Even if the decline in sales of Swiss watches during the early 1970s is usually attributed to the mass produced quartz driven watches from Japan, peaking in the so called ‘quartz – crisis’ of 1979, it was actually mostly due to the consequences of the oil crisis in 1973, the devaluation of the Swiss Franc in 1974 and the uprising of non – Swiss, affordable, mechanical watches. Nevertheless, the fast development of electric watches in the USA and other parts of Europe during the early 1960s, threatened the dominant position of the Swiss watch industry and asked for a quick and efficient response.
The history of early Swiss electric and quartz watch development, although an exceptionally interesting subject, is loaded with contradictions and secrecy. The available information concerning the development of Swiss electric and quartz movements and specifically of the quartz driven Beta 21 movement is difficult to verify. Sometimes even the people working on the development of latter revolutionary movement contradict themselves. The limited flow of information, especially towards the shareholders of the ‘Centre Electronique Horloger’ (CEH) (5,6) was regarded as essential to prevent industrial espionage and fatal technological leaks, which could have compromised the efforts of the Swiss watch industry to gain terrain in the race for the development of all Swiss quartz wristwatch (5).
This complex situation might also have contributed to some discrepancies in historical facts reported by high ranking engineers working on the projects such as Armin Frei and Rolf Lochinger on one side and Max Forrer, Henri Oguey and Eric Vittoz defending a different version of the story.
Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH), Neuchâtel
The foundation of the ‘Centre Electronique Horloger’ (CEH) the 30.01.1962 was a consequence of the growing threat due to the appearance of electro – mechanical wristwatches in the late 1950s which were powered by small batteries rather than the usual mainsprings. Such watches had been announced by LIP (France) in collaboration with Elgin (USA), but also by Hamilton (USA) and Ebauches SA (Switzerland). The introduction of Max Hetzel’s ‘Accutron‘, the famous tuning fork watch in 1960, accelerated this process remarkably. Hetzel was a Swiss engineer, who started his investigations with Bulova in Bienne, Switzerland, and was later transferred to the U.S. to direct the production of the ‘Accutron‘ watch (1, 12).
The fear to lose leading positions on the international market assembled a big group of Swiss watch -and parts makers under the leadership of ESA (Ebauches SA) and the FH (Federation Horlogère) to join in a common stock company called CEH. The goal set up by the Swiss watch industry was to develop electric wristwatches with at least one advantage compared to existing products (e.g. ‘Accutron‘). A fairly modest goal indeed, reflecting business and legal aspects predominantly. To be clear: the goal was to develop an electric watch in strict compliance with the directives of the governing board (Fritz Hummler, president) and the Swiss watch industry, not to engage in new principles such as quartz (1).
Since the very beginning Roger Wellinger, the director of CEH, recognised the importance of an own semiconductor laboratory. That was the only way to become independent from foreign suppliers and at the same time allowed to investigate into dedicated research (1).
1962 – 1965: Alpha, Beta and Swissonic
The first three years were spent recruiting Swiss engineers to work on the development of an electric alternative to the ‘Accutron‘ system. By the end of 1963, 12 people worked at the CEH, by 1965 already 24 and later in 1970 the employee count grew to 100 (12).
The strategy and plan in the field of electric wristwatches until 1965 concentrated on three topics (1):
1. the Alpha project (led by Heinz Waldburger), a wristwatch incorporating a figure 8-shaped metallic tuning fork resonator with reduced gravitational disturbances, otherwise similar to the ‘Accutron‘, but with the advantage to avoid position errors.
2. the Beta project (led by Max Forrer) incorporating a metallic tuning fork like the ‘Accutron‘, but newly with a small chain of frequency dividers to drive a separate vibrating motor.
3. The Swissonic project (led by Max Hetzel) where the newly recruited Max Hetzel (starting 1963) would try to circumvent his own patent for the ‘Accutron‘ system and produce a better and all Swiss tuning fork caliber.
The ‘early’ Beta project
As explained above, this ‘early’ Beta project was concentrating on the use of a tuning fork regulator and the development of an electronic dividing chain to drive a vibrating motor. Unfortunately this initial Beta project was not advancing as expected, only producing negative results for several years. No working prototype is recorded from this research, despite the advances of the ‘integrated circuits lab’ in the development of the dividing chain and the progress of Henry Oguey in developing the vibrating motor (1).
