Japan's Quartz Revolution and Its Impact On The World of Horology

Japan's Quartz Revolution and Its Impact On The World of Horology


The Quartz Crisis

Watch technology only recognised automatic or mechanical movements at the beginning of its development. Automatic watches were first introduced by a European watchmaker, John Harwood, in 1923. No wonder the watch industry was completely dominated by European companies, which pioneered the innovation of automatic watch development. However, in 1969, for the first time, a battery-powered watch, aka quartz, was released by the Japanese watchmaking giant, Seiko.

Offering much higher accuracy than automatic watches and enabling lower production costs, watch manufacturers in Asia and America began to flock to produce quartz watches. However, companies in Europe (especially Switzerland) remain adamant about their 'idealism' to maintain traditional automatic watch production. The onslaught of quartz movement innovations that continued to develop in the 1970 to the 1980s increasingly pressured many Swiss watch companies and threatened them with bankruptcy. The crisis condition in the European watch industry due to the invention of quartz watches is known as the quartz crisis.


The History of the Quartz Crisis: Crucial Moments that Changed the World of Horology

Discussing the history of the quartz crisis will certainly not be complete if we don't try to look back at the condition of the watch industry at that time. Why do European watch companies, primarily Switzerland, refuse to switch to producing quartz watches? How significant is the setback for the European watch industry due to the quartz crisis? To answer all these questions, let's take a look at the crucial moments around the time of the quartz crisis.


Before the Quartz Crisis (1930-1960): Monopoly by European Companies

In the 1930s, during the Second World War, the Swiss government allowed its country's industry to continue producing watches for the general public. In contrast, other countries required the watch industry in their country to focus on producing military watches. This condition automatically makes Swiss watch companies have no competitors and monopolises the market. Until the 1960s, the Swiss watch industry controlled more than 50% of the world's watch market.

In 1954, a Swiss engineer named Max Hetzel introduced an electronic watch that worked with a battery system and tuning fork. This watch, called the Accutron, was marketed by the American watch company Bulova (now Citizen Watch Co.) in 1960. Although the Accutron was not the first quartz watch in the world and did not defeat the dominance of the automatic watch, this technology can be said to be a significant innovation in the world of watch industry and became the forerunner of a quartz watch.


Quartz Crisis Close Call (1950-1960): Competition to Create the First Quartz 

The history of the quartz crisis continued in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During that time, Seiko and several large Swiss companies (Patek Philippe, Piaget, Omega) competed to create the world's first quartz watch. In 1962, an organisation called Center ElectroniqueHorloger (CEH) was formed, consisting of 20 Swiss watch companies to develop Swiss-made quartz watches. At the same time, in Japan, Seiko is also continuing to establish quartz technology.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Seiko introduced a quartz watch called the Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951. Although in 1966, CEH and Seiko both presented a quartz watch prototype at the Neuchâtel Observatory Competition, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ, released on December 25, 1969, was finally recognised as the world's first quartz watch, as well as starting the history of the quartz crisis.


Quartz Crisis (1970-1980): The Decline of the European Watch Industry

After the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ was introduced as the world's first quartz watch, companies worldwide started to develop their own quartz. This is because quartz watches have lower manufacturing costs but much higher accuracy. Even so, the Swiss watch industry, which feels that high-level watchmaking techniques are their country's identity, refuses to join the 'migration' in producing quartz watches and remains adamant in maintaining the production of traditional automatic watches.

However, the popularity of the quartz watch became unstoppable until, in 1978, it ultimately defeated the position of automatic watches in the world community. This resulted in a drastic setback in the Swiss watch industry. Between 1970 to 1983, the number of watchmakers in Switzerland decreased from 1,600 to just 600, and the watchmaker's employees decreased from 90,000 to just 28,000. However, this quartz crisis is better known as the 'quartz revolution' outside Switzerland, such as in Asia and America. This phenomenon marks a revival of the watch industry, which has skyrocketed since the discovery of quartz technology.


Post Quartz Crisis (1980-Present): Shifting the Status of Automatic Watches

In 1983, the history of the quartz crisis reached a critical period. In the end, 2 major watch companies in Switzerland, namely ASUAG (AllgemeineSchweizerischeUhrenindustrie AG) and SSIH (Société Suisse pour l'IndustrieHorlogère), merged into ASUAG/SSIH which would later become SMH (Société de Microélectronique et d'Horlogerie), to save the Swiss watch industry. In 1998 SMH changed its name to Swatch Group, which we know today.


Seiko Quartz Astron: The World's First Quartz that Causes Crisis

After knowing the history of the quartz crisis, you might be curious as to what extend the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ, the world's first quartz watch, caused the big crisis in the Swiss horology world. 


The Original Seiko Astron

As the world's first quartz watch, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ (also known as the Seiko Quartz Astron 1969) went on sale on December 25, 1969. Kazunari Sasaki created a unique design. This historic watch is equipped with the Caliber 35SQ quartz movement produced by Seiko. The size is relatively compact, with a diameter of 36 mm and a thickness of 11 mm. The highest innovation from the creation of the world's first quartz watch is the accuracy, which is 100 times higher than traditional automatic watches.

The level of accuracy on the watch is directly proportional to the oscillator. Accuracy will increase automatically if the oscillation frequency is increased. However, this is difficult to achieve on automatic watches with many heavy parts. Then, quartz watches use technology that passes current through the quartz crystal to increase their accuracy. By using tiny crystals, the number of oscillations can be improved drastically and cause the accuracy to improve. Until now, quartz watches remain a mainstay for those who like practical value and a more affordable price.

The sheer volume of quartz watches that are manufactured each year is the most telling indicator of how ubiquitous the influence of quartz technology has become in the watch industry. According to the Japan Watch & Watch Association, 1.46 billion watches were manufactured in 2015. Quartz accounted for 1.42 billion, which is 97% of the total. The vast majority of quartz watches purchased were analogue versions, accounting for 81% of the total, while just 16%were digital quartz watches. Watch enthusiasts like mechanical timepieces and place a high value on them due to their intricacy, craftsmanship, and uniqueness of these timepieces. They have every right to do so, because nearly half a century after Seiko launched Astron, from a production standpoint, the watch world is almost entirely quartz.


Thompson, J. (2017). Four Revolutions Part 1: A Concise History of the Quartz Revolution. Available from https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/four-revolutions-quartz-revolution

Seiko. The Quartz Crisis and Recovery of Swiss Watches. Available from https://museum.seiko.co.jp/en/knowledge/relation_11/

Seiko. The Remarkable Achievement of the Seiko Quartz Astron Lives On. Available from https://www.seikowatches.com/global-en/products/astron/special/story_qa50th_1

Photo by Pema Lama on Unsplash


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