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The great quartz comeback

James Dowling
June 21, 2024
7.5 min

Ask almost any watch enthusiast why they have no early quartz watches in their collection, and you will receive at least one of three excuses: “The jumping seconds hand is soulless. Quartz was responsible for destroying the Swiss watch industry and over 200 years of craftsmanship. It can’t be repaired, as it’s just a computer chip in a plastic frame.”

For me, none of those three statements are true. Not only do early quartz watches belong in any self-respecting collection, but they also represent one of the last remaining opportunities to collect stylish, important watches from well-known manufacturers at a reasonable price.

Seiko's green model 7a28-500a designed by the world's mostprolific automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro specifically for motorcyclists, Bucherer Beta 21. Photograph © ADAM GOODISON, Creative direction MUJDE METIN, Set design ANNA SBIERA for QP Magazine UK

It was Seiko’s launch of the SQ35 Astron at the end of 1969 that originally upset the beliefs of the entire watch world. At this point in time the industry had spent the last century focussing on three areas: reducing the height of watch movements for slimmer designs; increasing accuracy; and ensuring verification of this accuracy via chronometer competitions whose results were then widely used in brand advertising. Quartz watches cancelled out all these precepts, by rendering them unnecessary. Even these earliest models were more accurate than any mechanical watch. So accurate, in fact, that the Swiss observatories closed the chronometer timing facilities. What made matters worse: these early quartz movements were hefty, so slim watches were out of the question. These first Swiss quartz movements, known as Beta 21, measured 31mm x 26.5mm. Any watch fitted with this movement was going to have what we now call “wrist presence”.

But this is where things got interesting: for designers, the new look presented an opportunity, not a problem. We like to mock the 70s and 80s as “the decades that style forgot” but we do so at our peril, because while kipper ties and platform shoes might have been at the height of fashion, this period was also when technology began to take its first, faltering steps into our daily lives. The 1970s saw the introduction of the home video recorder, the Sony Walkman and the first home computers; the designers of these first quartz watches combined the knowledge of this burgeoning electronic era, along with the aesthetic intensity of the decade, to shape the look of the watches.

The Beta 21 watches run from the Piaget, the smallest of the Beta 21 watches at 41 x 33mm, all the way to the Bucherer, which measures an astonishing 50.5mm x 46mm (it’s 15mm high). But it isn’t just its size which gives the Bucherer such authority. Think of its sunburst silver face, with diamond-cut hour indices standing proudly above the dial – which are, in turn, set on to an outer track of large orange painted blocks, one for each minute. Inside this track there are white painted blocks for each hour index and a printed black track segmented into one fifth of a second. Looking at the watch as a sum of its parts in this way, it is difficult to comprehend the design is over half a century old.

It was the outsized personality of these watches that first attracted me to them. There isn’t a general Beta 21 ‘look’, in the same way that there isn’t a common look to watches powered by the ETA 2894. But unlike those ETA-powered watches, the Beta 21 watches were almost all radical designs. Their designers had the great advantage of working from a clean sheet, with their only parameters being the physical dimensions of the movement.

Perhaps the most radical design came from the most conventional of firms, Patek Philippe. Their quartz watch – like many only made in yellow or white gold – bore no likeness to any previous model they had made, resembling nothing more than two half egg shapes joined together, with an almost TV-screen shaped aperture set inside it. It was finished in an all-over brushed effect, excepting a thin polished surround to the dial – which, in a radical departure for Patek Philippe, was blue, rather than the conventional ivory or white. Adding to the modern appearance was the perfectly flat shaped sapphire crystal – a first for the company.

The Patek Philippe quartz watch came to market in three versions: one with hidden attachments for the strap, one with conventional lugs, and one with an even more futuristic gold bracelet, pierced with circular holes and looking like something Ming the Merciless would have worn in ‘Flash Gordon’.

Its semi-elliptical shape harks back to the firm’s most popular dress watch of the period, and the relatively restrained styling (comparative to other Beta 21s) makes it one of the most elegant pieces to be powered by the movement.

