The History of Quartz Weekend: Part 2 - Longines, the Swiss Enter the Fold
It is often believed that leaders of Swiss watchmaking companies in the 1970s did not understand the significance of the quartz revolution. But that’s a misconception, and Longines proves it.
Editor's Note: As part of our weekend reading series, we continue our three part quartz series from Watchonista’s historian and contributor Pierre-Yves Donzé. Today’s article will focus on the 1970s and how Longines combated the “Quartz Crisis"
Contrary to popular belief, Swiss watchmaking brands undertook research and looked into development possibilities as fast as Seiko did. As in Longines’ case, the real issue for many was mass-producing watches.
The Compagnie des Montres Longines started looking into the possibility of designing new kinds of watches in the 1950s. In 1955, a research unit was set up, devoted to developing electronic watches. However, this unit was not integrated into the department of mechanical production, which was responsible for the organization of production in the brand's workshops.
The unit became even more autonomous in the following decade when the R&D department was separated from technical management and was directly moved under the control of general management (1964).
The small R&D unit continued its partnership with the independent engineering company, Bernard Golay SA. In 1965, they introduced their first quartz watch prototype. Two years later, the two partners signed a convention to share tasks between them. They divided the R&D activities between Longines (mechanical section) and Golay (electronic section), while the quartz resonators were commissioned by the Oscilloquartz department of Ebauches SA.
They also shared their patents, and Longines paid Golay royalties from the sales of quartz watches. Afterward, they continued their work on miniaturization with the aim of creating a quartz wristwatch, which they named the Ultra-Quartz. The prototype of the new watch was introduced to the press in August 1969.
The difficulties of mass production
Several practical problems were encountered when it came to industrializing and commercializing the prototype. Claude Ray, who worked in the technical office, explained the causes of the problems in a long report written in December 1972. In March 1970, he had been trusted to oversee the production of the mechanical modules for the Ultra-Quartz, but quickly realized that there were no conditions for industrial production at all. The lack of coordination with the engineers from technical management – who oversaw the organization of the workshops – resulted in the creation of a product that was not fit for immediate mass production. The caliber had to be redesigned, the quartz frequency had to be recalculated, and a new embedded circuit had to be developed. In February 1971, Ray's team delivered the first fifty movements to the sales department. They were to be introduced at the Basel Fair. However, the models' quality was far from good and Longines and Golay blamed each other.
Despite these difficulties and the lack of laboratory tests, another attempt at mass production was made with 200 pieces in August 1971. Unfortunately, problems arose once again. It was only in 1972 that the Ultra-Quartz was launched, but unfortunately was not successful.
It was technically obsolete since rival companies had produced other types of quartz calibers and sold them at lower prices.
he aftermath of the acquisition of Longines by Ebauches SA
In 1971, Longines was acquired by Ebauches SA, another producer of quartz movements. Nevertheless, Longines continued its partnership with Bernard Golay for several years. Incidentally, Ebauches SA did not venture into launching digital display quartz watches after its futuristic prototype, introduced in 1972, did not make it past the research stage. The prototype was the result of a collaboration between Ebauches SA and American company Texas Instruments Inc. In 1975, Golay's bankruptcy forced Longines’ decision to commercialize Ebauches SA's quartz caliber. That year, Longines' supply of external watches rose to 39% of its total production (cf. table).
For years Ebauches SA provided quartz calibers to Longines. In 1977, the rising popularity of electronic watches on the international market prompted Longines to modify its strategy. In May of that year, the brand’s board of directors confirmed their decision to move from “elegant hand-wound watches to elegant automatic and quartz watches.”
Longines was still mostly a mechanical watch producer since quartz watches only made up 8% of its production in 1977.
Between 1977 and 1978, Longines’ workshops were adapted to mass-produce electronic movements. At the same time, although it continued to buy quartz movements from Ebauches SA, Longines started to develop its own in-house electronic calibers. Thus, between 1978 and 1984, it introduced several models. The brand then evolved very swiftly: in 1980, its in-house quartz movements made up for more than half the company's overall production (57.3%) in contrast with the previous year, when only one in five watches (17.6%) had in-house quartz movements. This side of production continued to increase in the 1980s. In 1981, it reached 70.1% and more than 90% in 1984.
However, following the merger between ASUAG – the owner of Ebauches and Longines – and the SSIH (the Omega group) in 1983, the SMH (Swatch Group since 1998) was created. This led to a new industrial restructuring in which Longines no longer had a technical management unit (1984) and dropped its R&D and production activities (1988).
For more information, read: (English version): Pierre-Yves Donzé, “From family business to global brand: Longines, Saint-Imier” - Editions des Longines, 2012.