1969: The Most Important Year In Horological History
Watchonista travels back in time to revisit the groundbreaking watches of 1969.
Last year was a stellar year for movies, especially documentaries: Panerai ambassador Jimmy Chin co-directed the phenomenal film The Rescue; Amir “Questlove” Thomson brought us the joyful Summer of Soul; and Peter Jackson surprised us with the docuseries The Beatles: Get Back, to name a few.
Both Summer of Soul and The Beatles: Get Back take place in 1969, perhaps the most historic year in pop music and horological history. And the music and the watches have aged well. Let’s enjoy a trip back in time.
Produced and directed by Peter Jackson, The Beatles: Get Back documentary series on Disney+ chronicles the Beatles’ January 1969 rehearsals for a television special. The series portrays a detailed look at how the fab four collaborated (and sometimes clashed) as they worked toward their TV deadline.
But more importantly for us, 1969 was also the year that several big-name brands (Zenith, Seiko, and a group comprised of Heuer, Breitling, Dépraz & Cie., and Hamilton-Büren) raced against the clock to bring an automatic chronograph movement to market.
There’s disagreement over who was first out of the gate. Seiko, for instance, is often cited as the first with the release of its automatic chronograph Calibre 6139 in mid-May 1969; however, it was not widely available as it launched only in the Japanese market. So, for the sake of argument, we’ll say that Zenith crossed the finish line first when it debuted a prototype of the El Primero automatic chronograph movement on January 10, 1969.
Despite who got there first, it is hard to deny the high frequency (5hz) El Primero Calibre 3019 movement that debuted over 50 years ago was not the stuff of legends. After all, like the Beatles, the El Primero is still very relevant today. For proof, look at Zenith’s first big launch of 2022: the Chronomaster Revival A384 Lupin The Third – Final Edition.
The documentary film Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) uses forgotten footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival to convey the magnitude of the musical sea change (literally) playing out on stage. To paraphrase one attendee, they walked into the festival dressed in matching suits like the Pips, but after watching Sly and the Family Stone, they weren’t going back to suits again.
Similar to how the Harlem Cultural Festival presented a diverse range of talents and changed the history of music, so too did the consortium consisting of Heuer, Breitling, Dépraz & Cie., and Hamilton-Büren produce the Calibre 11 a.k.a. Chrono-Matic movement, forever changing the trajectories of the brands involved. And of all the models to come out of this joint effort, the one that stands out most, at least stylistically, is the Heuer Monaco featuring the Calibre 11.
The Monaco’s square shape and 9 o’clock crown placement represented a complete break with the traditional chronograph design. Moreover, the instantly recognizable Monaco is still a pillar of TAG Heuer’s collection.
The Harlem Cultural Festival also took place the same summer Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Accompanying them, as I’m sure most of us know, was the first chronograph to reach the lunar surface: the Omega Speedmaster, a.k.a. the “Moonwatch.”
The Speedmaster was introduced in 1957 and originally designed as a sports and racing chronograph. But its participation in the Apollo 11 mission cemented its reputation. And today, the design of the Speedy still draws its inspiration from the models worn by the astronauts in 1969. More importantly, the Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional is still NASA’s watch of choice on all its crewed missions.
Like most of the decade, 1969 was also a year of upheaval, with both Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and The Beatles: Get Back taking the time to discuss racial inequity, the Vietnam War, and social justice.
So, while Seiko also introduced an automatic chronograph in 1969, in a move that would preface tremendous upheaval for the watch industry, the brand’s most significant horological contribution that year turned out to be the Seiko Quartz Astron – the world’s first-ever quartz watch. Using a battery rather than a mainspring to power the timepiece ushered in an era of unprecedented accuracy.
The Swiss also invested in the quartz race that year, with Longines’ top-secret Project Hourglass resulting in the 1969 debut of the first cybernetic quartz calibre for a wristwatch, the L6512, named the Ultra-Quartz.
Unfortunately, the introduction of battery-powered timepieces also heralded a deluge of cheap, mass-produced watches to hit the market, which ultimately sent Switzerland’s mechanical watch industry into decades of decline.
Yet, just as The Beatles: Get Back reframes the legacy of Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney, quartz movements today are regaining their cachet. Case in point, the high-end brand Grand Seiko now offers a collection powered by its in-house Calibre 9F quartz-powered movement – a mechanism as carefully crafted as its mechanical counterparts.
Finally, the Seiko Astron is still in the game, but now it’s a solar-powered analog watch with built-in GPS. Similarly, the Longines Conquest V.H.P. is the spiritual descendant of the pioneering Ultra-Quartz promising very high precision at an accessible price point.
(Photography by Watchonista, Illustration by Matt Kenyon)