The Seiko Quartz Watch That Broke Switzerland

This is quite possibly the most historically significant quartz watch ever made.

seiko quartz astron
Seiko

Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the 1969 Seiko Quartz Astron.

Many of the cheapest watches you can buy are more accurate and reliable than the most expensive ones. That ironic dichotomy is made possible in part by a little technology called the quartz movement, and it all started with a watch released on Christmas day 1969 in Japan. The Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ, as it was called, was marketed with the line "Someday, all watches will be made this way."

That first Astron was functionally and aesthetically simple, with an elegant mixture of finishes on its gold case and a brushed dial texture. Although it would precipitate a revolution in the industry when mass production eventually became cheaper, the first Astron watches were more expensive than many mechanical watches of the time. It's said to have been equivalent in price to a midsized car at JPY450,000 (about $31,000 today).

seiko quartz astron
"If you’re one of those rare persons who must be accurate within five seconds a month, the Japanese have a wristwatch for you"
Seiko

Of course, the Astron was notable for its accuracy more than its looks. Though still far more accurate than mechanical watches, the movement inside wasn't the exact same technology that's commonly found in quartz watches today. Here are some numbers for context: Most modern quartz operates at 32,768Hz whereas the frequency of the 1969 Astron was a quarter of that, at 8,192Hz. Compare that to standard mechanical watches that run at 4Hz. Those hertz (Hz) numbers refer to oscillations per second — in mechanical watches it's the oscillation of a swinging wheel, and in quartz watches it's the oscillation of a vibrating crystal.

The practical result in the Astron was an accuracy of +/-5 seconds per month, whereas that much deviation in a day ain't bad in a mechanical watch. Quartz proved to be slimmer, and fewer moving parts also made it more robust, particularly when solid state electronics were later added. Quartz's technical superiority is clear, and when it became more efficient and cost-effective to produce it, it was a no-brainer for consumers — and a crisis for the traditional watch industry (the "Quartz Crisis"). It's said that Swiss watch companies numbered around 1,600 in 1970 and fell to 600 by 1983; employment in the industry fell from 90,000 (1970) to 28,000 in 1988.

A cursory understanding of the Quartz Crisis might suggest that Seiko (or, "the Japanese") simply came along with inexpensive mass-production and undercut the Swiss watch industry. However, it's not as if Swiss companies were blindsided by the advent of quartz. A consortium of about 20 Swiss companies had been collaborating on a quartz movement — eventually called the Beta 21 — for years and introduced a prototype (the Beta 1) in 1967. (Seiko also produced a prototype of the Astron the same year.) So this could be seen as a race that Seiko simply won.

The various elements of the technology used in quartz movements didn't exactly come out of nowhere, either: Companies had been experimenting with battery-powered electric watches for years, Hamilton having introduced the first example in 1957. Seiko was the first to commercially release a quartz movement that fit in a wristwatch, but it built upon existing innovations — for example, the first quartz clock had been built in 1927 at Bell Laboratories.

seiko quartz astron
A modern recreation (right) of the first Seiko Astron watch features current tech like GPS synching and solar charging.
Seiko

That doesn't mean, however, that Seiko's pioneering contribution should be discounted, as the brand has consistently been on the technological cutting edge (in the very same year, 1969, it also beat various other companies to market with the first automatic chronograph movement). The brand has continued to innovate, and the modern Astron line focuses on hyper-accuracy via GPS signals for automatic adjustments. An evolution of quartz is Seiko's utterly unique type of hybrid movement called Spring Drive that uses a spring for power like a mechanical watch but is regulated by a quartz oscillator.

While most current Astron collection watches look nothing like the 1969 model, in 2019 the brand celebrated quartz's 50th birthday with a visually near-identical reissue that featured the latest GPS tech and solar charging. It's probably as close as you'll come to seeing the original: Unlike later quartz watches, the Seiko Quartz Astron 35SQ of 1969 was not mass-produced or inexpensive. It's said that just 100 were sold in the first week, and you won't find them cheaply or easily available today.

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