Quartz crisis

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The quartz crisis is an existential and long-term economic crisis in the European and American watch industry that was triggered by the almost complete displacement of mechanical watches by the then new electronic watches with quartz technology . It lasted from around 1970 to the mid-1980s and encompassed both the wristwatch and large clock industries , i.e. the manufacturers of car clocks , alarm clocks , table and wall clocks . Many companies went bankrupt , and the number of employees in the traditional watch industry fell dramatically.


Pioneer of the portable battery quartz watch, Chronotome CC, Patek Philippe, Geneva, 1963.

The first quartz watches manufactured in small series were available as early as the early 1930s. They were still extremely expensive and bulky reference timepieces for laboratories and industry. In the 1940s and 1950s, experiments were carried out with portable quartz watches, which suffered from high power consumption and were largely stationary because of the bulky batteries.

Semiconductor technology heralded a change in the 1960s: the first battery-powered table quartz watches, e.g. B. from Patek Philippe , Seiko or Junghans came onto the market. But these watches were also significantly more expensive than high-quality mechanical timepieces.

The breakthrough among the public came with the quartz watch with the development of integrated circuits for divider stages, which became available at the end of the 1960s. The quartz revolution took place almost simultaneously for all watch groups. On the mass market, first the car clocks, then the rest of the clocks and finally the wristwatches.

Auto quartz watches

The world's first quartz car clock Q4, VDO, Frankfurt am Main, 1969.

Around 1965, mechanical and electromechanical clocks still had a rate error of up to 90 seconds per day (45 minutes per month) due to the strong temperature fluctuations in the car. In 1966, the Frankfurt-based car accessories manufacturer VDO decided to develop a quartz watch that would revolutionize the market by being a hundred times more accurate than conventional vehicle watches.

The standard car quartz watch came on the market in 1969 with an edition of 1000 pieces. In 1970, large-scale production started with over a million units, initially with a downside: since the car manufacturers were not prepared to pay a higher price for the quartz watch than for one with conventional technology, VDO drove with every watch sold in the first year a loss: VDO earned only DM 10 for each watch  at a cost of DM 11.

But the risk of an investment of around DM 30 million in development and participation in an American semiconductor manufacturer and the losses of 1970 should pay off. For several years, VDO was ahead in the car watch market and, thanks to cheaper production, was soon able to offset the initial losses. Between 1970 and 1984 VDO sold around 30 million quartz watches for automobiles.

Other quartz clocks

First large-scale movement for table and wall clocks CQ 2000, Staiger, St. Georgen, 1971
One of the first large quartz clocks (left)

The quartz revolution in clock making came from the Black Forest clock industry, which was the export world champion for alarm clocks, wall clocks and table clocks until the last third of the twentieth century.

In 1970, the Freiburg semiconductor company Intermetall (ITT, today: Micronas ) presented a microchip that contained a seven-stage frequency divider . Using this IC, the medium-sized watch company Werner Staiger from St. Georgen began serial production of the Chrometron CQ 2000 , the first inexpensive quartz movement for the watch market. At first it cost about 100 DM in wholesale. A new generation of works was presented almost every year. The number of individual parts fell dramatically, and with it the price. In 1982 Staiger delivered a quartz movement for only 5 DM. Around 1985 Staiger, together with the local competitor Kieninger and Obergfell (KUNDO), succeeded in producing fully automatic quartz movements for the first time. In 1989, 60,000 plants left production every day. The merged company KundoStaiger had developed into the largest watch company in Europe by 1990. The price for a quartz movement was around 1.40 DM. The replacement of many metal parts with plastic parts in watchmaking, including number wheels, played a major role in this drop in the price of large clocks. By saving work steps in parts production (injection molded parts) and integrating individual parts into larger assemblies, production became easier and cheaper. Here, too, the two St. Georgen-based companies Kundo and Staiger played a pioneering role thanks to their decades of experience with thermoplastic materials.

Most of the traditional metalworking companies in the watchmaking industry were unable to master the double challenge posed by plastics and electronics. That is why the manufacture of mechanical and electromechanical large clocks disappeared internationally in the 1970s and 1980s, apart from a few remains. In Baden-Württemberg, the former world center of clock production, the number of employees fell from 32,000 (1970) to 8,200 (1990) to 1,369 (2009).