This ‘early’ Beta project at that time was the only one incorporating two electromechanical transducers, the second transducer being an electromagnetic or a piezoelectric vibrating motor (1). Both, the research on the dividing chain and the vibrating motor will be kept for later developments involving a quartz regulator.
1965: A New Strategy – The CEH goes Quartz
Based on previous experience with quartz, and repeated negative results while working on the ‘early’ Beta project, Dr. Armin Frei proposed to use a single crystal quartz oscillator at acoustic frequency in the range of 10 kHz, miniaturise it by orders of magnitude down to dimensions required for wristwatches. The requirement of size and power consumption was here predominant. Rolf Lochinger proposed to investigate into integrated electronic circuits suited to master increased divisional ratios. The new ‘quartz’ project was risky and definitely not to the minds of the cautious department head still sticking to the directives of the Swiss watch industry, not to engage in new principles such as quartz, but would certainly have great impact on the watch industry if successful. Frei and Lochinger started their initiative immediately and agreed mutually to investigate into this new project (1).
In November 1965, Roger Wellinger, director of CEH and responsible for the yearly strategy and plan, declared the “Montre-bracelet à quartz” to become the primary strategic goal for the year 1966. This was a direct consequence of Armin Frei having designed, built and operated successfully a miniaturised quartz oscillator prototype showing feasibility of a quartz wristwatch in the 10 kHz range in the fourth quarter of 1965 (1). The other consequence was, that the inconclusive ‘early’ Beta project trying to optimise the ‘Accutron‘ system by adding an electromechanical -or piezoelectric motor was abandoned and replaced by a ‘new’ Beta project, where a quartz oscillator system would be researched (1).
1966: The ‘new’ Beta project
By the first quarter of 1966, Frei disposed already of a miniaturised quartz oscillator prototype with an 8192 Hz quartz resonator (see picture above), a novel fully integrated driver circuit running at less than four microamps current consumption (black epoxy covered IC with red dot) and a frequency adjustment set-up (upper black epoxy covered IC without a dot), all these components survived until and including the industrial phase with minor improvements only (1). The ‘new’ Beta project would advance fast and after few intermediary experimental prototypes the project would be split into two separate entities in November 1966: Beta 1 and Beta 2 (1).
Beta 1: The First Quartz Wristwatch
The ‘new’ Beta project analysing the feasibility of a quartz wrist watch produced working prototypes, but especially the frequency division circuitry showed unsatisfactory performance concerning the energy consumption. To circumvent the problem of battery life, the Beta project was split into two sub-projects in November 1966: Beta 1 and the alternative Beta 2 project. The very first working wrist watch sized quartz system was driven by Beta 1. The first unit of a series of five was assembled and tested at the CEH in July 1967 by Jean Hermann and François Niklès. Since Seiko does not communicate any details about their first quartz wristwatch, one can firmly conclude that Beta 1 driven piece was the world’s first quartz wristwatch. The new movement was packed into a standard square case (right picture), this was necessary because the quartz movement plate itself was rectangular with a length of 27 mm (1).
Beta 1 was equipped with a stepping motor activating the second hand step by step. The alternative and later model Beta 2 was equipped with the same quartz oscillator like Beta 1, but the second hand was actuated by a 256 Hz vibrating motor and a ratchet wheel with a smooth and continuous movement of the second hand (1).
As mentioned above, prior to November 1966, the office of the governing assembly at CEH had little sympathy for the new direction concerning the Beta quartz wristwatch research. They were hoping for an electronic watch, exhibiting at least one advantage compared with existing electronic watches and here was a watch with a battery lifetime of about 4 months! One representative of the office made it a must: ‘Battery lifetime had to be equal or longer than one year’ (1).
An alternative project, called Beta 2, was proposed and initiated in November 1966 by Max Forrer and Henri Oguey. Beta 2 was using the same oscillator like Beta 1, but had only 5 flip-flops instead of 13 as in Beta 1. With five stages, a frequency of 256 Hz was reached, just right to drive one of Henri Oguey’s vibrating motors. Battery lifetime was above one year. The first Beta 2 caliber was assembled in August 1967, one month later than Beta 1 (1).
1967: Trials at the Neuchâtel Observatory
All along the last months of 1967, most of the 20 hand made Beta 1 prototypes (numbered CEH-1xx, why these have been renumbered CEH-1xx0 on paper during the observatory competition is unknown) and Beta 2 prototypes (numbered CEH-2xx) were brought to the Neuchâtel Observatory by Jean Hermann for precision testing (1).
