High-end mechanical watches are expensive. But the reason why goes beyond the fact that they’re just highly complicated mechanisms in a small enclosure.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, watches were used primarily as tools, says Ben Clymer, founder and executive editor of watch expert site Hodinkee.
For example: A diver needed something that was waterproof and would work at depths of up to 100 meters, a race car driver needed a method to time laps, and a surgeon would need something to reliably measure operating time.
All that changed with the start of the “quartz crisis” (or the “quartz revolution”, depending on who you ask).
Quartz watches use an electronic motor powered by electric current going through quartz crystal to keep time, as opposed to a balance wheel or pendulum. This requires fewer parts, is much cheaper to produce, and is, by its nature, more precise than a mechanical watch.
When quartz watches became cheap enough to be mass-produced, this presented a problem for the primary watchmakers of the time, largely Swiss companies who resisted the move to quartz that had primarily been spearheaded by Japan and Hong Kong. From 1973 to 1983, Swiss watch imports plummeted from 40 million to 10 million, according to a 1999 article in “The Freeman”, a magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education.
Some Swiss companies died (from 1970 to 1980, the number of Swiss watchmaking companies fell from 1,618 to 861, shedding more than 46,000 workers, according to a 2014 presentation by the IFMA). Others pivoted into the new quartz trend by merging and creating Swatch (now the largest watch group in the world), battling the new threat from cheaper quartz watches made out of plastic.
Still others, like Rolex and Patek Philippe, were chased up-market — which is how they became the luxury brands we know them as today.
“At that point, people didn’t need a mechanical watch anymore,” Clymer said. “They just wanted them.”
For example, Rolex in particular started making their watches in gold, and emphasised their quality in the marketing materials. The watches became symbols of prestige.
“In the ’70s is when the [Rolex] Day-Date … really took off as a status symbol,” Clymer said.
Quartz has since become the world’s primary time-keeping technology, and mechanical watches have been relegated to the realm of luxury.
“It is a luxury object in the sense that none of us need them,” Clymer said. But according to him, that’s just part of the allure — along with its durability and technical prowess.
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