But even the pioneers of the quartz revolution could not withstand the overwhelming competition from the Far East, which had quickly copied the new production processes. KundoStaiger had to file for bankruptcy in 2000.

Quartz wristwatches

Prototype of the first Beta 1 quartz wristwatch from the Center Electronique Horloger (CEH), Switzerland, 1967
The first commercial quartz wristwatch Seiko-Astron with Cal. 35A went on sale in Tokyo at Christmas 1969.
Caliber 35A of the Astron

Until the beginning of the 1970s, established watch manufacturers concentrated on the further development of the mechanical watch . To this day, the goal of watch development is to improve the accuracy and increase the power reserve . In addition to economical production, another development goal is the durability and insensitivity of the movement and housing. By using an oscillating quartz ( clock quartz ) as a clock , the accuracy could even be improved by three powers of ten. A battery change was necessary about once a year. In addition, a quartz clock shell could be manufactured at a fraction of the price, it consisted of fewer components than its mechanical counterpart and at the same time was mechanically less sensitive (in the normal temperature range). Quartz wristwatches made a previously unknown rate accuracy available to the general public that was previously only used in science and technology. The then introduced CEH Beta quartz watches (prototype Beta 1 presented in 1967 as the world's first quartz wristwatch) and the first commercially available quartz wristwatch Seiko Astron SQ from December 25, 1969, surpassed mechanical watches in all of these criteria. Even the earliest quartz wristwatches were far superior to mechanical wristwatches in terms of accuracy, but they were still very expensive. At Christmas 1969, the first commercially available quartz wristwatch, the Seiko Astron, cost 460,000 yen - the equivalent of a small car. Hamilton's first Pulsar digital watch (with a temporary LED display) was available in 1972 for US $ 2100, the price of a small car. In 1974, with the marine chronometer by Omega SA the first wristwatch as a marine chronometer certified by a quartz frequency of 2,359,296 Hz, a time deviation of less than 12 seconds per year and a retail price of 1,850 US dollars .

But the rapid fall in the price of electronic wristwatches soon began. Seiko provided the preparatory work for this and developed three key technologies that still determine the design of quartz wristwatches today: the tuning fork-shaped, photolithographically manufactured quartz resonator, the integrated circuit of the CMOS type and the stepping motor . From 1972, Seiko used quartz oscillators with the frequency of 32,768 Hz that is still common today. From 1973, tuning fork-shaped resonators of this frequency were obtained from the US high-tech company Statek, in which Seiko held a 15% stake. Just as early on, Seiko relied on the development of compact stepper motors to move the pointer mechanism and energy-saving CMOS ICs, which were initially obtained from the US company Intersil . Thanks to these three factors, quartz wristwatches could soon be produced in large numbers, largely automatically. In 2011 Seiko was still producing 150 million quartz movements annually.

Through the consistent orientation of the company policy towards the mass production of precise, low-maintenance and inexpensive quartz wristwatches at Seiko, the Japanese watch industry had a lead of several years over foreign competitors, including the former industry leader Switzerland. Around 1970 Switzerland's share in the world production of largely mechanical wristwatches was still around 50% in terms of units. As a result of the crisis, the number of employees in the Swiss watch industry fell by two thirds by 1988, from around 90,000 to around 28,000. The number of companies in the Swiss watch industry fell from 1600 in 1970 to 600 today.

In other countries with small watch production such as France, Germany or the United States, the manufacture of wristwatches almost completely disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s, apart from a few niches ( radio clocks ). Only Timex survived among American watch manufacturers . Swiss and German watch companies also failed to recognize the trend change in the market and Japanese watch manufacturers flooded the market with inexpensive and precise quartz watches. Sometimes the development of their own quartz calibers came too late, sometimes the quick change from one generation of movements to the next, like in Germany, was too much of a financial burden for medium-sized entrepreneurs. Mindful of their independence, they could not or only half-heartedly decide to enter into cross-company cooperation in development.

