How did mechanical-watch king Rolex deal with the arrival of quartz in the 1970s? What follows is an excerpt from the book “Electrifying the Wristwatch,” by WatchTime contributor Lucien Trueb. The book, illustrated with photos of pieces from watch collectors Günther Ramm and Peter Wenzig, tells how quartz-watch technology evolved.André Heiniger, second Rolex president and successor of the founder Hans Wilsdorf, was a true visionary. His opinion was that the originally very costly quartz watch would soon be totally banal. This already had happened with transistor radios, TV sets, and pocket calculators.
Top-quality mechanical movements would always remain expensive and exclusive due to the large amount of highly qualified labor that is required for manufacturing the parts and assembling them. The inescapable fact that a mechanical device can only tell time approximately could be easily hidden by writing “Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified” on the dial. This means a daily rate of plus-six/minus-four seconds per day. In due time, every watch brand in the “upscale” sector copied Heiniger’s concept. Wealthy people don’t need an instrument that tells time: they want a beautiful and exclusive object on their wrist.
Rolex developed several technically advanced quartz movements that never got beyond the prototype stage. The most interesting of them certainly was a thermo-compensated quartz caliber that was developed in 1985. Design studies were made with extremely stable high frequency (1.2 MHz and 2.4 MHz) quartz resonators with the ZT cut. The CEH produced those resonators and delivered 1,000 pieces in 1984. In 1986, Rolex built 50 prototypes but there was no production, even though the yearly rate was just a few seconds. Another very ingenious quartz caliber with a perpetual calendar had the same fate. It was set in a particularly easy way; it also featured a 2.4 MHz quartz resonator with ZT cut as well as a standard 32 kHz resonator. As the ZT quartz and its divider circuit needed a lot of power, it was only switched on every 10 minutes for 10 seconds in order to set the 32 kHz frequency. An extraordinary rate and a battery life of 10 years were achieved with a three-volt lithium battery that measured 22.0 mm by 2.5 mm. The 30-mm caliber featured three motors for the seconds, the minutes and hour, and the day/date function, respectively. This design was patented; the patent became public domain in 2011. A test series of 400 pieces was assembled, but there was no production; none of those prototypes ever left the Rolex premises.