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Watch 101

The Most Important Decades In Modern Watchmaking (Part 1: The 1980s)

By Felix Scholz
23 Jan 2023
8 min read

We explore how the adversity of the Quartz Crisis fueled necessity-driven innovation at an incredible pace in the 1980s and laid the groundwork for the modern era of the mechanical watch 

The 80s is a decade often derided for its obsession with opulence and excess, and an alleged lack of taste and style. I can't speak for this with any real authority, as my own experience of the 80s has less to do with two-tone Rolex, and more with nailing the fundamentals of walking, talking and the like.

While the image of ever-flowing Bollinger and crisp white suits makes the 80s sound like an endless party for some, if you were a Swiss watch brand, the reality was a little more sobering. That's because, for watchmaking, the 80s is synonymous with the 'Quartz Crisis', a shorthand term for a range of complicated factors, including the commercialization of quartz technology and highly competitive Japanese watches that crippled the domestic Swiss industry.

The story of the near-death of the Swiss watch industry is a well-told one, and we don't need to recount the woes of 40 years ago. Instead, let's look at a few moments, and specific models — from high culture to low — that encapsulates not the demise, but the rise of modern watchmaking.

Plastic Fantastic

A cheap, disposable watch might initially seem to be against everything the traditional Swiss industry values, so it's more than a little ironic that a cheap plastic Swiss Watch — the Swatch — is heralded by many as the savior of more traditional watchmaking. This bright, poppy and undeniably fun watch captured the zeitgeist when it was released in 1983 (in much the same way its spiritual successor, the MoonSwatch has today), and became a cultural touchstone that transcended country or creed, and cemented the power of 'Swiss Made' for younger generations. This was the long-term legacy of Swatch, but the immediate and institutional impact was something else entirely. 

An original 1986 retail poster announcing Keith Haring’s collaboration with Swatch Photo_ Keith Haring_ Artsy.png
An original 1986 retail poster announcing Keith Haring’s collaboration with Swatch Photo: Keith Haring/ Artsy

Swatch was made possible by advances in injection molding technology, but the brainchild of the concept was Nicolas G. Hayek. The businessman who saw in the fragmented industry an opportunity for consolidation. In the same year the Swatch debuted he oversaw the merger of ASUAG and SSIH into one mega group, the Société de Microélectronique et d'Horlogerie SA (SMH). This allowed for fully automated production on a scale never-before-seen in Switzerland. This scale, along with the price point of the Swatch and its appeal, led to a massive influx in revenue, a shot in the arm for an ailing industry. These profits went to support more traditional makers in the SMH group, which eventually became the Swatch Group. 

Photo: SWI swissinfo.ch/ RDB
The Late Nicolas G. Hayek took on the challenge of revitalising the ailing Swiss watch industry with the launch of Swatch in 1983 Photo: SWI swissinfo.ch/ RDB

Of course, Swatch wasn't the only iconic plastic watch to emerge from the 80s. The smash hit led to others going down a similar path — from street and fashion labels like Guess, Fossil, CK all trying their hand at the genre, as well as notable evolutions of the formula, such as TAG Heuer's Formula 1, which debuted in 1986, shortly after Heuer became TAG Heuer. With its colorful designs, quartz calibre and plastic bezel and strap, this immensely popular sporty watch was a giant hit for TAG Heuer. 
 

Marty McFly wearing a calculator watch in 1989's Back to the Future II Photo: GQ / Digital-Watch.com
Marty McFly wearing a calculator watch in 1989's Back to the Future II Photo: GQ / Digital-Watch.com

Casio too had its share of hits — who could forget the indisputably cool calculator watch worn by Marty McFly in 1989's Back to the Future II. But another Casio that is emblematic of the era is the brainchild of one Kikuo Ibe. After breaking his own watch, Casio designer Ibe set out to build an unbreakable watch. In 1981, he put together three designers — called Team Tough — to build the toughest watch imaginable. Ibe's criteria was a watch that could withstand a 10-meter drop, have a 10-year battery life and have a water resistance of 10 atmospheres. Two years and over 200 prototypes later, the first G-SHOCK, reference DW-5000C, was unveiled, and a legacy of incredible toughness was born, quickly becoming the watch of choice for skaters and rappers.

Pictured is founder of Casio's G-SHOCK, Kikuo Ibe Photo: Casio
 In 1981,  Kikuo Ibe set out to build the toughest watch imaginable. Two years and over 200 prototypes later, he launched the world’s first G-SHOCK, reference DW-5000C Photo: Casio

Thin Is In

Jean-Claude Biver was one of the first industry leaders to introduce the concept of brand ambassadors. In the 1990s, he got Cindy Crawford to launch Omega’s Constellation collection and also made Omega the official watch for James Bond
Jean-Claude Biver was one of the first industry leaders to introduce the concept of brand ambassadors. In the 1990s, he got Cindy Crawford to launch Omega’s Constellation collection Photo: Hodinkee

Of course, not all the enduring horological creations of the 80s were the result of injection molding, as one of the other preoccupations of the decades was, of course, a fascination with thinness. In fashion and food this often-harmful trend expressed itself through the rise (and rise) of the supermodel, and the minimalist approach to food known as nouvelle cuisine. While Swiss watch brands probably appreciated the merits of artfully arrayed stacks of food and Cindy Crawford as much as anyone, they applied the mantra a little differently with their work. 