In addition to the technological change, changes in currency exchange rates and the economic trend played an important role. During the 1970s, the US dollar lost massive amounts of its value against the currencies of European watch manufacturers such as Germany and Switzerland. Even before the Bretton Woods system of regulated exchange rates was formally abandoned in 1973, the US dollar was losing value. Then, for example, the Swiss franc rose against the US dollar by around a third from the beginning of 1973 to the end of 1976. In addition, the world economy experienced the worst recession of the post-war period in 1973/1974 . This led to a sales crisis for those European watch companies that made a significant proportion of their exports to the USA and other countries with correspondingly weak currencies. Japanese manufacturers benefited from the fact that the Japanese yen did not appreciate to the same extent.

End of the quartz crisis

Switzerland alone managed to influence the development in favor of the local watch industry. The commitment of the then insolvency administrator and management consultant Nicolas Hayek can be seen as one of the decisive steps towards reversing the trend . Hayek was supposed to lead the two companies, ASUAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG) and SSIH (Société Suisse de l'Industrie Horlogère) , which were badly hit at the time .

From 1983 he organized the merger of the two companies, switched production to a highly productive and automated production line, launched the Swatch, an inexpensive quartz watch with a varied design, and ensured that the supply companies Nivarox and Comadur were kept busy by building an automatic system -Swatch watch with the ETA caliber 2842. In the course of automation, he reduced the number of components required for a Swatch to 51, compared to at least 125 parts for a mechanical watch. Hayek also recognized that the term Swiss Made could still represent a decisive image factor when making a purchase, and used this specifically in marketing.

The sale of mechanical watches also increased again from the 1990s, with buyers who prefer the comparatively easier to understand mechanism of a mechanical watch and with buyers in the upper price segment. In 2012, sales in terms of value with Swiss mechanical watches were higher than that with over a billion electronic timepieces from Asia.


  • Johannes Graf (ed.): The quartz revolution. 75 years of quartz watch in Germany. 1932-2007. Lectures on the occasion of the conference in the German Clock Museum Furtwangen on August 20 and 21, 2007, Furtwangen 2008. ISBN 978-3-922673-27-9 .
  • Lucien Trueb: Children of the Quarzrevolution, La-Chaux-de Fonds and Oberhausen 2008. ISBN 978-3-89896-351-0 .
  • Lucien Trueb: Contemporary witnesses of the quartz revolution, La-Chaux-de Fonds and Oberhausen 2006. ISBN 978-3-89896-255-1 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c Günther Hahlganß: The quartz watch at VDO, in: The quartz revolution. 75 years of quartz watch in Germany. 1932-2007. Edited by Johannes Graf, Furtwangen 2008, pp. 138–147.
  2. a b c Johannes Graf: From one hundred to zero in 40 years. The German clock industry in the post-war period, in: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Chronometrie. Jahresschrift, Vol. 50, 2011, pp. 241–262, on the quartz crisis especially pp. 248–260.
  3. a b c d Carlene Stephens, Maggie Dennis: Engineering time: inventing the electronic wristwatch , British Journal for the History of Science, 2000, 33, 477-497 ( Memento of October 13, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 2, 5 MB), accessed January 25, 2012
  4. a b c Lucien F. Trueb, Günther Ramm, Peter Wenzig: The electrification of the wristwatch, Munich 2011. on Seiko's pioneering role in the mass production of quartz wristwatches, especially pp. 109–111.
  5. David Landes: Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000. ISBN 978-0674002821 .
  6. Joe Thompson: 1969 - Seiko's breakout year . In: Watchtime 2009.
  7. ^ Smithsonian Institute : Watch Wars - Switzerland ( Memento July 2, 2007 in the Internet Archive ). Retrieved April 8, 2013.
  8. ^ Cooke, P. and Hastings, J., New Industries: Imperative for Agriculture's Survival, Regional Australia Summit, Oct 27-29, 1999 at page 8.
  9. Johannes Graf: Challenge quartz watch. The German watch industry in the 1970s, in: Die Quarzrevolution, pp. 62–76, on the crisis of the wristwatch in Germany, esp. 70-74.
  10. ^ A b Franz E. Aschinger: The new currency system. From Bretton Woods to the dollar crisis in 1977. F. Knapp, Frankfurt a. M., 1978, ISBN 3-7819-0191-2 , pp. 27-32
  11. Lucien F. Trueb: The quartz revolution - From mechanics to electronics and back . In: Franz Betschon et al. (Ed.): Engineers build Switzerland - first-hand history of technology , pp. 354–374, Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zurich 2013, ISBN 978-3-03823-791-4