A large focus of luxury watchmaking has been – and probably always will be – the centuries-old craft of designing and constructing mechanical movements. Sure there are other elements that are important; the use of precious metals, the types of finishing, the brand name, but by and large it’s the movement inside – and particularly its level of complexity – that determines the perceived value of a timepiece. That’s why the catastrophic events of the 1970’s, collectively referred to as the ‘Quartz Crisis’ are considered the most disruptive thing to happen to the Swiss watch industry as a whole since the invention of the wristwatch itself.
Now chances are if you have even more than a passing interest in watches, mechanical or otherwise, you’ll be familiar with the well-documented and oft-referred to ‘crisis’. For those who aren’t however the term is used predominately in the watchmaking industry to refer to the tremendous economic impact caused by the advent of quartz watches in the 1970s and early 1980s, which all but obliterated the companies that continued to only make mechanical watches.
It’s hard for us to imagine now but back then the Swiss companies dominated watchmaking worldwide. Nearly every watch sold was powered by a mechanical movement of some description and the modern-day Japanese juggernauts like Seiko and Citizen were barely known outside their own country, despite both companies having produced timepieces for almost half-a-century before Seiko unveiled world’s first quartz watch – the Astron – in 1969. According to Seiko, the Astron was the result of 10 years of research and development and despite its high retail cost (which at the time was equivalent to the price of a medium-sized car according to Wikipedia) 100 gold watches were sold following its first week of commercial release.
Patek Philippe 3744 – Heads in the sand?
Given the devastating impact the advent of quartz movements had on Swiss watchmaking, it is only natural to assume that the industry as a whole was caught completely off-guard and was thus woefully unprepared. Ironically however it was actually a Swiss engineer by the name of Max Hetzel who laid much of the groundwork for the future creation of quartz movements when he developed a watch that utilized an electronically charged tuning fork. This tuning fork was powered by a 1.35 volt battery, and it powered the hands of the watch through the use of an electromechanical gear train. It was put into production in 1960 and has since become something of a cult piece for tech heads, so much so that you’ve probably already heard of it many times before; the Bulova Accutron.
Perhaps more significant though was a joint venture in the early 1950s between the Elgin Watch Company and Lip of France that also produced an electromechanical watch. This watch was powered by a small battery instead of an unwinding spring, and provided the best preview yet of what was to come. Despite the apparent advancements in the technology however many of the well-established Swiss brands were quick to dismiss the idea of a watch powered by a battery, let alone one that was not Swiss made (keep in mind that at this time the Swiss watch industry controlled 80% – 90% of the global watch market.) As history has shown us though, this assumption proved to be wildly incorrect.
Although it didn’t happen overnight, once Quartz watches hit the mainstream market in the 1970’s they gained in popularity at a fairly rapid pace, eventually surpassing the popularity of mechanical watches. Not only were they inexpensive compared to their mechanical counterparts, they were also a lot more accurate. The Swiss watch industry didn’t just lie down and die at this point however, although they did field some pretty serious casualties. Instead they slowly but surely began to fight back, with many brands beginning to offer quartz powered models alongside their mechanical ones. The difference was these watches weren’t always markedly cheaper than their counterparts.
Patek Philippe 3744 – Fighting Back
One such classic example comes from one of the most unlikely of sources; Patek Philippe. The Ref 3744J was an 18k solid gold timepiece produced by the high-end watchmaker in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and offered all the same trappings of a mechanical Calatrava, with the exception that it was powered by a quartz movement. Incredibly the brand made no effort to hide this fact, proudly emblazoning the word ‘Quartz’ across the bottom of the dial just above 6 o’clock. Of course in the present day such a concept would be unthinkable. Although Patek Philippe still produces a number of quartz-powered watches, they are limited to the ladies watch collection and they certainly do not advertise the fact on the dial. However, these were different times and the brand was rightfully proud of the fact that it was incorporating cutting edge technology into its watches, as were its customers.
Presented in a 34mm, 18k gold case with hobnail bezel, the Ref 3744J is a wonderfully thin 5.4mm thanks to the quartz Patek Philippe Caliber E27 movement inside. The model we photographed also featured a matching 18k gold bracelet, which gives the watch a nice weight on the wrist. Both the case and the bracelet were still in excellent condition despite the watch’s 20+ year lifespan, a result of being manufactured to Patek Philippe’s exacting standards. To temper the flashiness of the gold, the watch features a subdued white dial with contrasting black Roman numerals for the hour markers. It’s a winning combination to be sure and one that lives on in the Patek Philippe collection today as the Ref. 5120J, although that model (thankfully) is powered by the ultra-thin, automatic Calibre 240 and as such does not feature the word ‘Quartz’ on the dial, which is probably why Jack Welch chooses to wear one.
Quartz-powered or not however, the Ref 3744J is a nice looking, solid gold watch from one of the best watchmaker’s in modern history and so good examples (especially those retailed by Tiffany & Co.) still sell for upwards of US$5,000. After all, it is always nice to own a piece of history.