wrote the official history of Seiko – “A Journey in Time – the Remarkable Story of Seiko” and has edited the UK editions of a number of important watch books. As well as his work as a journalist, John is also the UK representative of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. In that role he answers enquires about watches from the public and the trade, as well as manufacturers, importers and distributors. He has been to every Basel Fair for more than 40 years and every SIHH salon in Geneva since it started.