The first wristwatch with quartz movement emerged 46 years ago. It was the result of a project developed by the Electronic Watchmaker Center, located in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The Japanese, who dominated micro electronics, took advantage of the invention and began to produce quartz watches on a large scale, as a mass product, although initially they have produced mechanical watches. Seiko, Citizen and Casio – the three best-known Japanese watch brands – offered to the consumer, especially the growing postwar urban middle class, an affordable watch, with high precision and low service cost. It was necessary only to change the battery from time to time. The technological novelty really delighted the consumer during the 60’s and 70’s.
The Japanese watch brands were very efficient in marketing. During the 60’s and 70’s the major vehicle to divulge their products were the magazines in Japan, Europe and America. In every edition of Reader’s Digest, one of the best known monthly magazines, published in almost 80 idioms, included adds from some popular Swiss watch brands, like Cyma, Omega, Mido, Tissot, Longines, Eterna and Universal. Adds from the Japanese watch brands Seiko and Casio became also very frequent.
The competition of low price quartz watches from Japan caused a very strong and negative impact on the Swiss mechanical watch industry. Several or countless small watch brands closed their doors. At the time it was impossible to imagine that the skilled Swiss workers would have their tasks reduced to a minimum, as it is the less complex production of quartz watches.
Historically the Swiss watch industry is horizontal, that is, parts and components are supplied by third parties, specialized companies. In reality the majority of Swiss watch brands are assemblers, like the auto-motor industry. During the 70’s there was 90,000 people working in the industry as a whole . Fifteen years later this number was reduced to 30,000 and in 2012 this figure increased to 55,000.
The major technological developments in the watch industry occur in small and very specialized companies, unknown by the general public. Such companies work on demand to develop exclusive movements for watch brands. The major are Christophe Claret, Renaud et Papi, Dubois Depráz e Haute de Gamme. The renowned Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, for instance, are among the major shareholders of Christophe Claret and Haute de Gamme, respectively, in order to be in the vanguard of the technological frontier and to have exclusive movements.
The final product may request several months to be ready. The price…, well the price can reach more than 500,000 Swiss francs, for instance. On the other hand, Swatch Group, almost an exception in the rule of exclusive products, decided to follow another path. In 2014 Gross Sales reached almost 9 billion Swiss francs and it is the world´s largest manufacturer in the watch industry, covering all market segments, with 18 brands, besides the fact that it is also the most important supplier of components to the Swiss watch industry. Under the guidance of Nicholas Hayek (1928-2010) together with the old SMH (merger of Omega, Tissot, Mido and Longines), this industrial group was the most successful reaction to the advance of Japanese watch brands. The popular Swatch watch collection, 90% of which equipped with quartz movements, was able to recover the old consumer preference for Swiss watches, including the younger public.
Until the end of the 90’so the Japanese manufacturers adopted a commercial strategy based on a large variety of models which trivialized the product to a point that the consumer changed its preference to more exclusive watch models. From the Japanese watch industry point of view, the consumer does not need more than one watch. The watch has a merely practical function, that is, to show the hours…If the consumer needs more information, there are other models available, with multiple functions, calendar, a math calculator etc. Such range of information can be easily added in quartz watches, contrary to mechanical watches. The Swiss watch industry was very successful in reacting against such marketing approach, by convincing the consumer that it must have more than one single watch, if possible a watch for each occasion. The watch must reflect the personality of its owner if not its acquisitive power, a sign of status. Despite quartz watches account for 90% of all production in physical terms, they represent no more than 40% of all global value. On the other hand, the mechanical watch has a strong marketing appeal and it is the result of a specialized and traditional work, which goes back to the XVII century.