The 1970s, nobody needs to be told, were not a great time for mechanical horology in general, and Swiss watchmaking in particular. HODINKEE’s former Executive Editor, Joe Thompson, was there and has ably chronicled the trials and tribulations of the Quartz Revolution. The Swiss watch industry seemed almost entirely unprepared for the rapidity with which electronic watches – first quartz analog, and then LED and LCD watches – became not only the last word in wristwatch technology, but also dramatically less expensive than their mechanical counterparts, plus an order of magnitude more accurate. It seemed, for a few years, at least, that the entire Swiss watch industry ought to be sold off for spare parts, leaving the industrious Swiss to concentrate on other, more lucrative ventures. Or at least, ventures with a brighter future than watchmaking.
Of course, the Swiss watch industry didn’t die – instead, it reinvented itself. By the early 1980s, cautious optimism prevailed. The Swiss had vigorously invested in cutting-edge quartz technology, especially in ultra-thin watches, but there were also signs that a mechanical renaissance was underway as well. In 1983, a merger took place that defines modern Swiss watchmaking: Nicolas G. Hayek merged the two biggest Swiss watchmaking conglomerates, SSIH and ASUAG, into a single entity called SMH (Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking) which today is known as the Swatch Group. And, also in 1983, two watches came along that not only redefined watchmaking and brought it to a new, wider audience, but also – surprisingly – came to have relatives in high-end mechanical horology. Those two watches were the Swatch and the Casio G-Shock.
Unbreakable: The Birth Of G-Shock
The origin story of the G-Shock is well known. Casio engineer Kikuo Ibe, distraught over the accidental breakage of a treasured heirloom mechanical watch, decided to create a watch that was, if not unbreakable, certainly capable of withstanding punishment that if applied to the human body might prove fatal. The G-Shock’s development took place, at first, on Ibe’s own time, and he went through dozens of possible designs before a moment of inspiration as legendary among watch enthusiasts as Newton’s apple is among students of physics.
Stymied by the problem of making a genuinely shock-proof watch, he found himself one day watching a girl bounce a ball in a playground, and got the idea of housing the movement of the watch inside a resilient, shock-absorbing inner case. The G-Shock was born, and in 1983, the first model, DW-5000, came out: 200 meters water resistant and capable of surviving a 10-meter drop onto pavement. Ibe famously threw some of his prototypes out of the fourth-floor men’s restroom window at Casio headquarters, into the parking lot below, and to this day, the G-Shock – which has become a street-style icon and which is as avidly collected by its fans as any Daytona or Patek 1518 – is remembered by watch fans as the only watch ever to be beta-tested by being tossed from a toilet.
Pop Art For The Wrist: The Swatch
The Swatch, not for nothing, is known as the watch that saved the Swiss watchmaking industry. It’s a truism that probably should be taken with a small grain of salt, but while the Swatch might not have been a singlehanded savior, it sure as hell didn’t hurt. Colorful, inexpensive, and most critically, collectible, the Swatch made watches something they had not really been, ever – it made them fun. Swatch collectors, like G-Shock collectors, can dive surprisingly deep – sometimes to the tune of hundreds of watches; one collection of over 5,800 Swatch watches sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, in 2015.
The construction of the Swatch has a surprising connection to fine watchmaking. A few years before the Swatch debuted, a quartz watch appeared that set a new record for ultra-flat watches. This was the Concord Delirium. The Delirium, which launched in 1979, had an ingenious solution to the problem of making a watch as thin as possible.
(The watch launched under the Concord brand in the United States because it was a brand owned by Gedalio Grinberg, who chipped in a substantial sum for development costs.) Rather than having a conventional movement housed inside a conventional case, the engineers spearheading the product for Ebauches SA – André Beyner and Maurice Grimm – used the back of the case as part of the mainplate of the movement. The result was a watch which, in 1979, was only 1.98mm thick, and the final version of the Delirium, the Delirium IV, was just 0.98mm thick – the thinnest wristwatch ever made.
A twist to the story is that shortly after the Delirium launched, Beyner and Grimm took the same idea and turned it into a 1980 patent for an ultra-thin, self-winding mechanical watch. The secret project’s name was Delirium Vulgare – Delirium for the masses. Ebauches SA didn’t do anything with the patent, but someone else did, and the someone else was Audemars Piguet. Beyner and Grimm produced several prototypes, one of which ended up at Phillips in 2016, That prototype would become one of the most revolutionary high-mech watches of the 1980s: the 1986 Audemars Piguet ref. 2870, ultra-thin automatic tourbillon. At just 4.8mm thick, with the lower pivots of the gear train embedded in the caseback, it was the spiritual heir to the Delirium, a close cousin to the Swatch, and the holder of the world’s record for an ultra-flat tourbillon for decades – right up until 2014, when it was finally deposed by the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon.
Using the watch case as part of the movement plate has become a cutting edge strategy in modern ultra-thin watchmaking as well. The world’s thinnest mechanical watch overall is made by Piaget – the Altiplano Ultimate Concept watch – which is only two millimeters thick, and it uses the same basic construction principles as the AP 2870, the Concord Delirium, and yes, the Swatch.
And the spiritual – and technical – heirs to the G-Shock? They are legion. In the early 2000s, several watch brands began experimenting with what you might call, extreme mechanical horology. One of the greatest practitioners of ultra-high-end watchmaking is Richard Mille, who has pushed complications like the tourbillon in directions its inventor, Abraham-Louis Breguet, would never have dreamt of in his wildest dreams, and one of the most extreme examples of this approach is the RM27-01 Rafael Nadal Tourbillon – an ultra-light tourbillon capable of withstanding shocks of up to 5000 G.
How does the RM27-01 manage to tolerate such rough treatment? It’s partly thanks to the fact that the watch is extremely light – just 19 grams, which is a small fraction of the mass of an average watch bracelet. However, the real trick up the RM-027’s sleeve is that the movement is actually suspended inside the case, by a shock-absorbing system of tensioned cables, which isolate it from impacts to the case. Richard Mille has also used “elastomer” suspension systems in other watches – essentially, rubber bumpers which hold the movement away from the case itself, and act as shock absorbers. It’s pretty counterintuitive to think of the RM-027, which retailed for $ 740,000, as a cousin to the G-Shock. But both watches are based on the same fundamental principle, which is mounting the sensitive and relatively delicate movement in a protective outer case, via an isolating suspension system, and it’s hard to imagine some of the more radically shock-resistant mechanical watches which have been produced over the last 20 years without the pioneering example of the G-Shock.
In some respects, you would be hard-pressed to think of two watches more diametrically opposed in general philosophy, aesthetics, and avowed purpose, than the G-Shock and the Swatch. And yet, both were, so to speak, stones thrown into the waters of watchmaking in the 1980s, whose ripples are still being felt today, far beyond the original identities either watch occupied.
The G-Shock and Swatch, certainly, have both become style icons and historical touchstones to a degree their inventors probably never suspected (and for which success they’re undoubtedly grateful). But both also opened the minds of the watch industry to new possibilities – to whole new approaches to watchmaking which have withstood the era of MTV and shoulder pads and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and which are still inspiring advances in watchmaking today.