In a digital world, computing machines can only work with on/off states or simple bits valued either 1 or 0. One day this may change when quantum computers come along but for now that’s what it is. A digital watch is no different. When in the 1960s, laboratories around the world coming up with technology to measure time digitally, transistorised and battery powered, a number of challenges were to overcome.
Early attempts included tuning forks and battery powered balance wheels, but in the end, it was the quartz that brought the breakthrough. Quartz is a mineral made from silicon and oxygen and has interesting piezoelectrical properties that allows it to oscillate at high frequency with high precision. So quartz has all the properties needed to be a tact generator for a watch running at high precision. Well, if it were that easy.
While a quartz clock was already invented in the 1920s at the Bell Labs, it was Seiko who brought out the first wristwatch with quartz technology in 1969. As such the Japanese won the raise against the Swiss Beta-21 project, which never really got beyond prototype watches, some of them very sought after nowadays. The Beta-21 project was a joint development by the Centre Eletronique Horloger (CEH), a consortium of Swiss watch manufactures, among them Bulova, Omega and even Patek. The first Seiko as well as the Beta-21 watches were also extortionately expensive, in today’s money worth a medium-sized family car.
Girard-Perregaux declined to be part of the CEH development team as they wanted to keep independence and to pursue their own R&D and that proved to be a game-changing move. While the Beta-21 project worked with a 8192 Hz quartz that was stepped down to 256 Hz driving a sweeping seconds hand, Girard-Perregaux quadrupled the frequency to 32768 Hz and worked with a stepping motor advancing the second hand once every second (the first Seiko quartz watch also used a stepping motor). Most quartz watches we know have that characteristic stepped second hand.
It was the young engineer Georges Vuffray who just finished university as electrical engineer who took the reims of that R&D project at GP. After long searches for an integrated circuit and quartz suppliers, GP was able to present a first Quartz watch at the Basel exhibition in 1970. GP achieved that milestone with a fraction of the budget that CEH had spent and in less time but providing a superior technology and setting still today’s standard of 32768 Hz quartz frequency. Furthermore, GP was able to offer its Quartz watch and a competitive market price and with that it became a true success story from the start.
However, the Quartz watch then put Girard-Perregaux at severe risk. While the development in the 70s was still producing affordable and very cool watches such as the LED Casquette, starting from the late 70s under new ownership, the strategy was taken to produce expensive luxury watches made from precious metals with quartz movements. However, that strategy failed as quartz watches never really were accepted as premium, highly-priced luxury watches.
However as always, there is a positive side to a crisis and as a result Girard-Perregaux got into the hands of Francis Besson who then brought in the Italian entrepreneur and GP importer Luigi Macaluso.
Finally, an interesting spin to all this: all the way to the end of 60s and even further, mechanical movements have been widely shared within the Swiss industry and GP was no different. Most of the Gyromatic calibers had been adaptations of A. Schild movements, so not really what we consider today as “in-house” movements. However, with the advent of Quartz Caliber 35x, GP now manufactured a full in-house movement. Of course at the end of the 80s, early 90s, GP then took on a whole new era under Gino Macaluso and developed automatic in-house movements from the first Calibers 3000/3100 as well as again Haute Horlogery movements such as the Three-Golden-Bridge Tourbillons.
Summing it up, today we look down at quartz watches and quite rightly, the quartz period has been a bit of a lost time that nearly killed the Swiss watchmaking industry. In the end though, it is part of history. I will not become a great collector or admirer of quartz watches, but admittedly some of those early 70s watches and the early LEDs are rather cool by today’s standards.