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Watch Snob Talks the 50th Anniversaries That Changed Watchmaking

August 08, 2019DMT.NEWS

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Watch Snob on Why 1969 Changed Watchmaking Forever

One of the things that it has been impossible to miss, if you are the least bit interested in watches, or even if you are not, is that 2019 was a significant year inasmuch as it marks the 50th anniversary of a major milestone: it was in 1969 that man first set foot on the Moon. As a child I recall still the wonder I felt at being allowed to sit up very late indeed, and watch with real awe, as grainy live TV footage showed Neil Armstrong jumping onto the lunar surface from his tiny spacecraft, which looked like nothing so much as a spider partly crippled by the amputation of half its legs. 

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For a watch enthusiast – and especially a Watch Snob – it is a significant year for that, and for other reasons as well.

Omega Speedmaster Professional vs. Rolex GMT Master

The Speedmaster’s story is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in wristwatches and their history but it remains a remarkable one. Selected by NASA in 1965 for service in its manned space-flight missions, the Speedmaster served not only during Apollo, but also later in Skylab and Space Shuttle missions as well. What is perhaps less well known is that the Speedmaster is still in service today, and it is more or less exactly the same timepiece that was recertified by NASA for use on the Space Shuttle in 1978.

The Speedmaster is currently being used on the International Space Station as well; it is worn on the outside of the spacesuits provided by Russia. This is by any standard, a remarkable story — many Rolex fans seem to have a bit of a raw nerve about the Speedmaster, as Rolex GMT Masters were worn by many Apollo astronauts as well. In my view this is a bit silly. Both are remarkable timepieces and the fact that the Speedmaster has a fascinating and very real history in manned spaceflight, takes nothing away from the GMT Master and vice versa. You would think that it could be understood that we needn’t hate one thing to love another.

The Automatic Chronograph Is Born

Despite the fact that they are absolutely ubiquitous today, and that they can be found at just about every price imaginable and from (apparently) every brand as well, the self-winding chronograph is a relatively recent innovation. The reason for this is straightforward: the automatic winding system in a watch, and the chronograph works, essentially occupy identical spaces and solving the problem of how to put both in a single watch was such a knotty problem, that it took until 1969 to sort it out.

Watch enthusiasts love to debate which of the three automatic chronographs that came out that year, came out first. There is the Zenith El Primero (whose name itself makes a claim to first place); there is the Seiko Caliber 6139, and finally, there is the Caliber 11, which was produced by a consortium led by Heuer, Buren and Hamilton. Of the three, only the El Primero is still being produced.

Quartz Watches Are Born

Finally, 1969 was the year that the very first quartz wristwatch appeared. It was from Seiko: the futuristically-named Astron, although there was nothing especially futuristic about its appearance. The original Astron Quartz watch had a gold case, and conventional analogue dial and hands – it looked at first glance, simply like an expensive mechanical watch and it was in fact, extremely expensive. When it was launched on Christmas Day, in Japan, it cost as much as a new car and it was made in very small numbers.

It must have seemed to the rest of the watchmaking world, as if it needn’t concern itself with this expensive and impractical oddity — after all, the electronic, tuning fork Accutron watch had already been in production for many years and while very popular, it had hardly unseated mechanical watches from the throne they had occupied for nearly five centuries. But in less than ten years, the Swiss watch industry would be in tatters, and industry leaders there were seriously debating whether mechanical watchmaking in Switzerland should simply be shut down completely; the world would never be the same.

Fifty years have passed in the blink of an eye, and yet the repercussions of these three anniversaries are still with us. One, the Speedmaster, is remarkable for the longevity and persistence of an anachronism. The next, the automatic chronograph, is remarkable for mechanical innovation (and for emphasizing how difficult a seemingly simple problem in watchmaking can be). And the third of course, simply change every aspect of watches and watchmaking, permanently — as well as laying the foundation for the transformation of mechanical watches, to the luxuries they are today.

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Watch Snob, Khareem Sudlow

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