Mechanical watchmaking suffered through a number of devastating global events—the Great Depression, the first and second World Wars, etc—but the one that had the single largest impact on the industry, the one that changed the face of watchmaking, was the Quartz Crisis.
In the 1970s, quartz technology made its way into wristwatches, leading companies namely from Japan to produce timepieces quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. This led to the worldwide decline in sales of mechanical watches because quartz watches were simply cheaper and better.
No mechanical movement could come close to a quartz movement in terms of precision, losing only 15sec per 30 days, not to mention that it never needs winding or the time to be set. Countless traditional watch manufactures folded as they simply could not compete in this new playing field.
Although it appeared that an ominous fate loomed for Swiss watchmaking, the industry was saved by the perseverance of a few good men. Foremost, there was the creation of Swatch by Nicolas G Hayek, then-president of the SMH Group (subsequently renamed the Swatch Group) which singlehandedly kept Swiss watchmaking in business as the watches were inexpensive, trendy, stylish, and marketed with the Swiss made hallmark. Others like Charles Vermot, a watchmaker who worked for the Zenith manufacture, insisted on preserving the blueprints of the company’s El Primero movement despite being instructed to dispose of them.
By the mid-1990s, however, mechanical watches were back in the limelight but instead of time-telling devices, they had become viewed as objects of art – mechanical art. In comparison, quartz watches were trendy and therefore ephemeral.
In search of timepieces with more eternal value, connoisseurs resurrected the mechanical watch. A number of modern watchmaking firms emerged during this period; Franck Muller was one of them. Handcrafted timepieces were acquired because of their beauty or history or collectability. Accordingly, the watchmaker was now an artist, not just an engineer. This remains true till today, so even if the Quartz Crisis did come very close to obliterating the Swiss watchmaking industry, it is also the very event that enabled it to evolve from a necessity to a luxury.
( Related: Discover the Montblanc Timewalker collection)