Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World

//Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World

Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World

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Forty years ago last month, I started a new job as an associate editor on a monthly magazine with the tortured name of Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone. My reporting career began the year before on a newspaper in Cape May County, New Jersey. Things there went well. In addition to covering local news and politics, I got to cover some national stories like the Democratic Convention of 1976 and Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. The journalism gods smiled on the rookie and I won a couple of reporting awards. They were my ticket out of Cape May County in pursuit of that coveted five-figure salary. (Yep, it was four figures per year on small-town papers in those days.)

On my first day at the new job, the editor-in-chief, a wise Irishman named George Holmes, told me You are going to cover watches. JCK was a trade magazine whose audience consisted of jewelry industry professionals, primarily retail jewelers and their buyers. Watches was one of the magazine’s major beats, along with diamonds and colored gemstones.

I drove home from work that day depressed. Watches? Really? What can you possibly write about watches once a month?

Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World seiko

Before making high-end quartz watches like the 9F, Seiko’s more affordable models nearly shuttered the Swiss watchmaking industry entirely.

Turns out it wasn’t hard at all. In 1977, the watch world was at war. The Swiss, the Japanese, the Chinese (Hong Kong and Taiwan then), and the Americans were engaged in a furious battle we know as the Quartz Watch Revolution. (In Switzerland, it’s still called the Quartz Crisis.) Within days of starting to cover the watch industry, I was hooked. This beat had everything: a 500-year-old consumer product that was an object of both art and science, a global market, national industries in the throes of technological change, high stakes and high drama, with a cast of remarkable characters fighting ferociously on the marketing and technology fronts. To paraphrase the great Wordsworth, writing about another revolution, Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be a young watch reporter was very heaven!

It has been my great fortune over four decades to have had a front-row seat at the making of the modern watch world. As I see it, today’s watch world was created by a series of four revolutions that, each in its turn, roiled the industry, creating not just fascinating new watches, but new categories of watches, as well as new watch consumers, brands, companies and groups.

Those revolutions are the Quartz Watch Revolution of the 1970s, the Fashion Watch Revolution of the 1980s, the Mechanical Renaissance of the 1990s, and today’s Smartwatch Revolution.

Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World bp

More complicated, luxurious watches ended up saving the Swiss in the end.

Over the next few weeks, HODINKEE will run a five-part series of stories about these four revolutions and their impact on the watch world. Part 1 reviews the Quartz Revolution which transformed the global watch landscape, shifted the balance of power to the Far East, changed consumer notions of watch functions and styling and nearly destroyed Switzerland’s third largest export industry.

Part 2 reviews the Fashion Watch Revolution led by Swatch, Fossil and Guess that dramatically altered the trajectory of the Quartz Revolution. It halted the Japanese advance by shifting the focus from inside to out, from new technology to a new watch aesthetic. By redefining what watches looked like and how they were marketed, it created a multi-billion-dollar watch category.

Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World hp

The LED watch era was a strange aside in the history of the industry.

The mechanical watch counter-revolution of the 1990s (Part 3) marks one of the unlikeliest comebacks in the annals of technology. As the Hodinkee community knows well, Swiss ingenuity in classical watchmaking, micro-mechanical miniaturization, and brand marketing turned the mechanical watch’s essential obsolescence into a virtue. The tick-tock became a cult object, a collectible, and a luxury item. It restored the fortunes of the previously embattled Swiss watch industry, making it the unrivaled master of the market for watches above $1,000.

It is too soon to assess the impact of the Smartwatch Revolution now underway and led by Apple (Part 4), but it could be profound. Its roots go back to the science-fiction fantasy of the Dick Tracy watch and the multi-function reality of digital watches like the Seiko TV Watch of 1982. Since then, assorted wrist computers have appeared at regular intervals. With the Apple Watch, the trend has gained unprecedented traction. Now what?

Four Revolutions: A Concise History Of The Modern Watch World apple

The long term impact of smartwatches is still very much unknown.

The last article in the series will focus on a fascinating chapter of the Quartz Watch Revolution that has, to a great extent, been overlooked: the role of American semiconductor companies. Over the decades, the battle has come to be seen as a quartz vs. mechanical, Japan vs. Switzerland clash. What’s been lost is the digital vs. analog aspect of the fight. The first great wave of quartz watches came mostly from outside the traditional watch industry. These were solid-state (i.e. having no moving parts) digital watches made by American electronics companies like Texas Instruments, National Semiconductor, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and dozens more. They were the most radical of the quartz revolutionaries: they were out to eliminate not just mechanical watches, but all analog watches. Their early success raised great hopes for a revival of American watchmaking. It didn’t happen. We’ll examine why.

For me, these revolutions provide a framework to help understand, evaluate and appreciate what goes on in today’s wide, wonderful, sometimes whacky watch world. Look for the first installment of this series early next week.

By | 2017-10-06T05:07:46+00:00 October 6th, 2017|Blog|0 Comments

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