The Me(chanical) Decade
Originally published in International Watch
They sure did things differently back in the 1970s…
We've all seen the cars of the 1970s, big, hulking steel sleds such as the AMC Matador, Plymouth Volare, and Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight. You've seen the outrageous fashions, home decorations, and other consumer items that can only be attributed to that one period in history…and you've seen the watches. Though many watch fans are turned off by the more adventurous 1970s designs, even the stalwarts of conservative Swiss watchmaking got into the act. This decade brought us the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, The Omega Speedmaster Mk. II and the Rolex Oysterquartz. Over-the-top fashion spilled over into watch design but also fostered some "outside the box" advances in watchmaking technology. At the same time they were fighting for their survival against cheap, battery-powered Asian watches, many Swiss houses were stretching the boundaries of mechanical watchmaking. In some cases their efforts laid the foundation for the mechanical watch revival of the last couple of decades.
Three watches which are closely associated with (if not entirely products of) the 1970s are described herein. The first is an early-'70s technological wonder that was not an enormous commercial success, but it often credited with heavily influencing the development of the Swiss watch industry's savior: Swatch. The second is a reactionary fashion statement from the mid-'70s that combined the readability of electric digital watches with some fine points of mechanical craftsmanship. The final piece features a late-'70s movement that helped usher in both the thin-watch fashion of the 1980s and a return of focus on "high-mech" and set a new record for thinness in automatic movements.
As the US-Soviet race to put men on the moon heated up in the late 1960s, the influence of "space age" thinking and technology, as well as style, was prevalent throughout the realm of consumer products. One could find examples of everything from home appliances to food items that were packaged or named to invoke images of space travel or futurism. Watchmakers fell into the same trends. Watch names such as Rado’s Starliner and Octa's Missilemaster are particularly blatant examples. One that is perhaps more subtle is known as "Astrolon." Agon Watch Company's Astrolon movement was introduced by Tissot in a 1971 model that took the idea of plastic watch parts to the extreme. Strap and case components were made of synthetic materials--many items were transparent--and the movement included parts almost exclusively made from plastic. With the exception of the balance, mainspring and some of the components used to wind it, the movement’s parts were made of plastic and were self-lubricating. Even the escape wheel and pallet fork are single pieces of plastic. Far fewer parts were needed in this design--the non-date Astrolon Cal. 2250 movement only needed 52 components, 5 more parts were added for Cal. 2270 with date indication--and maintenance and assembly steps were greatly reduced, in some cases eliminated. Significant savings of time and effort were realized.
This revolutionary movement was offered in a variety of watch styles. The Tissot Synthetic and Idea 2001 models are the most sought-after and expensive versions of Astrolon-powered watches. Their cases are plastic, and feature many see-though components. Many others versions were also marketed, including models under the Sears, Smiths and Lanco brands. These often had bulky cases (typical of the 1970s) and molded dials that gave the appearance of brushed metal with applied markers. Some models had clear plastic dials and featured display-back cases--something today's collectors greatly appreciate.
The belief that these Astrolon watches are the precursor to Swatch watches is commonly held. Both feature many plastic parts (and fewer parts than previous, conventional watches) and both were marketed as low-cost, even disposable, timepieces. There are also significant differences such as the fact that mechanical Swatches have always featured metal ETA movements in contrast to the quartz models, whose movements are primarily plastic. Regardless of which point of view you prefer, it is clear that Astrolon watches contributed a very interesting combination of style and technology to a remarkable decade.
In the mid-1970s, the low cost of very accurate digital timepieces from Asia was threatening to put many traditional European mechanical watch producers and suppliers out of business. Aside from the very wealthy independent houses such as Rolex, or those who had formed strategic alliances such as Omega, most watchmaking companies were in need of something to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. The mentality of investing in a single reliable timepiece, long held by consumers (and sellers) of fine Swiss watches, was being challenged by the notion that watches could be disposable and less expensive to obtain and maintain. Also, the novelty of LED and LCD digital readouts was very popular. Hamilton Watch Company introduced the Pulsar (another Space-Age name) to great acclaim in 1972 and the mania for digital watches can still be felt today.
