Go back through the history of watches and you can identify some inflection points: the birth of the modern sports watch in 1953, a crescendo of technology in 1969 – and, in 1983, what many probably saw as the manifestation of the decline of an industry. You could call it the year of the inexpensive, plastic-cased, mass-produced quartz watch.
While this has certainly represented an era of crisis for some, hindsight describes it as an intermediate time for culture and technology and as a necessary step towards today’s watch industry. In 1983: CDs were brand new, so people were still listening to the recent one. Polar album on tape recorder or record player; the first (pre-Super) Mario Bros. debuted; NASA Space Shuttle Challenger spear; Seiko presented the first TV watch – and the G-Shock and Swatch watch brands were born. No watch could have better represented the values and attitude of the decade.
The traditional mechanical watch industry had already faced an inevitable wave of new technology, so it wasn’t a sudden shock. Battery-powered electric watches were decades old, and quartz technology followed, with Japan beating Switzerland in the race to bring the first quartz watch to market in 1969. Even Rolex was all about quartz.
In the beginning, the technology, often still buggy, was clearly superior in terms of accuracy, but it was state of the art and expensive. Quartz, however, would be even more revolutionary as technology evolved: soon after, it allowed watches to be thinner than ever before, and its reduced number of moving parts made it more robust than mechanical movements with their complex system of gears. But – and here’s the kicker – it has also become extremely cheap to produce in bulk. Finally, as more and more products went plastic, a recipe emerged for a new era in watches.
The first Casio watch with a plastic (“resin”) case debuted in 1978 – although Tissot had already spent around 20 years developing a mechanical watch produced entirely from plastic, which debuted in 1971. While the Most of the earliest quartz watches were produced in metal and even precious metals, the benefits of plastic were obvious and compelling. Lightweight and incredibly affordable watches could be easily produced in any shape or color and in high volume – and, thanks to quartz, they were much more precise than any watch in history.
Despite all these apparent advantages, they were immediately recognized as disposable – unlike traditional mechanical watches which were made to be regularly serviced, and even to last for generations. But a lot of people were just happy to have a very precise watch for not a lot of money – that they didn’t even have to worry about winding it! Cheap, mostly digital watches from Japanese companies like Seiko, Citizen, and Casio flooded the market and made Old World watchmaking almost obsolete.
The Swiss rushed to react to the drastic drop in sales, bankrupt companies and even Japanese initiatives to buy the main Swiss watch conglomerates. Rather than sell, the Swiss, led by Nicholas Hayek, merged their business groups (ASUAG and SSIH), in addition to creating a new company, Swatch.
Swatch was designed to offer casual, fashion-oriented and ultra affordable watches to compete with the Japanese. The concept, however, was more than that, as these were not intended to replace the traditional high-end watches, but to complement them as the “second watch”, the origin of the Sample Name. In addition, they were intended to counter the popularity of digital watches with analog dials and a Swiss identity.
The brand debuted with a collection of 12 models and sold over a million units in the first year. They were priced between $ 40 and $ 50 (CHF 40-50) – not far from what many Swatch watches cost today. This strategy made it possible to keep (some) Swiss companies solvent and to make watches, and the group of companies would later (in 1998) change its name to Swatch Group. He is often credited with having “saved the Swiss watch industry”.
While Swatch seemed to see consumers as fun but disposable items, Casio saw the potential of plastic and quartz: durability. The story of an engineer Casio’s quest to create an indestructible watch after abandoning a family heirloom and shattering it is legendary. The result was the Casio G-Shock line which debuted in 1983 and today has almost grown into a brand in its own right.
Although in recent years more and more G-Shocks have been produced in steel, the ability of plastic to absorb impacts was a big part of what made the extreme durability of watches possible. (See modern G-Shocks that are creatively beaten here.) Quartz movements and digital displays also meant essentially no moving parts that could wear out by friction or come loose by jolts.
Swatch and G-Shock are each growing today, producing watches in seemingly endless colors and variations. But they’re part of a more balanced watch industry that has room for fans of traditional watchmaking and those who appreciate the practicality, nostalgia, and just plain fun of a rugged digital watch. Who Said You Can’t Love Both?
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