During this period also 4 pieces from Seiko (numbered W-0xx) entered the competition. The remaining CEH prototypes did not make the top 15 at the competition or did not enter the competition (5). Also absent was a fifth movement from Seiko, which unfortunately didn’t survive shipping from Japan (7).
The results can be seen below: The first 10 places and place 12 were taken by the CEH prototypes. The different classification was due to variation of temperature compensation and regulation and not due to construction variability (1).
Beta 21 , The Industrial Version
After the celebration of the outstanding results reached with Beta 1 and Beta 2 following the observatory tests in 1967, finally published the 15.02.1968, investigations on how to establish a technology transfer from the prototypes towards an industrial product started immediately. First, it was decided to favour Beta 2, not Beta 1. This decision was commented by Henri Oguey and Henri Schneider simply by (1):
“Au vu de l’expérience aquise sur les prototypes, seul le système Bêta 2 entre en ligne de compte pour assurer une durée de vie de la pile supérieure à un an.”
(In view of the experience acquired with the prototypes, only the Beta 2 system can be considered to ensure a battery life of more than one year).
The future industrial caliber was named Beta 21, actually Beta 2.1 (two point one) as it represented the first derivate of Beta 2 (5). CEH engineers completely redesigned the Beta 2 movement to create the production model. A calendar complication was judged important for a ‘luxury quartz watch’ by some members of CEH, so it was added, together with an instant date change and quick-set by pressing and rotating the crown. The driver and divider were combined on a single integrated circuit with 110 electronic components in all. Although primitive by today’s standards, it was a feat of manual layout and resulted in a a chip just 2 mm on a side (6). The movement consisted further of the 8192 Hz oscillator, a five stage binary divider chain and the vibrating motor at 256 Hz (1).
‘Communauté d’intérêt Beta’ ; Community of Interest in Beta
The CEH was a research facility and not a production firm, moreover a not negligible part of the shareholders of CEH were organisatory groups or suppliers and not manufacturers of complete movements or watches and were mostly interested in the further advancement of scientific research and not in an imminent industrialisation. Hence, the step towards industrial production of Beta 21 would be realised by a core group within CEH named the ‘Community of interest in Beta’. The frame for this core group was already shaped during a meeting the 03.04.1968. The minutes of the meeting being known as the ‘Mottu report’, which shows the main goals of the future community (8):
- Industrial core facility would be Omega
- The establishment of a road map for industrial production of Beta 21
- Shared responsibilities between CEH and the future ‘Community of interest in Beta’
- CEH will build few prototypes followed by a ‘zero’-series of 6000 pieces made within the ‘Community of interest in Beta’
The official creation of the ‘Community of interest in Beta’ dates from the 22.05.1969, but the actual work started earlier, in order to ensure timely production. 20 of the original 32 members of CEH would be part of this community (8):
- 2 organisatory organs: FH (Federation Horlogère), ESA (Ebauches SA)
- 3 suppliers: FAR (Fabriques d’assortiments réunies), FBR (Fabriques de balanciers réunies), FSR (Fabriques de spirales réunies)
- 15 manufacturers: Bulova, Crédos SA, Complications SA (Piaget), CHP (Communauté d’Horlogerie de Precision), Elgin SA, Enicar SA, IWC, Le Coultre et Cie., Longines SA, Manufacture de montres Rolex (Bienne), Montres Rolex SA (Geneva), Omega, Patek Philippe, Rado, Zenith SA
The 20 members would be organised as follows (8):
- Manufacturer group with representatives of CEH and the community : CEH, Longines, Omega, ESA
- Technical commission with representatives of CEH and the community: CEH, Longines, Le Coultre, Omega, ESA, Bulova; coordination of the industrial production of Beta 21 would include three phases:
- supervision of caliber planning and construction at CEH (ends November 1968)
- manufacture of 10 prototypes at CEH (first prototype presented 25.07.1969)
- Support to produce an industrial ‘zero’-series of 6000 pieces
The manufacturer group as well as the technical commission supervised two sub-groups (8):
- Sub-group; component manufacture:
- ESA: raw movement plates, wheel work, calendar
- Oscilloquartz (part of ESA): quartz manufacture and quartz casing
- Omega: vibrating motor
- CEH: electronic module, integrated circuit, trimmer
- Sub-group; assembly facilities for the ‘zero’-series:
- ESA (Bienne)
- Omega (Bienne)
- Common assembly facility (Yverdon) by the ‘Group of Four’ (Rolex, Le Coultre, Longines, Patek Philippe)
The first 10 CEH – Prototypes
During Summer 1969 the first hand made prototypes of the Beta 21 caliber were produced at the CEH. These prototypes would be cased into nickel plated brass cases, which would feature an acrylic back. Some of these 10 prototypes would have the calendar mechanism mounted and others would not. These Beta 21 prototypes would reveal problems not anticipated by the earlier prototypes Beta 1 and Beta 2, such as the sensitivity of the quartz to acceleration and blows. Following newly introduced dynamic tests at CEH and at the observatory in Neuchâtel (in parallel testing their new devices for a potential ‘new chronometer competition’) the suspension of the quartz inside its case was optimised to better withstand blows, while the watch is being worn at the wrist. After the reliability and precision testing at the observatory in Neuchâtel (the chronometer competition was halted for wrist watches) these watches would remain with the engineers and be worn as to test their function whilst on the wrist, among other things testing the stability of the rectifications of the quartz suspension (5).
