Mechanical watches are associated with centuries-old tradition, elegance and luxury. In today’s post-modern society where we are confronted with wearable technology such as the smart watches, this distinction comes as the true value of this dinosaur technology.
Chronometers date back to the 1500s with the first pocket watch, the Nuremberg Egg being invented by Peter Henlein. However, there are debates to this claim which state that it was a 19th century invention. Nevertheless, there is history tied to wind-up timepieces.
Swiss watchmakers dominated the timekeeping industry until the mid 1970s when the Japanese introduced highly accurate quartz watches that were mass-produced at low-cost. By the early 1980s Switzerland was only producing 10 percent of the timepieces in the world. Two-thirds of watchmaking jobs in the country also disappeared. This was aptly called the Quartz Crisis in the industry.
Mechanical wristwatches did make a comeback in the late 1990s after the successful introduction of chronometers that used the quartz design. They were marketed on the value of fashion rather than on the accuracy of telling time. The industry banked on this success to re-introduce the old technology of the automatic chronometers. At which time they were presented as carefully crafted (and some even handcrafted) luxury items linked to tradition dating back to the 1500s. This was a re-definition of its value as they were historically perceived as accurate metronomes.
What helped the resurgence of these luxury items was the discovery that they were highly valued by collectors who strongly guarded tradition. When the industry was very fragile and was thought to collapse, these collectors started buying the wristwatches at auctions at record prices. This gave the message that there was underlying value to the ancient technology. In another instance, an old Zenith employee hid all the moulds needed to produce the horologes when other companies were disposing or scrapping theirs. These enthusiasts and the old employee are now seen in history as the guardians of tradition.
It was also necessary in the industry’s revival to redefine the competition. It wasn’t anymore, at this point, competing with quartz, but with horologes in its own league – which is the high-end market.
This is the same pattern that we have seen with the resurgence of the vinyl records or with fountain pens. Record collectors who valued them have facilitated their comeback and redefined competition for these collectibles apart from the downloadable music that this society now enjoys.