Something which must be understood about early quartz watches is just how expensive they were. Historically the price of a watch movement was in direct relation to its accuracy. This was because true accuracy came from long hours on the watchmaker’s bench regulating the balance. The watchmakers skilled at this art were known as régleurs and were, by far, the most highly paid craftsmen in any watch factory. When quartz was introduced and was more accurate than the best mechanical movements – and not by an incremental amount, but by a factor of 10 – the brands selling these watches knew that they could charge a significant premium for them. When Seiko launched the first quartz wristwatch, the SQ35, it was only made in 18kt yellow gold and was famously the same price as a Toyota Corolla. (it’s worth mentioning that Rolex’s first quartz watch, the reference 5100 – otherwise known as the Texano – would set you back nearly as much as a Porsche 911.)  

Rolex reference 5100, otherwise known as the Texano, Patek Philippe,Ref 3587, the brand’s first quartz watch. Photograph © ADAM GOODISON, Creative direction MUJDE METIN, Set design ANNA SBIERA for QP Magazine UK

Yet accuracy wasn’t the only reason I began to collect Beta 21s. The great advantage to them is that nobody looking at them would ever assume that they are quartz, as they do not have the stepping seconds hand – in fact the Piaget versions don’t have a seconds hand at all, and in all the others the second hand sweeps smoothly around the dial in a way not seen again until the introduction of the Seiko Spring Drive, 40 years later.

From experience, fixing the watches isn’t anywhere near the problem that critics claim. Watches like the Rolex Oysterquartz and the Seiko 7a can have their parts replaced, when needed, by a competent watchmaker. There’s also the option of sending them back to the original manufacturer for a refresh: only last year, I received a quote from Patek to service my Beta 21, which shows that these watches are not destined for the graveyard as others claim.

The Swiss watchmaking industry crashed in the 1970s because it deserved to, not because of quartz. In this era the industry had developed into a semi-cartel, owned mostly by the banks and the regional governments, and was only prospering due to two lucky factors outside its control: the artificial weakness of the Swiss Franc, maintained by the fixed exchange rates brought in at the end of WWII, and the fact the Swiss continued producing millions of timepieces during the war where other countries had halted altogether.

In 1971, Nixon tore up the Bretton Woods agreement, which fixed the relative values of the international currencies, and the Swiss Franc went from almost 4.5 to the US Dollar to around 1.5 towards the end of the decade. In other words, you now needed three times as many dollars as you previously to buy the same watch. With the rise in value of the Swiss Franc came a drop in the value of the Japanese Yen; it lost a third of its value by the end of the decade. The Japanese proceeded to take maximum advantage of this currency discrepancy – but it wasn’t their quartz watches that were devastating Swiss watch sales in the US, it was their low-priced mechanical pieces.

What is heartening to me, as a collector of these early quartz pieces, is that I am no longer alone. On Instagram and watch forums I see these pieces appearing much more frequently, and, more importantly, I see experienced collectors purchasing the occasional one, and some well-respected collectors making serious purchases in this field. Recently, I asked a collector of long standing what had opened their eyes to early quartz. “Far from being a crisis, as some seem to depict it, quartz was a revolution”, they said. “The designs – epitomising much of the design spirit and vibe of the 1970s – were wacky, radical, and exceptionally beautiful.”

Reflecting these sentiments, I am grateful for the slow, but gradual return of quartz timekeeping to watch collectors’ consciousness. There’s the Élégante from F-P Journe, or the P0100 from Citizen – both watches costing well into five figures, and both of which have sold out. That’s the past and the present of quartz watchmaking: I wonder where the future will take us. I have one hope – in the 1980s, Rolex developed a quartz perpetual calendar movement with independently adjustable hour hand and a 10–15-year battery life; they made a few prototypes in both Day-Date and Datejust versions but it never made production. Perhaps we can now start re-evaluating the appeal of the until-now little-appreciated quartz watch.