The two worlds of watchmaking

The annals of the watchmaking history fondly remember the winter of 1969. It was at this time that Seiko, the Japanese watchmaker, introduced The Astron, a timepiece that would change the dynamics of the watch industry forever. It marked the beginning of the Quartz Revolution.

At the time, depending on the way you saw it, it was also called the Quartz Crisis! It was vaguely similar to the Smartwatch Revolution that the horological industry had recently faced in the past few years.

Back in the year 1969,  The Astron marked the beginning of the democratization of owning watches.

"Someday all watches will be made this way."

This marketing tagline hinted towards The Astron being a game-changer in the watchmaking process. 

It was a trying time for the mechanical watch industry in Switzerland that was excluded from its comfortable monopoly. The Quartz movement gave greater accuracy at a reasonable cost. This threw old watch masons into a state of frenzy. The Quartz Revolution/Crisis created two watch worlds- the mechanical and the Quartz. Talk about disruptive technology! 

The primary difference between these two watch worlds was the motion. In simple terms, the movement of the watch is what makes it tick- pun intended! The canvas of the dial may be small, but intricate mechanisms can play out here. The movement of the watch is the heart of the timepiece. This beating heart is what makes its internal mechanisms quite fascinating.

Mechanical and Quartz- two watch worlds 

There are three types of watch movements. The traditional mechanical movement needs manual winding to operate, while the Quartz movement is powered by a battery. Automatic movements make use of kinetic energy from the wrist, which helps run the watch. If you notice the motion of the second hand in both a mechanical and a quartz watch, you will see a difference. The seconds' hand sweeps around the dial in the case of a mechanical watch. With quartz watches, there is what is called the dead seconds' approach. To reduce the power consumed by the battery, the seconds' hand moves just once each second.

When Quartz made inroads into the watch world, it was a matter of time till the other followed suit. One would have expected that the benefits of Quartz would hamper the sale of mechanical watches. On the contrary, mechanical watches became a niche and a favorite with collectors. After all, worshippers of mechanisms would not go for a battery-operated watch, right? Mechanical watches poised as more elitist.

This is not to undermine the importance of Quartz in any way. Innovative as it is, the mechanical watch industry made quite a comeback. At the same time, traditional Swiss brands also embraced Quartz followed by luxury watches. Both mechanical and Quartz watches have comfortably settled into a niche. Of course, purists may cringe at Quartz. While some who patronize quartz watches may wonder about the inconveniences of mechanical watches.

Truth be told, there is space for both strands of the watch world to coexist happily. 

The mechanical fantasy

So, what is it about mechanical watches that make the hearts of collectors tick? Springs and moving gears powering the mechanical watch can be quite fascinating to watch. The movement uses energy from the wound mainspring to power the watch. It is a mechanical dance if you please, and one needs to have developed a taste for it. Most often, the viewing window lies at the back of the watch. Many mechanical watches are born in the workshops of manufacturers with a rich heritage. They boast of diligent craftsmanship and artistry in watchmaking. 

All that is quartz…is cool 

Exquisite descriptions of mechanical watches are not really to portray quartz watches as poor cousins of the mechanicals. Older quartz watches hold a special place in the hearts of collectors.

Vintage quartz models from classic watch brands have an enigma attached to them. The heritage they carry stems from every mason's roots in purist watchmaking traditions. The provenance aside, these watches, between the 1960s and 1980s captured the spirit of the times. You will see many of them inspired by the space age.

The very name of Seiko’s ‘Astron’ is a nod to the space age zeitgeist of the time. The Mega quartz movement by Omega was launched in 1973. The same goes for the Oyster Quartz by Rolex. Many Swiss Manufactures ventured into quartz waters, maybe to stay afloat at the time, but also to follow the spirit of innovation that makes up the watch industry. 

However, coming to other practical aspects, the retro look of these watches is indeed timeless. Omega, Rolex, Heuer are some of the names that come to mind while looking at the 1970s cocktail of aesthetics, style, functionality, and longevity.

A chapter in time

Some of the vintage watches made in India in the 1970s onwards are extremely rare to find now. These watches are desired by collectors since they represent the golden age of watch manufacturing in India. They are time capsules presenting a slice of an India that was still a young country emerging out of the remnants of colonialism and looking forward to building its identity. It is a strange fact that many of these companies have shut down today. However, one cannot ignore the slice of history they serve us on the watch platter!

Hegde and Golay started as an industry pioneer, but due to corporate finance issues, it faced an untimely death. HMT, more popular in the public imagination, shut down operations after a few years. Indo Swiss Time Limited also had a golden run before focusing attention exclusively on the export of watch components. 

Whatever be the individual case stories of these manufacturers who sadly had an untimely death in India, the point remains that the watches of that glorious era remain immortalized. 

Collectors galore 

For the watch collector, the quartz watches provide an accessible entry point into the world of watch collecting, as compared to mechanical watches from the same era. It makes collecting less intimidating.

A mechanical and quartz have space side by side. The quartz and the mechanical have brought tremendous innovations to the industry. Both have stretched the limits of creativity on a small canvas of the watch dial. 

The more recent smartwatch revolution started by the Apple Watch has again thrown the watch world into a frenzy. Some watchmakers have rushed into the smartwatch bandwagon as well, trying to incorporate smart technology with old school watchmaking. Would the story of the quartz revolution repeat itself? It is too early to tell. For now, let us treasure the quartz and mechanical timepieces that tell tales of a bygone era. 

Any questions?