The Quartz Pandemic

2020 will be the year of COVID-19. A year where one-third of the world is confined, businesses are closed and the world is at a standstill. The watch industry is not immune to this pandemic and is suffering as much as any other industry. The world post-COVID-19 will be different and the watch industry might be looking down the barrel of a crisis.

The watch industry has changed a lot throughout the ages and has overcome several crises thanks to its capacity to adapt. The last time the industry was in a tough spot was in the late 70s at the beginning of the quartz crisis, a period that shaped the industry as we know it.

Within 13 years, this crisis saw two-thirds of the industry’s employees lose their jobs and had leaders fear for the survival of the industry. After World War II, the Swiss watch industry started supplying almost 95% of all mechanical watches sold in the world. All the work was done by hand in small manufactures and Switzerland faced close to no competition.

quartz astron

In 1969 Seiko launched the Astron, a quartz watch with precision as it USP rather than craftsmanship. This new trend took the world by storm, with precision becoming more important than anything else. For retailers, the Japanese watches were cheaper and easier to sell compared to their Swiss counterparts that could only be sold at huge discounts. The irony of this situation is that the quartz movement was created by a Swiss consortium comprised of brands like Omega, Rolex and Patek Phillipe.

By the end of the 70s, the Swiss industry was suffering to keep up and was on the brink of collapse. That is when a man, Nicolas Georges Hayek, decided to unite two groups, ASUAG and SSIH, to create what we know today as the SWATCH Group. The goal was to create high-quality Swiss watches at a low price to compete with the Japanese watches.

 nicolas george hayek
Bibliothek am Guisanplatz, Portraitsammlung Rutishauser

The group came up with automatic and quartz watches housed in plastic cases. They were stylish, sought after and cheap to produce. They were colorful and became part of pop culture as fast as they were created. The industry was saved and the group used the money made by these watches a financial foundation to re-boost other Swiss brands.

At the time, Hayek was not the only one with a mission to save the watch industry. A young executive by the name of Jean-Claude Biver bought the rights to the battered Blancpain brand in 1982 and joined the fight to save the Swiss watch industry. Together they would revive several brands and instill in people’s minds that Swiss mechanical watches are timeless.

jean claude biver

Since then several brands were created, Switzerland went back to being at the center of the watchmaking world and for some, it was like nothing ever happened. For others, the challenge of this generation was the smartwatch and this time, Swiss brands like Tag Heuer, Hublot and Montblanc were ahead of the curve in tackling this issue.

The industry survived this crisis and will surely survive the crises to come. Watches are more than timekeepers; they are pieces of history. Mementos of our collective history as well as our personal one and because of that the watch industry will always prevail.

The question that remains is: who are the Bivers and Hayeks of this generation?