When it comes to anniversaries, the once generally ignored 40 is the new 50. This year has been marked by a parade of 40th anniversary bashes: Woodstock, the moon landing, and in watches, the legendary Zenith El Primero movement. Now, with two weeks left in the year, there is still one monster anniversary to go for watch lovers.
Forty years ago on December 25 the quartz watch revolution began in Tokyo when Seiko unveiled the Quartz Astron, the world’s first quartz watch. Astron was the shot heard around the watch world, beginning an upheaval that radically rearranged that world. It shifted the balance of power to the Far East, toppled Switzerland as the world’s watch production leader, sent the Swiss watch industry into a two-decade-long tailspin (between 1970 and 1988 Swiss watch employment fell from 90,000 to 28,000), brought a quantum leap in watch accuracy, a quantum change in watch styling, and much more.
Both Seiko and Switzerland competed to develop the first quartz watch. For Seiko, the race began in 1959 with Project 59A, whose mission was to develop quartz crystal timers. One of the team’s first successes was a portable quartz clock called the Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951, which Seiko used as a backup timer for marathon events in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Summer Games.
The big challenge was to make a mechanism small enough for use not in a clock but a wristwatch. Both Seiko and a consortium of Switzerland’s top firms tackled it. They were able to monitor each other’s progress through timing competitions sponsored by Switzerland’s Neuchâtel Observatory, where prototype watches were submitted for testing. The Swiss developed the first quartz marine chronometer in 1961. Seiko had one by 1963.
Seiko quickly caught up. Seiko and Longines were the big winners in the Observatory’s 1964 competition, both with prototype quartz board chronometers. Longines took the Grand Prix and Seiko took the next six prizes. The same results occurred in 1966 for prototypes of the world’s first quartz pocketwatch. At both competitions, more than half the winning products were from Seiko. In 1967, Seiko nabbed the Grand Prix for a quartz pocketwatch. That year quartz wristwatches were entered into the Neuchâtel competitions for the first time. The Swiss consortium entered its movement, known as Beta 1, and Seiko entered the Astron movement. Both groups raced to perfect the movements for commercial production and sale.
Seiko won. The Swiss were not far behind. The first Swiss quartz analog watches containing the Beta 1 movement arrived at the 1970 Basel Fair. But while Seiko embraced the new technology, the Swiss, burdened by a legacy of mechanical watch supremacy, hesitated, and paid dearly.
The Seiko Quartz Astron debuted in an 18k-gold case at a price of 450,000 yen. “It was more expensive than the family car,” Kuoji Kubota, a chief engineer on the Seiko Astron project, told me when I met him in Tokyo in 2001. Seiko Quartz Astrons are rare. Seiko only produced 200 of them. What’s not rare is the technology Seiko developed for Astron, including fork-type oscillators, open-type separated motors and one-second-interval movement of the second hand. They set the standard for all analog quartz watches that followed.
Seiko is marking the anniversary, it says, “with a year of celebrations.” It began this month with an exhibition in Tokyo of 40 new watch designs created by Seiko designers using the Astron as inspiration. (You can see the designs at www.seiko-watch.co.jp/p_design/e/). At Baselworld, Seiko plans to unveil what it calls “revolutionary quartz watches whose new functionality and design demonstrates the great future potential of this most important of watchmaking technologies.”
One final thought. In a delicious historical twist, 1969 also marks the 40th anniversary of another historical watch race: the race to develop the world’s first automatic chronograph. In the following two decades, the automatic chronograph was considered the final flourish (read “last gasp”) of mechanical watchmaking. We know now that that wasn’t the case. The quartz revolution was followed in the 1990s by the mechanical counter-revolution, and a stirring revival of the automatic chronograph. But guess who won the race to develop the first automatic chronograph in 1969: Yep, Seiko. (WatchTime’s Gisbert Brunner details the saga in “The Great Race of ’69” in the November-December 2009 issue.) Clearly, 1969 was a breakout year for Seiko. Who can blame them if they want to party all next year?