A Glimpse Back into 1973
A few weeks ago, my father was clearing out a cupboard at my Grandfather's house when he came across an issue of The Illustrated London News from December 1973. I imagine this was kept as a memento of the Royal Wedding between Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips but my Father and I were far more interested in the time capsule of watches towards the back of the magazine (My Grandparent's interest in the Monarchy did not continue down the generations).
An article entitled "Making the Most of Switzerland" was reasonable enjoyable as the author expressed joy at the world class public transport system of the country (Still running perfectly on time to this day) and how an eight day trip could be done on a moderate budget (Unfortunately no longer the case). After momentarily staying in Basel he took off towards Berne and Interlaken, all the while somehow avoiding any encounter with wristwatches. No matter because just a few page turns later reveal a gorgeous double page advert for Omega. The Name Linked to Man's Greatest Achievements says the tagline with three Omega watches balanced on a bar of gold, two De Villes and a Constellation. The flavor text proudly touts the automatically changing date function of one watch but I believe the true highlight is the f300 Constellation. Described as having "heavy chunks of gold" that fold over your wrist, the f300 is huge, probably uncomfortably heavy and is almost too ugly to look at so naturally I love it.
It's 1973 Omega distilled into one watch. It shows a company willing to change with the ebb and flow of the technological tide, forever ready to jump at the chance to become the next hot thing without taking a moment to consider whether they should. The Jaeger-LeCoultre advert on the next page is a perfect example to restraint in uncertain times as there is barely an acknowledgement of any new technology. Infact you could sell that black dial watch today without any changes in design whereas the same cannot be said about the bulbous f300.
The main point of interest to me and my father was an article called "Watch Development", a three page discussion on the future of quartz watches. The Quartz crisis is seen through the lens of history as one of the darkest times in traditional Swiss watchmaking and it seems a miracle that our beloved mechanical watches were able to survive at all. However reading this article, it's clear why quartz took hold of the general public to change the narrative of how watches are made and worn. There is no flowery prose about the beauty or tradition in mechanical watches written here, it's simply stated as the most current form of technology that is looking to be overpassed. A mechanical watch wasn't an oddity or a collector's item, instead it was simply a watch.
Quoted in the article is Dominic Thomas, a member of the Swiss Federation of Horology, who speaks quite positively about the idea of Swiss electronic computer watch as long as it is "made easily accessible to the average person at a reasonable price". Hardly the attitude the Swiss would be having in a few shorts years. The author makes note about the potential difficulties of making computer buttons small enough to fit on wristwatch with another source saying the solution was simply to use a ballpoint pen to poke at the buttons.
At the time of writing the article Britain had entered into the EEC, a precursor to the European Union, and questions are raised about French jewellers now being able to compete directly with Swiss watchmakers. "The French Watch Industry is very fashion-conscious, but some prices are high because the French use higher quality movements in their way-out watches". The author also talks about how unimpressed the British people are to automatic watches as they aren't seen as "being more convenient and accurate" as manually wound ones. It also apparently took "almost a quarter of a century for the British to appreciate that a watch dial need not have numerals to show the hours".
It's unfair to compare watch prices from 1973. However whilst it's unfair it's also a lot of fun so why not. Three watches in particular stand out to me, a Heuer Slide Rule Ref. 110.633, a Breitling Chronomat Ref. 818 and a Zenith El Primero Ref. A788 (I think), each available for £93.22, £89.50 and £107.50 from Garrard's, London. For comparison. these prices are equivalent to £863.21, £828.76 and £995.44. The only two that seem marginally close is the Heuer (but you'd be looking at a quartz Formula 1 today rather than a automatic slide rule goliath) and The f300 Constellation at £1,339 in 1973 and £12,400 in 2016. It's funny to think that for the price of f300 today, you'll be paying for a technically inferior mechanical watch.
Reading the article and browsing through the advertisements makes me wonder how the watch press of today will be viewed in forty something years. Mechanical watches are a niche interest now and if they are mentioned in big publications it is because of their association with luxury and status, rather than their miraculous movements. I will wager that articles about the capabilities of Smartwatches will seem hopelessly outdated (as does any historical document about technology) but those about mechanical watches will still be relevant and informative, despite their increasing obsolescence.