Look back across the history of watches and you can identify certain inflection points: the birth of the modern sport watch in 1953, a crescendo of technologies in 1969 — and, in 1983, what many likely considered the manifestation of an industry's decline. You might call it the Year of the Cheap, Plastic-Cased, Mass-Produced Quartz Watch.
While this certainly represented an era of crisis for some, hindsight paints it as an in-between time for culture and technology and as a necessary step toward the watch industry of today. In 1983: CDs were brand new, so people were still listening to Michael Jackson's recent Thriller album on tape decks or record players; the first (pre-Super) Mario Bros. game debuted; NASA's space shuttle Challenger launched; Seiko introduced the first TV watch — and the watch brands G-Shock and Swatch were born. No watches could've better represented the decade's values and attitude.
The traditional mechanical watch industry had faced an inevitable wave of new technology already, so this was no sudden shock. Battery-powered electric watches were decades old, and quartz technology had followed, with Japan beating Switzerland in the race to bring the first quartz watch to market in 1969. Even Rolex was all-in for quartz.
At first, the often still-buggy technology was clearly superior in terms of accuracy, but it was cutting-edge and expensive. Quartz, however, would be groundbreaking in even more ways as the technology evolved: before long, it allowed watches to be slimmer than ever and its fewer moving parts made it more robust than mechanical movements with their intricate system of gears. But — and here's the kicker — it also became extremely cheap to produce in great quantities. Finally, as ever more products were going plastic, a recipe emerged for a new era in watches.
Casio's first watch to be cased in plastic ("resin") debuted in 1978 — though Tissot had previously spent around 20 years developing a mechanical watch entirely produced in plastic, which it debuted in 1971. While many of the first quartz watches were produced in metal and even precious metals, the benefits of plastic were obvious and irresistible. Lightweight, incredibly affordable watches could be easily produced in any shape or color and in great volume — and, thanks to quartz, they were far more accurate than any watch in history.
Despite all these apparent benefits, they were immediately recognized as disposable — in contrast to traditional mechanical watches that were made to be regularly serviced, and even to last generations. But many people were simply happy to have a highly accurate watch for not much money — that they didn't even have to worry about winding! Cheap, mostly digital watches from Japanese companies like Seiko, Citizen and Casio flooded the market and made Old-World watchmaking nearly obsolete.
The Swiss scrambled to respond to drastically falling sales, failing companies and even Japanese moves to buy the major Swiss watchmaking conglomerates. Rather than sell, the Swiss, led by Nicholas Hayek, merged their corporate groups (ASUAG and SSIH), in addition to creating a new company, Swatch.
Swatch was conceived to offer casual, fashion-focused, ultra affordable watches to compete with the Japanese. The concept was more than that, however, as these weren't intended to replace higher-end traditional watches, but to supplement them as a "second watch," the origin of the Swatch name. Further, they were meant to counter the popularity of digital watches with analog dials and Swiss identity.
The brand debuted with a collection of 12 models and sold over a million units in their first year. They were priced between around $40 and $50 (40-50 CHF) — not far off from what many Swatch watches cost today. This strategy helped keep (some) Swiss companies solvent and making watches, and the corporate group would later (in 1998) change its name to the Swatch Group. It's often credited for having "saved the Swiss watch industry."
Whereas Swatch seemed to see consumers as wanting fun but disposable junk, Casio saw the potential of plastic and quartz: durability. The story of a Casio engineer's quest to create an indestructible watch after dropping a family heirloom and breaking it is legendary. The result was the Casio G-Shock line that debuted in 1983 and has today become almost a brand unto itself.
Although in recent years there have been more G-Shocks produced in steel, plastic's ability to absorb impacts was a big part of what made the watches' extreme durability possible. (See modern G-Shocks get beat up in creative ways here.) Quartz movements and digital displays also meant essentially no moving parts that could wear down with friction or be knocked loose by jolts.
Swatch and G-Shock are today each going strong and producing watches in seemingly endless colors and variations — they're simultaneously at the forefront of modern street fashion as well as riding the retro style wave. But they are part of a more balanced watch industry that has room for fans of traditional watchmaking and those those that value a tough digital watch's practicality, nostalgia and just plain fun. Who says you can't love both?