More than fifty years ago, a research institute based in Neuchâtel completed its mission to produce a quartz movement that meets watch specifications. For the Swiss watchmaking industry, this is the beginning of a revolution, with good luck and bad luck.
The advent of Bulova Accutron tuning fork watches in 1960 was a powerful signal that major changes in the field of portable timing were about to usher. The U.S. company was based on the ideas of Swiss engineer Max Hetzel, who was working for the Bulova Walbil branch at the time. Max Hetzel’s idea was to adjust the speed of the movement by replacing the balance wheel or pendulum with a tuning fork. In 1866, Louis-Clément Breguet, a grandson of Mr. Abraham Louis Breguet, experimented with this idea. He loaded a 25 cm high tuning fork into a mechanical fireplace clock.
Max Hetzel’s idea became possible, thanks to two inventions, which are essential to the overall development of the electronic watch. The first was the 1947 transistor, which also directly led to the second decisive invention, the integrated circuit of 1958. These electronic components make portable devices powered by small batteries a reality. Bulova Accutron tuning forks confirm that electronic watches can be up to five times more accurate than the best mechanical chronographs without having to worry about power for at least a year.
One of the first Bêta 1 movements with an external aluminum case for testing by the Neuchatel Observatory
One of the first Bêta 2 movements with an external aluminum case for testing by the Neuchatel Observatory
Five years of research and development
Gérard Bauer, then chairman of the Swiss Watch Industry Federation, was vigilant. He realized that the quiet Swiss watchmaking industry was facing a crisis. So in 1959, Gérard Bauer responded by setting up a new research institute in Neuchatel-Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH). René LeCoultre, a member of the Federation, recruits engineers and electronics experts to develop a new watch that is not lost to Bulova Accutron. Various possibilities are considered, but Bulova’s rigorous patent excludes any changes to the tuning fork system.
In fact, since the 1920s, the principle of quartz timers is no longer a secret. The earliest quartz clocks were comparable in size to cabinets and consumed a lot of power. By 1960, the smallest quartz clocks were battery-powered and were the size of a marine astronomical clock. In many people’s eyes, it’s no wonder that they want to reduce it to watch specifications. But at CEH, some people believe in this possibility and are willing to take risks in this direction. The R & D team was recruited from American Semiconductor because Switzerland does not have enough experts in this area. In 1962, CEH decided to focus on the development of quartz movements.
It took CEH five years to make what everyone thought impossible impossible a reality. Finally in the summer of 1967, two different prototype movements became operational. They are called Bêta 1 and Bêta 2 (the shelving tuning fork movement item is called Alpha), and they differ in terms of the miniature motor that drives the hands. In that year, a total of 11 movements of both types were taken to the nearby Neuchatel Observatory for the annual timing test. When the test results came out, Jacques Bonanomi, the director of the observatory, couldn’t believe his eyes: the new electronic movement was at least ten times more accurate than the most accurate mechanical watch chronograph movement.
In August 1967, the R & D team assembled the first Bêta movements for testing at the Neuchatel Observatory
Meanwhile, in Japan
However, this victory has a bitter footnote. When the Swiss team looked at the results in turn, they found that following Bêta 1 and Bêta 2, a Japanese watchmaker Seiko launched its own movement. Two teams that are thousands of miles apart have been working on similar projects, but did not know each other but completed them almost simultaneously. Because the quartz oscillator is not thermally compensated, Seiko’s movement is slightly inferior. However, Seiko movement architecture is more modern and components are easier to industrialize. In fact, Seiko’s tuning-fork quartz crystal resonators (which can be produced by photolithography) and Lavet-type stepper motors are still standard specifications today.
The ensuing crisis has caused chaos in the Swiss watchmaking industry. The reason is not only the slight technical advantage of the Japanese movement, but also the fundamental differences between the two sides on the future of quartz technology. As a country accustomed to electronics, the Japanese readily accepted the first batch of high-priced quartz watches. They know that over time, modern production methods and normalized supply-demand relationships will make products more affordable.
On the other hand, in Switzerland, ultra-precise quartz watches are considered unique, limited to a limited number of lucky ones and sold at high prices. In addition, no watchmaking brand is prepared to abandon expensive mechanical watch manufacturing equipment and replace it with electronic movement production tools. Furthermore, it is impossible for a mechanical watchmaker to become an electronic expert overnight.
A bird’s eye view of the Neuchatel Observatory, with a time-referenced meridian telescope (existing at MIH) in the background building
Where to go from CEH
Next, clichés have become history. By the late 1970s, the quartz crisis had lost one third of the workforce in the Swiss watchmaking industry, and this decline was not contained until the emergence of the Swatch Group in 1983. Finally, Switzerland can compete with Japan in the field of quartz watchmaking. The secret lies in highly automated production, which requires very little manpower to operate the machine.
After the successful test of Bêta 1 and Bêta 2, CEH began to industrialize the prototype movement. The final result is the Bêta 21 movement, which was applied to watch products by some shareholder brands participating in the project. Only 6,000 Bêta 21 movements were produced, and were soon replaced by quartz movements secretly developed by brands such as Omega, Longines and Girard Perregaux.
CEH continued to exist until 1984 as Centre Suisse d’ Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM), an independent, non-profit research center. CSEM works closely with Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), part of the latter’s Institute of Microtechnology in Neuchatel. In fact, EPFL researchers and CSEM’s team share the Microcity building. Semiconductor and other electronic component maker EM Microelectronic Marin was spun off from CEH. When it was founded in 1975, its name was Ebauches Electroniques Marin, and the manufacturer now belongs to the Swatch Group.