La révolution du quartz: Seiko – Partie 1

The History of Quartz Weekend: Part 1 - The Seiko Revolution

The development of quartz watches was the most significant innovation in the watchmaking industry in the 20th century. Watchmaking companies had different reactions to their arrival on the watch market. Here we focus on Seiko.

By Pierre-Yves Donzé

Editor's Note: Introducing our new weekend reading series, where we plan to present you with historical horological departures. Escape from the day to day monotony of watch coverage and dive deeper with our editors and contributors. First up, we have a three part quartz series from Watchonista’s historian and contributor Pierre-Yves Donzé. Our first article will focus on the history of the masterful Japanese watchmakers Seiko.

This technological development had a major impact on the notion of accuracy in time measurement and caused an upheaval among competitors around the world. Seiko was the first brand to launch a quartz watch.

A strategic decision

Famous for its Seiko watches, the Hattori & Co. group made an impact on the international market, not only as the world's first company to commercialize a quartz watch, but also as the first to industrialize it. This was the result of a simple technological choice made by the group's leaders.

In the late 1950s, Seiko's directors decided to design and produce electronic watches. They made the decision to produce accurate pieces en masse, which was adopted during the inter-war period and continued after World War II. The subsidiary Suwa, one of the group's two factories, formed a research team in 1959 to study new types of watches. Initially, the team included the company's engineers, but they were all solely trained in the production of mechanical watches. And so, Suwa hired three electronic engineers in 1960. During the same year, management gave the R&D team a new objective: developing a portable quartz clock for the 1964 Olympic Games, of which Seiko was official timekeeper. The clock was ready in February 1964. Suwa's engineers then worked on miniaturizing the model into a big pocket watch (in 1966) and eventually a wristwatch (in 1967).

Acquiring electronic skills

However, these were only prototypes. The main difficulty that Seiko's watchmakers faced was mastering electronics. After a few in-house attempts, the design of C-MOS integrated circuits was externalized to the American company Intersil

After the R&D stage, the two partner companies signed a technical cooperation contract that allowed Seiko to use the technology in its own factories and oversee the whole production on its own (1969).

But Seiko did not only subcontract with Intersil. The Seiko group also called upon Sugano Takuo – a professor at the University of Tokyo who specialized in transistors  – and Tarui Yasuo, head of the semiconductors department at METI’s (Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) electronic laboratory. The various collaborations thus enabled Seiko to start mass production and diversify their models.

Marketing new products

At the time, Seiko was in fierce competition with Swiss watchmakers – the group wanted to be the first to introduce the new product on the market, since Longines announced it would commercialize its quartz watch in August 1969. Under the supervision of the group's leader, Hattori Shoji, Suwa's engineers succeeded in producing the world's first commercial quartz watch before their Swiss rival.

he watch that Suwa introduced on the market on Christmas Day in 1969 (the 35SQ model) was quite expensive – 450,000 yens, that is, around $1,257.

After this commercial victory, Suwa’s engineers worked on improving the product, and so the 38SQ model was launched in 1971. It was a higher-quality watch and was reasonably priced (selling price 135,000 yens or $389). In parallel, Daini, the second watch producer in the group, introduced its own quartz watches starting with the 36SQ model in 1970.

Suwa and Daini soon started to design digital quartz watches. After unsuccessfully trying to buy technology from the American company RCA, the engineers of the Seiko group undertook R&D work in-house, under the supervision of professors Toyoshima and Mitsui, both from the University of Tohoku (1968). Their cooperation culminated in the release of the first digital models by Daini (in 1972) and Suwa (in 1973). Digital technology offered the opportunity to add new functions rapidly, such as calendar (1976), alarms (1977), chronographs (1977), world time (1977), calculator (1977) and perpetual calendar (1978) functions. In 1983, Seiko launched the world's first TV-watch. The possibilities for innovation brought by the advent of electronics seemed endless.

Gearing for mass production

The first quartz models were expensive and were only produced in small quantities. That is why they did not appear among the official statistics of the Seiko group before 1971 (3,000 had been produced by then). From then on, the number increased to 64,000 pieces and, in 1972, there was an impressive growth that made the number of pieces produced yearly reach 1.7 million in 1975 and over 100 million since 1990 (see the table below).

The implementation of mass production was made possible thanks to automated assembly methods that the Seiko group had been studying since the 1960s. In 1968, Daini and Suwa received funding from the METI to develop (in three years) a system of automated assembly chains that could produce more than 100,000 pieces per month. The "system A", for which approximately fifty patents were filed in Japan, was thus born.

The main consequence of the implementation of production and assembly automation was the rapid decrease in production costs. This gave Seiko a major advantage in its competition against its Swiss rivals, who had not yet industrialized quartz watch’s production.


Historian and Watchonista’s contributor Pierre-Yves Donzé’s book 'Histoire de l’industrie horlogère japonaise de 1850 à nos jours' ('History of the Japanese Watch Industry from 1850 to the present day’) is available wherever foreign language books are sold. You can find it online via Amazon and Alphil.

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