During this era, a number of companies produced mechanical movements that were configured for digital-style read-outs. This was not a new idea. Jump-hour and wandering second models had been produced in the early 1900s by such houses as Breguet and Hamilton, but they were never as popular as the digital watches of the latter third of the 20th Century. Mechanical-movement makers such as PUW, Baumgartner and Tenor-Dorly produced noteworthy digital calibers in the 1970s. Many such watches epitomize what watch aficionados consider to be 1970s style. They were often seen with wide leather straps, bulky steel or chrome cases, and garish colored dials. As was coined by the owner of a website dedicated to this sort of watch, they have watchismo.
But the elements of such watches, particularly the blue Tenor-Dorly model pictured, were not entirely characterized by 1970s excess. Notice that although it has a significantly domed crystal (akin to the Corum bubble of today) this model features a rather conventional 36.5 mm steel case, subdued dial elements, and a screw-down, glazed case back showing a tastefully decorated in-house movement. These are the sorts of features, in the abstract, that draw today's collectors to the watches from many finer houses. Though this watch exhibits features that are undeniably of the 1970s, it foreshadows some tenets of watchmaking that have become prevalent during this age of mechanical revival.
If any of the venerable Swiss watch companies were destined to survive the turbulent 1970s, Longines would have to be counted among them. This great firm, that has contributed many fabulous designs and movements throughout its history, certainly ran into it's share of difficulty, but it is still producing fine watches today and has been able to celebrate its past with some fine homage pieces as well. One such piece honors both the company's long history and what may have been its final contribution to
the world of movement manufacturing. Though Longines, now part of the Swatch Group, relies on ETA and other corporate brethren for it movements, as recently as the 1980s they were still producing their own exclusive calibers, and setting records with them.
In the mid-1970s, Longines began producing a series of automatic movements with twin spring barrels. They created some long-running movements that could serve as the basis for complications and would be quite accurate. After a couple years of production and refinement of caliber L890, Longines introduced caliber L990.1, a thin twenty-five jewel full-rotor automatic with twin side-by-side spring barrels. This little marvel measures only 2.95 mm thick and was, upon its introduction in Spring of 1977, the world's thinnest automatic movement with center seconds and calendar.
Longines used this family of movements in some very stylish, slender watches throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s. Several years later, the design and tooling for L990 production was sold to Nouvelle Lemania, now also a Swatch Group member. Redesignated Lemania Cal. 8815 in 1991 (with a host of elaborations including skeletonized and full calendar models), these modern Longines 990s have been used as the basis for watches by Ebel, Breguet, Vianney Halter, Roger Dubuis, RGM (at right), Daniel Roth and, of course, Longines. In 1999 Longines celebrated a significant milestone by introducing a series of gold watches powered by the Lemania 8815. The Longines 30 Millionth Watch limited edition series was a production of 990 watches, all with serial number 30,000,000. The watches were offered in three colors of 18k gold: 390 pieces in yellow, 300 in white and 300 more in pink.
The 1970s are often viewed as a dark time for Swiss watchmaking. Although many venerable firms fell prey to consoidation and the foibles of the "quartz revolution," there was still much forward thinking at that time and many interesting watches. The three types described here represent a very small percentage of the fine products and technological advancements that the decade between 1969 and 1980 can boast. Obviously, 1970s mechanical watches did not all feature Lucite cases and pin-lever movements. The finest firms of Swiss horology buckled down to create noteworthy pieces among all ranges of their products, and the discerning collector should be able to find many gems among them.
C. Bradley Jacobs is an administrator at EquationofTime.com. To contact him or read his other articles, visit WatchCarefully.com. Tissot Watch/Astrolon movement owned by Rob Berkavicius; some photos were provided by Paul Delury, Vintage Watch Forum moderator at TimeZone.com.
© C. Bradley Jacobs, WatchCarefully.com