Beta 21 was supposed to be launched in late 1969, but severe production problems, especially concerning the troubleshooting, the manufacture and casing of the quartz and related components, had delayed manufacture of the prototypes by 3 months (8).
Production of the Zero – Series
Finally the timeline for the production of the 6000 pieces belonging to the ‘zero’-series was as follows (8):
- by 10.04.1970: 160 pieces
- by 31.12.1970: 296 pieces
- by 09.06.1971: 1558 pieces
- by 31.12.1971: 3200 pieces
- by 31.06.1972: 5980 pieces total
- 20 pieces would be lost due to destruction tests
The distribution of the 5980 Beta 21 calibers was done in proportion of contribution to the manufacture and distributed within the sub-groups ‘assembly for the ‘zero’-series’ (8):
- ‘Group of Four’; produced 1580 pieces, distributed to:
- Longines: 200; Rolex: 320; Patek Philippe: 640; Le Coultre: 130; Zenith: 250; FH: 30; CEH: 10
- Omega; produced 2487 pieces, distributed to:
- Omega: 1850; IWC: 587; FAR: 30; FBR: 5; FSR: 5; CEH: 10
- ESA; produced 1913 pieces, distributed to:
- Ebauches SA: 210; Complication SA: 370; CHP: 320; Elgin: 103; Enicar: 100; Crédos: 100; Rado: 200; Bulova: 500; CEH: 10
Presentation of Beta 21 at the Basle Fair 1970
The presentation of the watches driven by Beta 21 could be held as planned at the Basle fair the 10.04.1970, but only 160 of the planned 200 watches could be shown. The Basel Fair opened with some, but not all, CEH manufacturers showing watches driven by the Beta 21 movement (2):
Bulova ‘Accuquartz’, Enicar ‘Quartz-O-D’, IWC ‘International’, Longines ‘Quartz-Chron’, Patek Philippe ‘Cercle d’Or’, Piaget ‘Ref.: 14101’, Rado ‘Quartz 8192’, Rolex ‘Ref.: 5100, Texano‘ and Omega ‘Electroquartz’
Not all members who bought a share of the 5980 Beta 21 movements would use all movements of their share, the reason being, that some companies, such as Longines, were secretly working on their own quartz movements (Longines ‘Ultra-Quartz‘) and the evolution of quartz movements in general was advancing fast. By mid 1972, when the production of the ‘zero – series’ Beta 21 movements was terminated, other smaller and better performing quartz movements were available. So some companies turned away from Beta 21 to concentrate on more modern versions. Others, such as Omega, who had invested more into the development and production of Beta 21, would buy Beta 21 movements of other companies to increase their watch production. Following latter thought it becomes clear, that the numbers for the distributed Beta 21 movements mentioned above, do not correspond exactly to the numbers of watches built and sold by the respective companies. All Beta 21 of the ‘zero’-series for all members of CEH were numbered 0000xxxx, starting with 00001001, with some companies replacing the zero-series numbering or adding their own numbering on the movement’s ‘id – plate’ or on the case (5).
Because it was a large movement and 6.2 mm thick, the initial watches driven by the Beta 21 movement were quite unusual in design. Most featured thick rectangular cases, with quite a few being angled so the dial faced the wearer. Thanks to the rectangular shape of the movement, it was difficult to package a Beta 21 movement in a round case. IWC’s round Basel Fair design would be dropped in favour of a rectangular (‘International‘) or hexagonal (‘Da Vinci‘) case soon after. Patek Philippe’s model featured a unique case with a TV screen shaped dial, while the Rolex ‘Ref.: 5100, Texano‘ had a more traditional look apart from the lugs (2).
