Swiss Quartz Evolution

Even if this site is dedicated to prototypes built by the prototype department of Omega, comprising also the period of the so called ‘quartz crisis’, Omega was not the only Swiss watch manufacturer pioneering in the development of an all Swiss electronic watch.

Moreover, to understand the context of Omega’s developments from the 1960s to the 1980s it appears necessary to dive into the generic development of electric and later electronic Swiss watches.

Despite entering the race for developing electronic watches as one of the earliest of all Swiss watch firms, by initiating a collaboration with the Battelle institute in Geneva starting already from 1956, Omega later not only competed with other Swiss manufacturers, but ultimately also participated in a joint effort to develop an all Swiss electronic watch for saving the Swiss leadership on the international watch market (2).

The Spark

Electric timekeeping was not new, the first record of an electric clock dating from 1840. The main challenge for the watch manufacturers during the mid 20th century, was to find ways to miniaturise the electric movements to be able to be worn as wristwatches (2). One exception was the development of the electro – magnetic, tuning – fork system, patented in 1953 and which was an original invention by the Swiss engineer Max Hetzel working for the Swiss / American ‘Bulova’ company. The existence of a ‘tuning fork’ clock made by the Breguet family during the 1850ies was not known to Hetzel at that time.

After the publication of Max Hetzel’s invention, the efforts of competing watch engineers would mainly focus on avoiding any conflict with ‘Bulovas’ electro – magnetic, tuning – fork patent of 1953 and the (further) development and miniaturisation of the two existing battery driven systems:

Electro – mechanical system: balance wheel oscillator

Tuning fork driven system: tuning fork oscillator

The concepts of miniaturisation of the electro – mechanical system got away with a head start, as compared to the tuning fork system and the later tackled quartz system. But apart of miniaturisation, latter system faced another problem, which would become most important upon industrialisation: battery life.

The initial spark leading to the worldwide ignition towards the speedy development of electric wristwatches was thus the patent for the aforementioned, electro – magnetic ‘Accutron‘ tuning – fork movement but also the announcement of the wearable, electro – mechanical cal.: R27 by the French company ‘LIP’ in Besançon (in cooperation with Elgin, USA) already in 1952 (2,9).

Apart of visionary companies such as Ebauches SA, Longines and Omega, most traditional Swiss watch firms did not believe in the futuristic vision of battery alimented watches, and thought of them as temporary, exotic byproducts of the beginning space-age era. This misinterpretation by a big part of the Swiss watch industry cost the Swiss precious time in developing their own electronic watches. Finally, afraid to loose their pol position on the international watch market, the Swiss were forced to collaborate and enter the frenzy of developing electric and later electronic watches (2).

Despite the Swiss watch manufacturers having access to extremely well trained engineers, none of the watch manufacturers had in-house experts in microelectronics. Consequently Omega and later also Longines turned to external expertise and collaborations in the matter (2).

The first Swiss Electric Movement

Ebauches SA advertisement from 1961 with the timeline of development of their first electric wrist watch movement. Picture credit (22).

Ebauches SA (ESA) had entrusted a team of its best engineers, led by André Beyner and René Besson, with the task of creating an electric movement, the research then being triggered by the announcement of the LIP / Elgin movements in 1952. The work on the electric watch started immediately in 1952. First working ESA prototypes being available for testing already from 1953, after years of development, in 1960 the ESA L4750 calibre was born which, in its final version, was presented to Swiss watch industry customers in April of the same year and produced from the end of 1960, to be exhibited at the Basel Fair in April 1961 (at the same time as the official launch of the ‘Accutron’ watch). Most of its components came from ‘Landeron’ – the historic raw chronograph movement factory, which had become a branch of ESA, hence the extended name of the calibre: L(anderon) 4750 (7,9).

Cal.: L4750 was soon slightly updated with a balance brake activated by pulling the crown, to allow for hacking the seconds, giving rise to cal.: L4751, which was only produced for about 6 months (2). Hence, the production of cal.: L4750 and its evolution cal.: L4751 was relatively short: they were discontinued when, still in 1961, the thinner and cheaper ‘LIP’ cal.: 148 came into production (7,9).

