What is the Quartz Crisis Pt. 1: The Seiko Astron & the End of an Era

Jul 31, 2018

What is up, watchfam?! Today, we’re going to begin a deep dive into an event often talked about in horology, but one that is incredible vital not just to understanding where we, as a hobby, used to be, but how we got to where we are now. That event is the Quartz Crisis, and the watch that started it all was the Seiko Quartz Astron.

For all of watchmaking history prior to the end of 1969, the most common way of powering a timepiece was via a mechanical movement. Sure, there were some electronic options at the time (see: the Omega F300 Series), but in general, it was mechanical or bust. Then, on Christmas Day, 1969, Seiko launched a single watch that would completely change that standard – the Quartz Astron.

The Seiko Quartz Astron and its movement, the caliber 35a
Source: WatchUSeek

Released in only 100 examples, all of them cased in 18k yellow gold and costing ¥450,000, the equivalent of the price of a Toyota Corolla at the time, the piece was by no means the everyman option we often think of as “quartz” today. However, it was a true technological marvel.

Quartz timekeeping itself was not a complete revolution then. Indeed, Seiko had spent the decade prior producing quartz-powered wall and desk clocks, but the attempt to shrink that technology down into the size of a wristwatch movement was a challenge of such depth and complexity that, within Seiko, it had earned a moniker: “Project 59A.” After a significant amount of trial and error, Seiko developed what became known as an IC, or “integrated circuit,” a special kind of advancement that allowed for more precise and more energy efficient timekeeping.

Seiko Caliber 35A, the first quartz watch movement
Source: HODINKEE

And the ticking of the seconds hand? That, as it turns out is the result of the famous mechanical “sweeping” motion draining too much of the battery life, while “hacking” seconds did not. The decision to use what is known as a “deadbeat second” functionality was made to conserve battery life more than anything else, and not to mark some identifying “quartz” characteristic, like many watch geeks may think.

Hamilton Pulsar, the world’s first LED watch
Source: Time

Following the realization that this technology could be used and, indeed, made cheaper than a mechanical timepiece in most cases, other brands began to pick up steam in their own contributions to the quartz revolution. Hamilton, for example, introduced the Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch in 1972. Side note: if the name Pulsar sounds familiar, it’s because the brand is now owned by Seiko. The more you know. From this point forward, though, things began to change rapidly.

By the end of the 1970s, something had become abundantly clear to the Swiss brands – they could no longer sleep on quartz and hope the whole thing would blow over. It was a serious threat to their industry and their more traditional way of working, and it took them a decade to realize. In the early 1980s, the Swiss government and Swiss banks alike were pumping money into the Swiss watch industry, fighting to keep it alive as it failed time and time again to create a commercially viable quartz watch. With some of this newfound financial resource, Swiss manufactures made arguably the best decision they possibly could have – they founded the conglomerate that would become the Swatch Group.

For more about the Swatch Group and how they helped to not only save the Swiss watch industry, but also helped to bring the mechanical watch industry seemingly back from the dead, be sure to come back tomorrow and, until then, keep it classy, watchfam.

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