A Brief History of Electronic Timekeeping
The advent of the quartz watch was the most disastrous event ever to befall the traditional luxury watch business, an existential threat that nearly toppled the watch industry as we know it. The invention of the quartz watch was among the most significant advances in the history of timekeeping and brought affordable wristwatches to the masses in a way that had never been seen before. These are the two main schools of thoughts on what the quartz watch has meant to the history of watchmaking, and both are essentially correct. As you contemplate whether to purchase a quartz watch, ponder the main differences between quartz and mechanical movements, and try to wrap your head around the various types of timekeeping technologies, let’s explore how quartz watches originated, how they evolved, and what their place is in today’s ever-changing watch world.
Nearly every advance in watchmaking technology has been in the service of increased utility and functionality — even inventions that we now consider entirely luxurious affectations. The minute repeater, for example, was invented so a watch wearer could audibly check the time in the dark in the days before luminous treatment on dials. Even the tourbillon began its existence as a device for enhancing timekeeping accuracy, countering the effects of gravity on a pocketwatch’s movement. Thus it should come as no surprise that as the world entered the electronic era in the mid-20th century, watchmakers would attempt to harness the new technologies to improve the precision — and hence the desirability — of their products.
The Electronic Watch
American watchmaker Hamilton led the way with the world’s first electronic watch, the Ventura, which debuted to great fanfare in 1957 and would go on to even greater fame when it was worn by Elvis Presley in the 1961 film, Blue Hawaii. The watch was notable not only for its unusual, futuristic curved case design but for its movement, which used a battery, magnets, and an electronic coil rather than a mainspring to drive the gear train and balance wheel. The original electronic movement, Caliber 500, has long been rendered obsolete but the Ventura remains in Hamilton’s lineup, with both quartz and mechanical options for its movement Check them out here.
The Birth of the Accutron
Another American brand, New York-based Bulova, joined the high-tech timekeeping fray in 1960, with the groundbreaking invention of the Accutron Spaceview 214, which took its numerical designation from its movement, Caliber 214. The Accutron technology replaced the balance wheel common to mechanical movements with a tuning fork, powered by a one-transistor electronic oscillator, to drive the timekeeping functions. This system ensured an oscillation rate of 360 hertz — nearly 150 times faster than that of a mechanical, balance-wheel-driven timepiece — and promised an accuracy to just one minute per month, an unprecedented precision level that inspired the name Accutron, for “Accuracy through Electronic.” The Bulova Accutron became an iconic watch for the Space Race era of the 1960s, with Bulova partnering with NASA to install Accutron dashboard clocks on all the Apollo missions. The model became a mainstay of the Bulova portfolio until it was finally spun off as an independent brand in 2020, debuting with an all-new electrostatic movement. Those watches are available here.
The Seiko Quartz Astron
The true watershed moment for high-tech timekeeping on the wrist arrived in 1969 — ironically, the same year that mechanical watchmaking, whose very existence would be threatened by the new advances, introduced its own milestone, the first self-winding chronograph calibers. Japan’s Seiko shook up the watch community with the introduction of the Seiko Astron, whose Caliber 35A incorporated the first quartz watch movement. Unlike a mechanical movement, which stores its energy in a wound mainspring inside a barrel and releases it through a complex series of gears to move the hands, a quartz movement derives its power from a small electrical charge provided by a battery, which then passes through an integrated circuit that applies the charge to a tiny quartz crystal cut into the shape of a tuning fork. Thanks to something known as the reverse-piezoelectric effect, that tiny charge applied to the quartz tuning fork crystal causes it to vibrate at an incredibly high rate that dwarfs the output of a mechanical watch (32,768 times per second, as opposed to the 3 or 4 times per second offered by most mechanical oscillators) ,and drives the second hand only once per second with the aid of a tiny motor, a development that had never before been seen in watches, conserving energy and ensuring an accuracy of just -/+ 5 seconds per month. Quartz watches were more accurate, more shock-resistant, and more affordable than their mechanical predecessors and found a large and willing audience. They also, unfortunately for most of the traditional watch companies in Switzerland, threatened to make all those mechanized timepieces obsolete.
Enter the Eco-Drive
The Japanese embraced the new quartz technology, while the more traditional Swiss would, at least in the early stages, hold fast to their traditional methods even in the face of this stiff market competition from the Far East. Japan’s other large heritage watchmaking house, Citizen, made its own historical contribution in 1976 with the introduction of the first Eco-Drive calibers — quartz movements with rechargeable batteries powered by any light source, from natural sunlight to a lamp on a nightstand. One single charge is sufficient to charge the watch’s battery for six months of continuous operation. From an environmental standpoint, this also means almost never having to discard old batteries and replace them with new ones. Eco-Drive has become the tentpole technology around which Citizen has built much of its modern collection, some examples of which can be found here.