1960 / 61 – Ebauches SA cal.: L4750 (the addition of the balance-stop-lever (yellow) makes it cal.: L4751). Picture credit (7)

Motivated to circumvent the ‘Bulova’ patent for tuning – fork movements and now understanding how to miniaturise a battery driven circuit to produce balance wheel oscillations, some variations of such electro – mechanical movements were produced and marketed as the new revolutionary timekeeping. The developments were advancing at a very high pace and in parallel to the refinements of the electro – mechanical systems, also the miniaturisation of the even more revolutionary quartz driven system was tackled. Latter system would prove extremely versatile and prone to allow for further, more advanced ameliorations as to completely oust electro – mechanically driven and later also tuning – fork driven watches from the market (2).

The Side Path

The prerogative from the Swiss government in accordance with the main Swiss watch manufacturers during the 1950s and early 1960s, was not to engage in the research of ‘exotic’ watch systems, but to try to better existing developments. The Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchatel founded in 1962 did exactly that by initiating 3 tuning fork related projects. They even managed to recruit Max Hetzel in 1963. From the inventor of the ‘Accutron’ movement they expected the circumvention of ‘his own’ Bulova-patent and the development of an all Swiss tuning fork system. The task succeeded in building the very short lived ‘Swissonic’ movement, which was rendered obsolete by the surfacing of ESA’s ‘MOSABA’ tuning fork regulated movement (licensing the Bulova – system), which showed better performances during observatory chronometer competitions.

The Quartz Revolution

Quartz watches have also very early ancestors, the first attempts at building quartz clocks culminating in the construction of the ‘Crystal Clock’ in 1927. As for the electro – mechanical system, the main problem was to miniaturise the movements to wear them at the wrist. This tedious procedure will be paved with unexpected problems until the industrialisation of quartz wristwatches in 1969/70 (2).

One question remains: Why bother following this additional, alternative path, if the electro – mechanical and especially electro – magnetic movements were becoming more reliable and cheaper? The battery driven quartz timekeeping system has one big advantage compared to mechanical, electro – magnetic or electro – mechanical systems: A potentially by order of magnitudes higher frequency of oscillation (2).

Balance wheel: driven by a main spring (mechanical watch) or by a battery (electro – mechanical watch): oscillation: max. 10Hz

Tuning fork: electro – magnetic: oscillation: 720Hz

Quartz: oscillation: up to 4.2MHz

The motivation for developing quartz watches becomes clear when extrapolating that a higher oscillation frequency results in a more precise watch. The main criterium for buying a Swiss watch since the late 1800s was related to their reliability and superior precision. The notion of precision would remain the prevalent marketing tool for selling expensive Swiss watches until 1983.

Therefore, as soon as the step-wise miniaturisation allowed to build devices of appropriate size, these small experimental quartz clocks were entered to compete at observatory chronometer competitions, the ranking within these competitions being linearly correlated with prestige for the manufacturers and subsequent watch sale performance.

Among the first Swiss quartz devices small enough to enter the chronometer competition at the observatory in Neuchâtel in the category of electronic marine chronometers was the Longines (in collaboration with the B. Golay S.A. company in Lausanne) cal.: 800 clock, which managed to win in its category in 1965.

By 1966 Longines, again in collaboration with B. Golay S.A., managed to develop a hybrid, transitional movement linking their experimental, electro – mechanical cal.: L400 (developed between 1961 and 1963 for observatory competitions) with a quartz resonator circuit developed by Golay’s engineer Jean – Claude Berney, the electronically controlled quartz oscillations replacing the oscillations of the original movements balance wheel. A pocket sized clock featuring this early quartz movement entered the category of electronic pocket chronometers and won in its category (n = 0.54, 0 being the virtually best possible value, suggesting absolute precision) in 1966.

At an overall size of 50mm x 50mm x 10mm the definitive miniaturisation of the quartz movement for fitting a wrist watch was within reach. This last goal would be achieved one year later at the CEH in Neuchâtel.

As discussed above, in 1966 Longines electronic pocket chronometer #11.882.946 won the observatory competition contest in its category, paving the way for the pulverisation of all previous precision records by the quartz driven, now wrist watch sized entries by the CEH in 1967. These prototypes would then go through a technology transfer and would be industrialised as Beta 21 in 1970 (see dedicated section).