Of course, slenderness was one of the major benefits of quartz technology –  fewer moving parts allowed brands to push new frontiers when it came to design. Piaget is well-known for ultra-thin pieces, but in 1979 it released a watch that took everything the brand knew about slimline aesthetics and bold design and pushed them to the limit. That watch was the perfectly integrated and unmistakable Piaget Polo, a watch that perfectly embodied the heady spirit of the times. 

Photo: Robb Report
An advertisement for the Piaget Polo from the 1980s Photo: Robb Report

At the same time, as brands were releasing forward-thinking designs like the Polo, watchmakers didn't forget about the traditions of their craft. So it was that Audemars Piguet, while experimenting with quartz, also developed an ultra-thin perpetual calendar, which debuted in 1978. Built off a JLC 920 ebauche, and was sold throughout the 80s in an exceptionally wide array of dial variations. And AP wasn't alone; in the years after Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe also released slender automatic perpetual calendars, proving that even in the darkest days of the watch industry, there was a place for groundbreaking watchmaking of the traditional type. 

Photo: @fred_merz/ Instagram
A true visionary, Jean Claude River revived Blancpain and rejuvenated Omega in the 1980s Photo: @fred_merz/ Instagram

A Technical Revival

Biver's Blancpain might be one of the most obvious advocates of anti-quartz sentiment– the 1980s was actually a hotbed of innovation. Take, for example, George Daniels's most famous invention, the co-axial escapement. While Daniels had conceived of the escapement in the 70s, he finally patented his technology in 1980, and famously spent much of the decade shopping the concept around various Swiss makers until it finally found a home at Omega. 

Pictured is an OMEGA Speedmaster with a George Daniels Co-Axial escapement prototype, made by George Daniels himself at his workshop Photo: WatchProSite
An Omega Speedmaster equipped with a George Daniels Co-Axial escapement prototype, made by George Daniels himself at his workshop  Photo: WatchProSite

While the holy trinity brands were busy keeping the flame alive, one man was lighting new fires in the traditional space. In 1982, a young watch executive made his first of many moves. Jean-Claude Biver bought the rights to the defunct brand Blancpain for around $16,000 and made a conscious stand against quartz, exhibiting his first collection at Basel. Throughout the 80s, Blancpain continued to focus on mechanical excellence. As usual, Biver was onto something. In 10 short years, he turned Blancpain from a hollow name, into a brand selling CHF 56 million in watches a year.

Over at Schaffhausen, IWC was also quietly working away on its own mechanical inventions, thanks in no small part to the genius of Kurt Klaus. In 1985, IWC released a watch with bold neo-classical styling and articulated lugs. Aesthetically the Da Vinci lived up to its namesake. The Italian genius would also have been impressed by the engineering. Ref. 3750 was a mechanical perpetual calendar chronograph, built of a heavily modified 7750, it was ingenious in that every calendar complication could be adjusted by the crown. 

If IWC was busy developing user-friendly complications, the team at Patek Philippe was focused on quantity and quality. The venerable marque was turning 150 in 1989, and they were determined to celebrate in style. The belle of the ball was the Caliber 89, an incredible pocket watch that weighed in at more than a kilogram but managed to pack in 33 complications, both familiar and esoteric. At the time, it was the most complicated watch in the world, and it made a clear statement that reports of the death of the traditional Swiss watch industry had, perhaps, been slightly exaggerated. 

Patek Philippe’s Caliber 89 is an incredible pocket watch that weighed in at more than a kilogram but managed to pack in 33 complications, both familiar and esoteric Photo: ANTIQUORUM
The most complicated Patek Philippe ever, the Calibre 89 pocket watch measures 88.2mm in diameter, weights around 2.4 lbs, and features 33 complications Photo: Antiquorum

Over The Top

All of the technical and design innovation outlined above is well and good, but ask your average watch fan to imagine the archetypal 80s watch, and nine out of 10 times, you'll get a watch made by one of two brands, and of two metals. Rolex, Cartier, and two-tone. These could well be the defining features of 80s watches for the masses. Of course, two-tone existed well before the 1980s, but the emergence of a 'new money' class and yuppie culture meant that the case combination made a potent statement about social hierarchy and aspiration all at once. 

Photo: George Cramer
Photo: George Cramer

Two-tone was less taxing on the wallet, while offering a substantial amount of flash — but not so much that it would earn the ire of your boss. Or course, watch brands catered to this new wave of aspirational earners, and few did it as successfully as Cartier. The Must de Cartier, proved to be a quartz-powered entry point into luxury, capitalized on this cultural shift that continued to be popular throughout the 80s, while the Santos de Cartier, first released in 1978, boasted a bold bi-metal design, an integrated bracelet and an appeal that was pure Wall Street. This design was further refined into the sleeker and squarer Santos Galbée in 1987, but the attitude was unchanged. 

Cartier's Santos de Cartier watch campaign in 2018 was fronted by Jake Gyllenhaal Photo: Matthew Brookes/ ©Cartier
Cartier's Santos de Cartier watch campaign in 2018 was fronted by Jake Gyllenhaal Photo: Matthew Brookes/ ©Cartier

The history books have written the 1980s as a dark decade for watchmaking, a dire era characterized by what was lost. A more nuanced and accurate view is to look instead at what was gained. The adversity of the Quartz Crisis fueled necessity-driven innovation at an incredible pace, and laid the groundwork for the modern era of the mechanical watch. 

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