Swiss Watch Industry Meets the Space Age

"...Mass production of fine watches is possible only through careful testing of every single piece that goes into their manufacture. It is demanding work. Some of the parts -- minutely fine screws -- are so tiny that to the naked eye they resemble mere specks of dust. it takes about 50,000 of them to fill a thimble.

Although Switzerland produces annually almost 45,000,000 timepieces, there is no low-quality 'mass production' in Swiss watchmaking. Every single timepiece is the individual proof of Swiss skill..."

Advertising brochure: "The Swiss Watch Pavilion, 1964/1965 New York World's Fair"

As the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair drew to a close, the Space Age was about to dawn on the Swiss watchmaking industry. Among the items buried in the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the New York Fair on October 16, 1965 was a new type of watch developed by Bulova, an American watchmaker. The name of this new watch was the "Accutron" and it was regulated by a tiny tuning fork.

Accutron advertisement

An Accutron Advertisement

The Accutron appeared on the market in late 1960 and was marketed at the Fair with advertisements appearing in the Official Guide. It was quite popular until its technology was replaced by breakthroughs in quartz technology in 1969. The Japanese watchmaker Seiko was quick to market these new quartz watches with resounding success.

"...In the wake of the quartz boom, the mechanical watch was soon decried as old hat and disappeared from almost every brand's range. The advent of microelectronics rendered the traditional craft of watchmaking obsolete and at the same time made production much more efficient.

The result was that 60,000 watchmakers lost their jobs during the almost decade-long quartz crisis. And along with them, the special machines they used and many already finished mechanical watch components were discarded. A fatal mistake, as would become apparent after the quartz euphoria had subsided.

Expert watchmakers in retail shops were suddenly degraded to the roll of battery changers . And when quartz watches from the Far East became even cheaper than the batteries need to run them, the whole industry had reached rock bottom."

"AS TIME GOES BY..." Swissair Gazette Magazine, in-flight magazine of Swissair, March 2000

The turnaround for the Swiss watchmaking industry came in 1983 with the introduction of the "Swatch" -- the inexpensive plastic watch which made the analog display with hands popular with consumers again. In 1986, the Swiss prominently featured this industry life saver on their pavilion at Vancouver's Expo86.

Expo86 postcard featuring SWATCH

Swiss Pavilion at Expo86, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, 1986

What an interesting paradox -- the Space Age versus Old World Craftsmanship. It took the Swiss watchmaking industry fifteen years (and its near demise) to prove that Space Age technology isn't necessarily superior to innovation, quality and craftsmanship!