In 1983, thanks to a team of visionaries named Nicolas G. Hayek, Ernst Thomke, Elmar Mock and Jacque Muller, the Swiss finally joined the party, launching the aptly named Swatch watch, which captured the Zeitgeist of the go-go ‘80s with its combination of jaunty colorful analog designs, Swiss-made quartz movements, plastic cases, and price points accessible to all, including the teens and young adults that either hadn’t been wearing watches or were sporting digital timekeepers from the likes of Casio and Pulsar. The Swatch watch cultivated a rabid following in the 1980s, analogous to the craze over Cabbage Patch Kids and Beanie Babies. Its name came from a portmanteau of the phrase “secondary watch,” meaning that a Swatch should be regarded as a an accessory like a tie, a cap, or a t-shirt: you don’t own just one, and because they were so inexpensive and available in so many colors and styles, you could own enough of them to accessorize with any outfit and for any occasion. The Swatch was essentially the beginning of today’s “watch wardrobing.”
The success of the Swatch watch inspired other Swiss makers to follow suit, with the result being a gradual phasing out of many mechanical watches and the subsequent culling of many traditional watchmakers within the industry, which had in fact already begun with the advent of quartz technology and the ascent of the Japanese. Even Rolex, the granddaddy of watchmaking traditionalists, began producing watches with quartz movements in the 1970s. The era is still referred to by many, especially in Switzerland, as the Quartz Crisis. The mechanical watch would enjoy a major revival around the turn of the millennium, but the quartz watch, which still maintains dominance of the mass market, was here to stay.
Longines Takes on Quartz
Some Swiss watch companies have made their own contributions to quartz timekeeping technology. Longines was among the first, developing the first quartz clock in 1954 and incorporating it into a sports-timing instrument called the Chronocinégines. This device provided racing judges with a series of pictures recorded on film at 1/100th second, allowing them to precisely record the moment an athlete crossed a finish line. In 1984, Longines followed up this innovation with a groundbreaking quartz wristwatch, the Conquest VHP. The modern version of that watch debuted in 2017, equipped with the ETA-manufactured Caliber L288.2, which boasts an exceptionally high degree of precision for an analog watch (± 5 seconds per year) and an innovative GPD (gear position detection) system that quickly resets the watch’s hands after an impact or exposure to a magnetic field. The movement also features an extra-long battery life of almost five years — better than a smartwatch, which requires constant battery recharges — and a built-in perpetual calendar. The Longines Conquest VHP is available here.
Super Quartz Takes Flight
Starting in 2014, Breitling, which had been sourcing movements from ETA for its high-tech quartz-powered Professional watches like the Emergency, introduced its own ultra-accurate SuperQuartz calibers, with a patented, Thermocompensated design that make them 10 times more accurate than most quartz calibers (albeit not quite as precise as Longines’ VHP movements), i.e., within 10 seconds per year. Breitling SuperQuartz calibers support both analog and digital functions and have been installed in watches like the Exospace connected watches and the “athleisure”-focused Endurance Pro models launched in 2020.
Haute Quartz Technology
The quartz watch and all its potential have even drawn the attention of some of the most revered proponents of classical watchmaking traditions. In 2016, F.P. Journe unveiled the Elegante, a ladies’ watch that marked the debut of an in-house-made electromagnetic quartz caliber that was the fruit of eight years of research and development. Eight years is also the astounding battery life the caliber offers, in addition to its other major perk: a “standby” mode in which the battery shuts down for any period of time in which the watch is not being worn. While in standby mode, the movement’s microprocessor continues to keep time even though all the mechanical parts — gears, rotors, hands — stop moving in order to save energy. When the watch’s wearer puts it back on, it automatically resets itself to the correct time, taking the shortest path — either clockwise or counter-clockwise to further conserve energy. So proud was Francois-Paul Journe of this invention that he decorated it as he would one of his mechanical movements — including the use of a gold-plated circuit board — and designed the Elegante case to show it off behind a sapphire caseback.
The Case for Quartz
In short, there is ample evidence that many watchmakers at all levels and price points continue to devote resources to their quartz watches, even though they may represent only a portion of their high-luxury output. The appeal, especially to a newcomer to watch collecting bringing a limited budget to the table, is in many respects obvious: a quartz watch is cheaper, more accurate, more durable, and able to incorporate more complications than a mechanical watch without a correspondingly eye-popping markup. It's also much easier to "grab and go" with a quartz watch, as one not worn for a few days will not require a resetting and re-winding. Best of all, a quartz watch is often the tempting entrée into the world of high-end mechanical watch appreciation that awaits at the end of the budding connoisseur's rainbow.