Indeed, in parallel to the development of their own quartz movements, Longines was also shareholder of the newly founded CEH, which managed to develop the first quartz wrist watch in 1967. Latter collaborative participation and Longines secret, unilateral projects culminating in the development of the ‘Ultra – Quartz’ watch, would prove to be a problematic conflict of interest and would ultimately lead to the resignation of the technical director of Longines, Aurèle Maire from his duties in the board of CEH (6).

Avoiding large Scale Collaboration

While, after years of trying to ignore the advances in portable electronic timekeeping, many Swiss manufacturers merged their forces in developing a common quartz watch by adhering to the CEH, some manufacturers decided not to invest into a common project and to develop a quartz movement on their own (2,9).

One of these manufacturers was Girard Perregaux (GP) who recognised quite early that in order to keep up with national and international concurrence, they needed to invest in the development of a quartz watch, but would not mobilise the funds to join CEH (2,9).

Girard Perregaux cal.: 350

To the contrary of the CEH, GP did not have the ambition of developing an all Swiss movement. They wanted to speed up their development by sourcing the necessary hardware where available and build a modular calibre, which would be easy to service and easy to update with newly developed parts (2,9).

After hiring electronics expert Georges Vuffray in 1966, GP could present their first working wrist watch and table clock sized sized prototypes named ‘Elcron’ at the 1970 Basle watch fair, where also watches running with the Beta 21 movement from CEH members and prototypes of the Omega Constellation Megaquartz 2.4MHz were presented. The following development step from ‘Elcron I and II’ was cal.: 350 which was equipped with an integrated circuit sourced from Motorola (USA), a stepping (Laplace) motor developed in-house by Vuffray and calibre plates and wheel work made by Jaeger Le Coultre (2,9).

However, the most revolutionary steps from the ‘Elcron’ prototypes (using 16kHz quartz modules) to cal.: 350 was the introduction of a 32kHz quartz, which will become and remain the gold standard for quartz watches and the use of teflon bearings instead of rubies, which would not require lubrication. Because of the teflon bearings the caliber is marked for having ‘No Jewels’. This movement would soon go through several enhancements with the goal of making the calibre thinner and the battery last longer. These adaptations include smaller quartz elements, smaller stepping motor and batteries, more energy saving electronic modules and re-engineered calendar mechanism, giving subsequently birth to cal.: 351, 352, 353 and 354 (2,9).

The GP calibers of the 35x series would be mounted into watches made by GP (Ref.: 9444), Jaeger Le Coultre (Master Quartz), Favre-Leuba (Quartz Raider) and also licensed to other manufacturers (Breitling, Revue, Consul). As can be seen on the advertisements above, the designs of the watches were shared among the watch brands.

Girard Perregaux cal.: 700

In order to concurrence the later very successful ‘Royal Oak’ launched in 1972 by Audemars Piguet (featuring one of the thinnest automatic movements) and other watches with integrated or integrated-like bracelets, introducing the new style of ‘luxury sport watches’, GP had their cal.: 35x series modified the way to reach the limits of miniaturisation. By 1975 cal.: 700 was born, which will be chronometer certified (renamed cal.: 705) and which will be used among other models in their ‘Laureato’ line (2,9).


Until the mid 1970s the criteria for a qualitatively good Swiss watch would be limited to its precision, the observatory competitions and the subsequent marketing during the 1960s and 1970s having initiated the conditioning of the market looking for ever more precise watches, of course quartz driven versions. Consequently, for the Swiss, more precise quartz watches would get more expensive and thus the introduction of very precise Japanese quartz watches being sold 70% cheaper than Swiss quartz timepieces towards 1979 projected the Swiss watch industry into their most severe so called ‘quartz – crisis’ (17).

The quartz watch was one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century, and it quickly surpassed the mechanical watch in popularity. It was estimated that about 1.2 billion watch movements were manufactured in 2005, and about 99% were quartz controlled. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of quartz clocks and watches to time measurement and timekeeping. We rely on quartz time pieces to regulate our everyday lives. Even so, a few technologies require more accuracy than quartz clocks and watches can provide. The never ending quest for more accurate time led to the development of atomic clocks (16).


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