The Seventies - A Decade of Significance
One must not underestimate the importance of the 1970's on horology.
Being born in the Swinging Sixties, one of the first watches I wore proudly at boarding school in England was a Light Emitting Diode (LED) watch. These LED watches first started appearing in the early Seventies, and soon some major houses like Omega, JLC and Girard Perregaux had jumped on the bandwagon and released their versions.
The first electronic "solid state" watches, so called as they had no moving parts, were developed by electronics and computing companies like Electro-Data and HP, and the very first, instigated by the Hamilton Watch Company and developed by Electro-Data, was launched in 1972 as the Pulsar LED P1.
LED watches were short lived and very soon replaced by the more energy efficient Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD), and by the end of the decade, LED watches had all but vanished from retail outlets.
Because LED watches consumed so much power, they were typically "time on demand", meaning that the user would effectively need to push a button on the side of the case in order to tell the time, which would after a few seconds turn itself back "off", or sleep mode as we now call it. Although impractical, for me at least, there was a certain charm about this time on demand concept, and although i jumped on the LCD bandwagon and ditched my LED, I never felt the same connection with the LCD displays.
In the last few years, we are seeing quite a revival of interest in the LED watches of the Seventies, partly due to nostalgia, partly due to the funky space age designs, and partly because they are of historical significance to the world of timekeeping, albeit for a short period. There is no need to go into detail as to the challenges to the mechanical watch making industries that were brought on by the Quartz revolution, but these were trying times for watchmakers on both sides of the pond. In many ways, the Americans were more pro-active than their European counterparts in embracing the new technologies with companies like Texas Instruments, HP and Electro-Data mass developing modules for watches like the Pulsar LED P1. Many Swiss firms hesitated as to what direction to take, and as a result, the Swiss watch industry suffered. By the end of the 70's, the future was uncertain and the watch bearing public were being inundated by a flood of cheap accurate electronic watches from Hong Kong and Japan.
This whole state of affairs did however lead to innovation as some Swiss houses rose to the challenge, jumping onto the bandwagon almost for fear of their future.
But as I delve further into this fascinating era in watchmaking history, a number of watches stand out as historically significant non-mechanicals, each embracing differing technologies.
The Derby Swissonic Digital Jumphour.
Introduced in 1974 by Derby SA, a subsidiary of ESA, and marketed in France under Jaz, the Derby Swissonic married mechanics with electric power through a 1.5V cell driving a column wheel movement (ESA 9176). The power generated by the cell was run through an electromagnetic coil which in turn rotated the magnetic balance wheel and this power was somehow transferred to the gears that rotated cylindrical drums that made up the hour and minute hand. The jumping hours and minutes were achieved through the inventive use of tiny springs that were prone to malfunction. The futuristic design perhaps drew inspiration from the Patek Philippe "Cobra" prototype watch from 1958.
The Girard Perragaux Casquette.
After two years of internal development, Girard Perregaux launched their own version, the Casquette watch, in 1976. GP went all out to develop the best LED watch on the market. Rather than outsourcing the modules like other houses did, GP had their own electronic department complete all the R&D and manufacturing, and also went the extra mile using pre-aged quartz crystals to ensure accuracy and durability.
Girard Perregaux produced three versions of the Casquette, in Macrolon, Stainless steel, and 18k gold filled, for a total of just over 8000 pieces before being discontinued in 1978. I was fortunate enough to come across an extremely rare "New Old Stock" version of the 18k gold filled version. Only 2,200 pieces were produced and these were definitely considered luxury watches in the Seventies, commanding a hefty SFr 775. price tag. Although "solid state" digital watches should be extremely durable in theory given that there are no moving parts (aside from the oscillating quartz), not many working examples have survived since many were stored with the battery still inside, and as you know, even small batteries have a tendency to leak after a prolonged time. So it was hard for me to resist when I found a New Old Stock (NOS) version with box and papers, and in working order !
The Bulova Accutron Spaceview.
First launched at the end of 1960, the Accutron is considered by many as the first electronic wristwatch. As some of you know, it utilizes a 360 hertz tuning fork in between two electromagnetic coils, an invention by Basel born Max Hetzel who joined Bulova in 1948. In the early Seventies, in order to increase sales, Bulova developed a display model for salesmen to demonstrate the unique tuning fork technology. In a fortunate turn of events, customers started asking if the display models were available for sale. Demand was so high for this novel type of watch with visible innards through the dial that Bulova started to produce the newly named "Spaceview" on massive scale. By the time they ceased production in 1977, over 4 million humming tuning fork Accutrons had hit the market.
There is a 4th watch that I also consider as historically significant in terms of non-traditional non-mechanical watches, and that is the Amida Digitrend Prism Jump Hour, the inspiration for the MB&F HM5. Unfortunately for now, the Amida eludes me so I will leave this one out until I find a nice working specimen.
The ultra exclusive and thoroughly modern Horological Machine No.5 from Independent watchmaker MB&F drew inspiration from the Derby Swissonic and Amida Digitrend.
I am sure there are other significant watches from the Seventies that I have yet to discover.
But I think that there is one thing we all can agree on. It was an important decade in terms of visionary design and technological innovation, only to be follow by a rather dull Eighties and a return to some stale designed mechanicals.
There is no debating the historical significance not only of the space age designs of 1970 digitals, but of different technologies that bridged the gap between the death and rebirth of the Swiss watch industry.
Dean Owen is the Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment
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