A Love Letter to Quartz Watches Part I (of III) – The History

Editor’s Note: This article was meant to be a three-part series by regular contributor @koolpep aka (Ralf) but life got in the way after the first part was published about a year and a half ago. Now that we are ready for all three parts, we are republishing Part I of III with Parts II & III scheduled for the next two Sundays. 

Part I: Origins & Basics

Quartz Crystal (source: Wikipedia)

In this trilogy in 5 parts (Douglas Adams 😊) we shall dive into what makes Quartz watches so amazing and why they deserve more attention from the watch fam.

Intrinsic accuracy is what drives us. We want to create or admire these little mechanisms that are super precise without being “corrected” by external reference clocks (like GPS, Satellite Wave, Time signals via UHF, or a Bluetooth sync from a smartphone).

As an example:

Join the Scottish Watches Facebook Group here

The Apple iPhone uses a network of time servers created around the world (Stratum One level Network time servers) these operate one level down from an atomic clock. These servers sync all iPhones via the internet.  Usually, the iPhone is only a thousand a second away from the reference time.

So most people carry the time of an atomic clock in their pocket (and don’t know about it)…. So whatever watch is built into our iPhones, is being corrected multiple times a day to this reference time so the iPhone is “always right” when it comes to up to the millisecond accuracy.

But that is considered cheating – at least for the high accuracy fanatics – but let us cover the basics first.

History – Seiko

When the Swiss industry organized competitive events, pitting their timepieces against any other watches from anywhere in the world for accuracy – they were very confident to win. And they did. For many years. However – that pesky Japanese watch company kept on getting better and better every single year. Until they won the first 3 places. Guess what happened afterward? Yes, correct, losing is no fun, so the Swiss watch industry excluded non-swiss watch companies from participating, and eventually, the whole competition was retired. It sounds like sour losing to me.

But Seiko wasn’t done yet.

They knew a way to make watches even more precise. They put in a lot of dedication, research, and development and eventually released the first Quartz watch. This was an enormous shock for the Swiss Watch industry. Suddenly they had to fear becoming obsolete, redundant, missing the train, and losing out on the future of watchmaking. What followed was nearly the end of the Swiss Watch industry as every company, including Audemars Piaget, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, and all the others, raced to bring quartz watches on the market. But it was too late, the Japanese had an enormous head start and bringing economies of scale in unheard quantities to the table. It took the Swiss Watch industry countless bankruptcies and company closures before being rescued by the vision of a Lebanese-born consultant and entrepreneur who nearly single-handedly created the concept to save an entire industry from going under. Today, his son leads the Swatch group with its many brands.

So what was this magic technology that brought the mighty Swiss watch industry to its knees?

It was silicon dioxide, also called Quartz.

Seiko Quartz Astron – released 25th December 1969 (source: Seiko)

How do they work?

Quartz is a piezoelectric material – if you put mechanical stress on it (like bending it) it creates a tiny electrical charge. Reversing this concept and applying a small electrical charge to the crystal, makes it bend. Very fast. That is called oscillating. The quartz crystals do that in a very predictable and high frequency. Seiko was able to grow crystals that would oscillate 32,768 times a second. This is very important. Back then microcontrollers were not as sophisticated as they are today.

You apply a small charge to the crystal and it swings 32,768 times a second. What was possible at the time was to have a switch operate another switch with each on/off cycle. Now you can put a few of them (15) in a row and eventually you end up with a switch that switches on and off exactly once a second. This impulse you feed to a stepper motor that advances the gear train exactly one second. The end.Every watch needs power. The quartz watch uses energy stored by a chemical process in a battery, a mechanical watch uses energy stored by physical energy in a mainspring.

My own Seiko Quartz QT from ca. 1972 – still works (source: koolpep_watches)

While a mechanical watch stops the mainspring from unloading its full force into the gear train via an escapement, the quartz watch stops the battery from doing the same via an impulse from the quartz crystal switch to move the gear train once per second. The rest of the watches functioned pretty similarly in the beginning.

The idea of quartz clocks was available for some time, but only the miniaturization of components made it possible to put it into a quartz (wrist) watch. And that happened in 1969 with the Seiko Astron (!!!)

Eventually, we also got digital quartz watches with the advent of solid-state digital electronics but that is part of the next chapter, as well as high accuracy quartz, thermo compensation, external correction signals, and F.P. Journe. But you’ll just have to wait for Part II.