Most of us are aware of the “quartz crisis” that happened back in the 1970s. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here’s a nutshell summary: it was in the 1970s that mass production of quartz movements took off – and suddenly the shine was off of mechanical watches, which were much less accurate and reliable than these new-fangled quartz watches.
While definitely putting a hurt on the traditional watch makers, this did bring us more durable watches, as well as watches that we’ll wear when we don’t particularly want to expose a nice mechanical to the abuses of a weekend in the outdoors, say. Yes, that’s right, while we may certainly love our mechanical watches (I know I do), I’m betting a good majority of you are like me and have at least one quartz watch (if not more) residing in your watch box. That’s an aside, though – back to the history!
The first rumblings of change probably trace back to 1957, when Hamilton introduced their first electric watch. While much of the gear train stayed in place, the mainspring was replaced by a hearing aid battery. Here, we’ve got the first step – the main energy source was stripped out of a mechanical movement.
This battery source had it’s own issues (leaking, etc), so Bulova advanced the market in the early ’60s, with the introduction of their tuning-fork Accutron model. The tuning fork helped to solve the the accuracy issues seen in earlier electric watches by replacing the balance wheel with the tuning fork (another component stripped out).
Then came the 1970s, when Seiko unveiled the first mass-produced quartz movement, promising a previously unheard of accuracy of +/- 15 seconds per month. Not only was this watch crazy accurate, it was also surprisingly affordable. These two components (accuracy and price) saw the market share slide over to the quartz watches relatively quickly.
Mechanical watches didn’t go away in this timeframe, though. Sure, they limped along, bruised and battered, but the industry still had these models available. Then, in the ’90s, we had a rebirth of mechanical watches coming from Switzerland, bringing us to the point today where we have simply amazing works of mechanical art in our movements, be they hand-wound or automatic.
So that’s why, today, we can have the love for mechanical watches that we do. The quartz crisis, ultimately, forced the mechanical watch makers to come up with better and more interesting products (competition is a good thing, no?). It also gave us the benefit of just about anything electronic you can think of (your phone or computer, for example) that displays the time – quartz tech was involved somewhere.
If you’d like to read more about this subject (including a trip further back to how mechanical clocks were powered), you should check out this excellent article over at aBlogtoWatch.