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Quartz crisis – Wikipedia

The quartz crisis (also known as the quartz revolution) is a term used in the watchmaking industry, referring to the economic upheavals caused by the advent of quartz watches in the 1970s and early 1980s, which largely replaced mechanical watches around the world. It caused a significant decline of the Swiss watchmaking industry, which chose to remain focused on traditional mechanical watches, while the majority of the world’s watch production shifted to Asian companies such as Seiko, Citizen and Casio in Japan that embraced the new electronic technology.

The crisis started with the Astron, which was the world’s first quartz watch introduced by Seiko in December 1969. The key technological advances include replacing mechanical movement with quartz movement as well as replacing analog displays with digital displays such as LED display and liquid-crystal display (LCD). In general, quartz timepieces are much more accurate than mechanical timepieces, in addition to having a much lower sale price.

During World War II, Swiss neutrality permitted the watch industry to continue making consumer time-keeping apparatus, while the major nations of the world shifted timing apparatus production to timing devices for military ordnance. As a result, the Swiss watch industry enjoyed an effective monopoly. The industry prospered in the absence of any real competition. Thus, prior to the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry had 50% of the world watch market.

Despite these dramatic advancements, the Swiss hesitated in embracing quartz watches. At the time, Swiss mechanical watches dominated world markets. In addition, excellence in watchmaking was a large component of Swiss national identity. From their position of market strength, and with a national watch industry organized broadly and deeply to foster mechanical watches, many in Switzerland thought that moving into electronic watches was unnecessary. Others outside of Switzerland, however, saw the advantage and further developed the technology. By 1978, quartz watches overtook mechanical watches in popularity, plunging the Swiss watch industry into crisis while at the same time strengthening both the Japanese and American watch industries. This period of time was marked by a lack of innovation in Switzerland at the same time that the watch-making industries of other nations were taking full advantage of emerging technologies, specifically quartz watch technology, hence the term “quartz crisis”.

As a result of the economic turmoil that ensued, many once-profitable and famous Swiss watch houses became insolvent or disappeared. This period of time completely upset the Swiss watch industry both economically and psychologically. During the 1970s and early 1980s, technological upheavals, i.e. the appearance of the quartz technology, and an otherwise difficult economic situation resulted in a reduction in the size of the Swiss watch industry. Between 1970 and 1983, the number of Swiss watchmakers dropped from 1,600 to 600. Between 1970 and 1988, Swiss watch employment fell from 90,000 to 28,000.