The History of Quartz Weekend: Part 3 - The Casio Digital Revolution
Not only did electronic technologies provide accuracy, but they also brought about a new display which led to the creation of digital watches. Casio did not miss its opportunity.
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. The last article in this series will focus on the inventive work of Casio in the late 1970s and early 80s.
The advent of quartz watches made it possible for some companies not only to enter the watchmaking industry, but also to become leading actors. Casio was undoubtedly the brand that took advantage of the occasion the most.
The failure of American producers
Although electronic technologies were mostly developed in the United States, American watchmaking companies did not take their chance to make an impact on the global market. Indeed, in the past, leading American watch producers made choices regarding technique that held them up and even stopped them from adopting quartz technologies. For instance, Bulova was known as an innovative company when it launched its tuning-fork watch in 1960. However, this technical choice delayed their use of quartz and played a part in the company's downfall (it was taken over by an investor from Hong Kong in 1976).
In the 1970s, some thirty American watchmaking (such as General Watch, Gruen Industries, Waltham, Elgin, Timex and Benrus) and electronic companies (such as Microma Inc., General Electric, Intersil, Fairchild Camera & Instrument Co, and Texas Instruments Inc.) launched digital watches. Yet, they failed to survive on the international market mainly because they lacked a clear marketing strategy and a reasonably strong commercial organization.
In Japan, several watch manufacturers acquired these new technologies through partnerships with Japanese electronic companies. For example, Orient Watch opened a research center with Sharp Co. to make digital quartz watches while Casio cooperated with Sanyo Electric. It should be noted that contrary to what happened in the United States, the rise of digital watchmaking did not bring about a plethora of newcomers to the industry. The technology was quickly adopted by many watchmaking companies at the time, such as Hattori & Co. (1973), Ricoh (1973), Citizen (1974) and Orient (1974). The only newcomer to acquire some fame on the Japanese (and afterwards international) watch market was Casio.
Calculators in watchmaking
Originally, Casio produced office devices and calculators. The company was founded in 1946 by Tadao Kashio, who studied at the University of Waseda, in Tokyo. Casio started undertaking several subcontracting jobs in the mechanical industry before it launched an electric calculator in 1957. From then on, it became an expert in this market and grew exponentially. In the early 1970s, it began a diversification strategy due to saturation and competition in the calculators market that had started in the mid-1960s (the "calculator war" with Sharp).
The first step was to launch its first digital quartz watch, the Casiotron, in 1974. The watch was a result of the company’s research on LCI quartz technologies – electronic pocket calculators that used technologies similar to those found in quartz watches. The common principle amongst Casio’s watches was that they were all electronic as well as affordable.
The successful G-Shock
Casio's winning streak continued until the beginning of the 1980s. Its watchmaking turnover went from 4.8 billion yens in 1976 to 58.7 billion yens in 1981 and 68.9 billion yens in 1985. During this time, watches started to gradually take a more prominent place in the company since watch production went from 10% to more than a third of the total production in the early 1980s. However, in the following years, there was a decrease in the relative importance of watchmaking at Casio, which finally settled at around one quarter of the brand's turnover.
The drop in production was due to a lower watchmaking turnover, since the brand was in competition with producers from Hong Kong in the international market of digital watches. Casio's watch sales reached 68.9 billion yens in 1985 but dropped to 51.7 million three years later, only to increase again when the brand adopted a new marketing policy. By introducing the G-Shock (1983) and the Baby G-Shock (1991), the brand showed its determination to become a quality digital watch producer. In 1992, the brand's watchmaking turnover reached 80.6 million yens.
More importantly, however, Casio had become a leading figure in the Japanese watchmaking industry. Its share in the country’s national watch production (including mechanical watches) swiftly rose from 2.2% in 1976 to 18.7% in 1985. The obstacles encountered in the late 1980s temporarily stopped the growth that resumed in the early 1990s.
In 1992, Casio represented 28.7% of Japan’s watch production. Since the 1990s, its turnover has fluctuated between 70 and 80 billion yens, putting it behind Seiko and Citizen in terms of income generated in Japan.
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.