Everyone loves a comeback, and the luxury watch collector is no exception. While economic currents in the Far East and geopolitical uncertainty elsewhere signal a distinct break with the market norms of the past half-decade, certain clear product trends are emerging amid this period of flux. As the luxury watch industry enters a transitional period, premium quartz watches have thrived within the eye of the storm.
Often misunderstood, taken for granted, and relegated to utility status, quartz technology is making a comeback at the peak of the luxury watch Olympus. To be completely fair, certain holdouts including top Japanese manufacturers and Breitling had championed this cause for the better part of three decades, but the recent return of mainstream interest from brands and collectors transforms this contrarian product trickle into a torrent.
Ironically, premium quartz once stood as the only pillar of the quartz watch market. Pioneering 1970s quartz references such as the Rolex 5100, Patek Philippe 3587, the original Seiko Astron 35SQ, the early Hamilton Pulsar (especially in solid gold), and the Omega caliber 1511 Marine Chronometer established quartz technology as more than a utilitarian tool; it was a viable alternative to mechanical models in the watch market’s prestige segment.
But the mid-1970s wave of inexpensive Japanese quartz, luxury mechanical watch resurrection of the mid 1980s, sophomoric association of one-second stepping hand action with counterfeits, and the concurrent pop culture rise of the affordable Swatch models buried premium quartz beneath a mountain of collector confusion. Manufacturers’ decisions to relegate most women’s models to quartz power opened an even wider gulf between the predominantly male collector community and premium quartz movements.
In hindsight, 2011 could be called the year that prestige quartz began its rally from a near rout. The USA’s Devon Works, a late arrival to horology and a quintessential industry outsider, launched its wild Tread 1 belt-driven time display. Fundamentally, Devon’s device was a quartz watch. But its lively interaction of cogs and belts, visible machinery, and impressive details elevated the Tread and its successor models into the realm of soul and substance typically reserved for spring-driven Swiss staples.
The years since that seminal debut have witnessed a swell of offerings and interest in the premium quartz sphere. 2012 greeted the arrival of a heavyweight; Omega revived a variant of the short lived but collector-revered Speedmaster Professional X-33 with the new Spacemaster Z-33. A more direct X-33 descendant, the X-33 Skywalker, followed in 2014, and the reborn X-33 entered the limited edition stakes with a Solar Impulse tribute model in 2015.
More than a rugged solution for burly sports watches, premium quartz has proved resurgent in the haut-de-gamme category. When F.P. Journe launched his first quartz movement – the impeccably finished caliber 1210 – under a display caseback in 2015’s Elegante lady’s watch, purists muttered that Journe’s choice was excusable only as a women’s option. When popular demand called for a masculine encore, Journe doubled down with a 2016 men’s version; the mutterers were silenced.
As a testament to mounting momentum in the premium quartz segment, Journe’s latest offering arrived alongside a ready made rival: the 2016 Piaget Emperador Coussin XL 700P. The full-figured 18-karat white gold Piaget arrived with an exhibitionist streak that eclipsed even Journe’s ornate effort.
With an open dial, skeletonized main plate, and every finishing technique in the Swiss inventory deployed in force, the micro-rotor caliber 700P declares itself with brash confidence. Its dial is an engineering ecosystem in tense suspension; an electromagnetic governor sits adjacent to a kinetic winding system and a traditional jeweled train. While the concept owes an undoubted nod to Seiko’s signature Spring Drive, the execution of the 700P boasts the indelible marks of Piaget heritage in its micro-rotor winding system, robust Emperador cushion case, and svelte profile on the wrist.
Not to be left out of this mounting movement, premium quartz stalwarts Breitling and Seiko are poised to claim their long awaited moments in the sun.
Seiko’s 2011-present Credor Minute Repeater and Eichii II of 2014 remain the shining stars at the absolute apogee of the quartz market. Fashioned with a dedication to case, dial, and movement finish that finds few parallels beyond the workshops of names like Dufour, Gauthier, and Voutilainen, the Credor line vaporizes the emotional gulf between mechanical and quartz calibers.
Motivated by spring energy, sustained by induced current, and regulated by a quartz oscillator, the Spring Drive Credors relegate this technology into a secondary role; these watches are all about porcelain dials, blinding bridge anglage, lush grained wheels, and mirror-polished screws. While the Credors lack beating hearts in the mechanical sense, they retain the power to melt those of collectors.
Breitling has matched its traditional strength in quartz professional watches to the emerging demand for smart watch functionality. Announced under the provisional name B55 Connected in early 2015, Breitling’s latest quartz concept enlists the familiar interface of personal phones to overcome consumer confusion regarding the somewhat involved setting and operation of multifunction quartz calibers.
Now available with the production moniker Exospace B55, Breitling’s smarter watch embodies the immense feature set of the Grenchen firm’s multifunction quartz chronometers with simplified setting, remote data recording, and expanded functionality via a smartphone interface. Pushing, pulling, and spinning the watch’s quartz crown can be minimized thanks to an application that turns an owner’s phone into an intuitive control panel for the watch.
Primary and secondary time zones, alarm times, and reconfigurable preferences can be specified when the Exospace B55 is linked to the owner’s phone. Moreover, personal appointments can be downloaded into the watch, recorded chronograph and timing data can be downloaded into the phone, and the B55 is capable of notifying the owner when emails, texts, or phone calls are received by the paired smartphone. Still a premium quartz watch, the Breitling Exospace B55 co-opts many features of voguish smart watches while retaining the serviceability and extended life expectancy of a true luxury watch.
2016 will be remembered as a year of transition for the luxury watch industry and marketplace; to a large extent, that narrative arc has been dictated by events, and the die is set. Talk of economic transition often dwells on anxiety and brooding, but the current premium quartz market rides only a rising tide. Thanks to an awakening at every level of the industry, electrifying options in this breakout segment are arriving with higher frequency than ever.