Timekeeping And The Revival Of Mechanical Watches

Before going through the list of fundamental differences between smartwatches and traditional watches, it is important to understand that traditional watches mostly continue to exist as a status symbol (possessed only by a privileged few), since their technological purpose has almost entirely been eroded 25 years ago.

Watches have historically served two purposes: that of a status symbol and a that of a self-contained timekeeper, with the latter gradually eroding from 1969 to 1990.

The quest for miniaturising self-contained timekeepers can be traced back to 1761, when John Harrison managed to fit a clockwork into his 52 mm H4 pocket watch, the fourth attempt by the self-taught watchmaker at winning the Longitude Prize.

Marine Chronometer H4 - CC David Brossard

Released in 1969, the Seiko Astron ran at a frequency of 8,192 Hz with a battery life of more than a year, and it represents the peak of this quest for self-contained timekeepers.

Quartz Movement  calibre 35A of the  of the Seiko Astron, 1969. Creative Commons Deutsches Uhrenmuseum

The H4 and the 1969 Astron were both the most accurate self-contained timekeepers of their time, but in 1990 the Junghans Mega 1 changed the game by outsourcing timekeeping: it no longer mattered how accurately the watch internals could keep track of time. Every day it would synchronize with an atomic clock signal carried over radio waves, which predated the modern smartwatch’s reliance on wireless networks.

Junghans first radio-controlled wristwatch Mega1, Public Domain

After recovering from a structural crisis in the mid-1980’s, Swiss watchmakers foresaw the erosion of the pure timekeeping role of watches. Atomic clocks were doing a much better job than watches, so in a counterintuitive move watchmakers started to highlight the manual operation and the hand-finished aspect of watches.

Evolution of Swiss export of quartz and mechanical watches between 2000 and 2014

In 2000, one Swiss watch out of 10 was mechanical. By 2014, one third of exports were mechanical watches, but the turnover had been nearly doubled, simply by the ability to sell mechanical watches at a higher price than their quartz counterparts. This shift of focus further minimised the technical relevance of watches in favour of a stylistic expression; and it ushered a& golden age for mechanical watches (Exports of Swiss watches electronic and mechanical, FHS).

Amongst the ones to see the writing on the wall before the release of the Mega 1 was AHCI member Philippe Dufour, who decided to set up a brand under his own name in 1989. Using century-old techniques, he arguably produces some of the finest timepieces, that we rank in the Master Watchmaking category of our price segments chart.

Entirely hand made movement of the Simplicity by Philippe Dufour


For further reading, see the 2013 report Swiss Watch Industry, Prospects and Challenges from Crédit Suisse (PDF file) and the 2016 Exports of Swiss electronic and mechanical from the FHS (PDF file).

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