The Real Impact of The Quartz Crisis

Exclusive events like SIHH are all about enforcing and maintaining brand identity. 

Exclusive events like SIHH are all about enforcing and maintaining brand identity. 

The more I research watches and the companies that make them the clearer the impact of the quartz crisis becomes. Like a stone tossed into a lake, it is the ripples that disturb the most water. To say that the quartz crisis nearly destroyed the Swiss watch industry would be an understatement. It wasn't a blip, it wasn't a restructuring, it was devastation. 

The effect the quartz crisis had on the watch industry is still being felt today; it shapes how brands interact with their clients and how they make watches.

The Swiss were not ignorant of quartz movements and in 1962 over twenty companies joined forces to invent the first Swiss quartz movement, the Beta-21. It was clear that the Beta-21 was a technology developed by those who understood the mechanics of precision but not the desires of those buying it. It was big, temperamental and expensive. These brands put this expensive movement into even more expensive watches and sat there as the tsunami of Japanese quartz swept their clients away from under them with a sea of cheap and available watches. The invention and popularization of quartz movements in the 1970's meant that traditional Swiss watchmaking had to die for several decades. The decline of mechanical watchmaking can be viewed today as a hibernation but at the time everyone thought it was dead. 

A wonderful watch rendered OBSOLETE by quartz.   CURRENTLY available on Theo & Harris.

A wonderful watch rendered OBSOLETE by quartz. CURRENTLY available on Theo & Harris.

It was the lower tier brands that were caught out first, the rushing tide catching them at the ankles to drag them under. Elgin, Darwil, Certina, Carabelle, Waltham and countless others had produced affordable, approachable and reliable watches for decades that were rendered useless by cheap quartz. Why pay a more for a watch that you had to wind everyday, that wasn't as accurate as a quartz watch? Valiant efforts were made but eventually the margins were squeezed out of existence and like that they were gone. It is ironic that these defunct brands are the starting place for many watch collectors who want to begin collecting vintage pieces that won't break the bank. 

The Omega Seamaster 120. Image courtesy of ThoseWatchGuys

The Omega Seamaster 120. Image courtesy of ThoseWatchGuys

Middle tier companies like Omega, Heuer and Longines could be said to have suffered the most. Whilst their cheaper competitors were given a quick death, these bigger brands were stuck in a dreadful limbo between pricing themselves out of the average market or losing their reputation by succumbing to quartz. Looking through old catalogs you can see the mechanical watches get pushed back further and further as more and more quartz watches take pride of place. My father managed to buy one of the last mechanical Constellation references before the entire line was swallowed up into quartz.

This acceptance of change and willingness to bend is what caused the loss of reputation of Omega and Heuer in the eyes of many. Heuer were eventually bought out by the TAG group and the Professional series became the most ubiquitous entry level men's Swiss sports watch around for decades. Omega floundered with failed lines after failed line until they managed to claw their way back to great mechanical watchmaking with the Co-Axial. In the 70's and 80's there were some great watches from these brands but these were the exception to the rule of Quartz, not the norm. 

Patek Philippe Ref. 2571. 

Patek Philippe Ref. 2571. 

The Upper tier companies did the only thing they could do. They changed the rules. Patek Philippe, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre and others all dabbled in quartz watches but they realised that their name and reputation were more valuable than the watches they were selling. They began pricing their watches higher and higher until they positioned themselves to a place where the price tag didn't solely represent the quality of a product, it represented the quality of the brand. When the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was released it cost approximately 3200 CHF or $830 and today that watch would cost (adjusted for inflation) $4800. A modern Royal Oak will set you back around $24,000.

Branding is the lasting legacy of the quartz crisis. 

Other companies soon followed suit but it was the blue chip companies that pioneered the idea of elevating mechanical watchmaking above necessity to luxury. "Quartz was technically superior in every way but we have tradition, art, craftsmanship and status all wrapped up in a wrist sized package". With that elevation in status came an elevation in price ; this is not to say that Patek Philippes were ever cheap but soon they became unreachable to the vast majority of people. I'm sure there were dark times for these companies, as there are for all, but survival through luxurious obsolesce was a stroke of genius. 

Prestige watch companies did not invent the idea of luxury branding but they adopted it as their defacto business model. Everything made and said is to be in service of the brandy and it's identity. Patek Philippe is about tradition and conservative design, Longines is about heritage and elegance, TAG Heuer is whatever Jean-Claude Biver wants them to be this week. This branding is a double-edged sword, it secured the existence of the brands we see today when they were most vulnerable but also means that it's unlikely that we'll see any designs that don't fit in the with existing portfolio. 

There were many companies that deserved to continue but couldn't despite their best efforts. Doxa made probably the best dive watch ever yet the encroachment of technology onto professional services and tools meant that their days were numbered until their miraculous recovery. Universal Geneve, creators of countless legendary watches ended up in the no man's land of the Chinese stock market. Enicar had their name taken from them and were reanimated in a mockery of their history and reputation. Wittnauer adorns the shelves of Macy's and drug stores. These companies were never as big as Rolex or Omega but the fact they produced high quality watches for decades didn't stop them from going under. For whatever reason they weren't able to create that brand identity that allowed others to survive. 

Their demise was unfortunate but perhaps necessary to the survival of the industry as the forced winnowing of dozens of brands focused consumer attention on those that remained. It would be easy to think that the brands that adorn jeweler's windows are here because they were simply better but that's not true. The remaining few survived because they were lucky enough to stand on the shoulders of fallen giants and they branded themselves as survivors.