Beta 21 turned out to be a commercial flop. All units from the ‘zero – series’ were sold, then step by step the line with the vibrating motor was discontinued. To solve an intermediate power problem (autonomy) by pushing the vibrating motor version Beta 2 turned out to be a severe strategic error with a number of consequences. Indeed, the power problem of Beta 1 was not a systems problem but a semiconductor problem. Using Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductors (CMOS) circuit technology instead of BIPolars (BIP) would have saved exceeding amounts of energy by orders of magnitude. CMOS was invented in 1963 and was applied later on throughout the watch industry. The CEH started early on MOS, however produced stable CMOS with silicon gate technology at a voltage level of 1.35 V only after 1972. Instead of pushing research after the splendid success at the observatory, CEH engaged excessively in technology transfer and manufacturing, losing lead time and research competence. – Not enough of all that, with their Astron 35SC the Japanese Seiko proved feasibility of an industrial watch with a stepping motor and battery lifetime of over one year (1).
Beta 21 Aftermath
So in all, almost 6,000 Beta 21 movements were produced through 1972. Later the design was modified with a thinner battery and revised trimmers and quartz modules, otherwise externally resembling Beta 21. As many as 16000 examples of the 2nd – generation version were produced (8). This movement is often called ‘Beta 22’ and Omega handled the construction of these later movements, branding them cal.: 1301 and 1302 (with no seconds or date (10)), (2), as opposed to the Beta 21 movement, which was branded cal.: 1300 by Omega. More advanced service modules were developed by ESA /ETA through the early 1980ies (11).
The Beta 21 design was showing its age. Most companies had settled on a dead beat stepper motor design, as pioneered by the Beta 1 and Seiko Astron and famously adopted by Girard-Perregaux with their 32 KHz Cal. GP350. Girard-Perregaux and Seiko also lead the way in leveraging American semiconductor expertise, partnering with Motorola and Intersil, respectively, for advanced integrated circuits. This dramatically reduced power consumption and allowed the use of faster oscillating crystals. Where the Beta 21 operated at 8192 Hz, most quartz watches since the mid-1970s have used a crystal vibrating at 32 KHz (2).
Beta 3 and Beta 4
The CEH did in fact develop ‘Beta 3’ and ‘Beta 4’ movements in later years. Beta 3, who’s first prototype was already built by December 1970 (8), was the first version to use a CMOS integrated circuit. This reduced power consumption of the frequency dividers by a factor of 20, opening the door to a higher-frequency crystal. Beta 3 also eliminated the quartz oscillator trimmer, simply ‘throwing away’ pulses instead. This required on-board memory to tune it to the crystal, which was accomplished at first with a number of small switches. Although an important development, Beta 3 was not directly put into production (2).
Beta 4, who’s first prototype was presented in November 1972 (8), was a major advancement, using a 532 KHz quartz resonator and more-advanced digital tuning system based on the Beta 3. Put into production by Piaget (Complication SA) in their cal.: 7P (1976) and cal.: 8P (1981) (10), it used volatile RAM to store the tuning information. This was adjusted using a special external timing station, which sent digital pulses to the RAM using magnetic coupling, similar to how Qi wireless charging works today (2).
- Quartzwristwatch, Courtesy of Dr. Armin H. Frei Heritage Estate
- Grail Watch
- Watch Wiki
- Personal communication with former engineers at CEH, working on the development of the Beta 1, Beta 2 and Beta 21 prototypes, as well as Beta 21 industrial production
- Forrer M., LeCoultre R., Beyner A., Oguey H.; L’aventure de la montre à quartz, Centredoc, 2002
- Observatoire Cantonal de Neuchâtel, Rapport annuel du Directeur sur l’exercice, 1967
- Trueb L. F., Ramm G., Wenzig P.; Die Elektrifizierung der Armbanduhr; Ebner Verlag, 2011
- Piguet Ch.; Integrated Circuit Design Power and Timing Modeling, Optimization and Simulation 12th International Workshop, PATMOS 2002 Seville, Spain, September 11-13, 2002, B. Hochet, A. J. Acosta, M. J. Bellido (Eds.), Springer