Walter von Känel, the former chief executive of Longines, was on the verge of clocking up 50 years at the brand when he reflected on how attitudes to watches had changed during that time. “It’s simple,” von Känel insisted. “A watch used to be about telling the time. Now it’s all about status.”
It was a revealing statement from a man who’d started his career at Longines in 1969, just as the industry was about to face the so-called “quartz crisis” — the arrival of a revolutionary new timekeeping technology. At the very least, it goes some way to explaining why quartz has long been maligned as second-class in spite of its remarkable precision.
A potted history: on Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko released the Astron, the first quartz watch. This signalled the dawn of a more democratic age of watchmaking, one that yanked the industry out of the hands of skilled craftspeople by replacing the complex movements of mechanical watches with a straightforward mechanism. While the Astron initially cost about $5,300, the price of quartz watches swiftly fell. By the mid-’70s you could pick up a quartz timepiece for under $20 as more brands got on board with the new technology.
Quartz watches soon became fashionable. The technology clearly turned the gadget-savvy head of James Bond’s Q, because Roger Moore wore a Hamilton Pulsar P2 digital watch in 1973’s “Live and Let Die”. With its glowing red digits and sci-fi looks, this was a wrist-bound glimpse of the future and the Pulsar was promptly snapped up by a host of celebrities from Keith Richards to Jack Nicholson.
Quartz watches backed style with serious substance. When hooked up to an electric current, a quartz crystal sends high- frequency vibrations that make the hands of a watch tick forward every second. In this way, it can measure time far more accurately than a mechanical watch, which works by harnessing the oscillations of a hairspring and balance wheel. None of this was good news for the Swiss watch. It decimated the industry, causing the loss of thousands of jobs, and many watch companies never recovered. It triggered a period of soul-searching and re-evaluation. Eventually, a few creative minds repositioned the Swiss watch with a bold and brilliant marketing pivot.
Suddenly, a mechanical watch was no longer about the pedestrian act of mere timekeeping. It was now a masterpiece of craftsmanship that was akin to combining the properties of a bespoke suit with an Aston Martin engine and a membership to
a well-heeled gentleman’s club. Backed by the watch brands’ vast advertising budgets, this idea gradually began to gain traction. If mechanical watches were all connoisseurship and tradition, quartz became associated with soulless convenience and mass-market consumption.
Now, a growing number of high-end brands have rediscovered the appeal of quartz. From Cartier to FP Journe and Hublot to Grand Seiko, well-respected maisons are once again investing in it. All of which makes sense given this humble crystal offers mind-blowing precision beyond the dreams of a mechanical watch. Take the Citizen Eco-Drive Caliber 0100, a solar-powered quartz watch that’s accurate to +/−1 second per year. The fact that this model in a white gold case costs $US16,800 ($AU21,529) shows that a luxury quartz watch is no oxymoron. Here is a wristwatch that sells itself, not just on status, but also on telling the time better than anything has before.