Humming in to the history books

Humming in to the history books

Many people thought the introduction of watches like the Apple Watch might well spell another period of doom and disaster for the Swiss watch industry but if anything the last three years has taught us is that it has learned well from the lessons of the past and is now far more resilient than it was in the late 1970’s and the early/mid 1980’s.

Much of this ongoing success is born through the industries relentless marketing and investment in R&D to fine tune their products and produce ever more accurate and complex mechanical watches.

There was a time, back in the 1960’s where the industry stood on the precipice what could and really should be considered as the most innovative and exciting time in watch making history since the invention of the escapement... The quartz revolution. A time when the sky was the limit and when watch making simply had no boundaries. This period between the late 1960’s and mid 1970’s saw more innovation and experimentation than the previous 200 years. Highlights included the introduction of quartz watches from companies like Patek Phillipe accurate to 5 seconds per months, the introduction of LED and later digital LCD watches from the likes of Omega and even pinnacles of watch making like the Omega Marine Chronometer, accurate to just one second per month.

As part of the storm of innovation both within the Swiss industry and across the world came tuning fork movements, developed by Bulova, an American firm established in 1875. Bulova spend years developing what has to be one of the most innovative watch movements of the 20th century. Their approach was to take the traditional mechanical movement but replace the balance system with a tuning fork, powered by electro magnets and run on a battery.

This innovation resulted in a highly robust and extremely accurate watch which easily delivered chronometer grade time keeping but was much more resilient than its soon to be quartz counterparts. This movement gave unparalleled accuracy, more reliability and resilience to damage. Along side that it came with a unique selling point, it had a truly ‘sweep’ second hand and it hummed….. a result of the tiny tuning fork vibrating at over 300Hz.

Bulova maximised the use of these movements across their range, most famously in their ‘space view’ which gave buyers the change to show off their marvels of technology through a transparent dial. The company also licensed the production of the movement to others, without doubt most effectively adopted, developed and fine tuned by Omega.

Omega adopted the Bulova design and produced it under license as the ‘F300’, this was a range topper for them throughout the 1970’s and boy did they make the most of it.

The movement was used in their full range of dress watches, with dozens of different designs and configurations, in date and day date models and in stainless steel, 9K and 14K gold and a wide range in 18K gold.

They also used the movements in a series of Seamaster divers’ watches rated to 60M and 120M. So robust was this movement that it was also used in a number of prototype professional divers’ watches for replacement for the fabled Seamaster 1000 and Seamaster 600 ‘PloProf’.

Omega also used the basis of this movement to introduce another world first, the first chronometer chronograph, which came in the form of the F300 ‘Speedsonic’, a professional chronograph watch developed in two configurations one of which is perhaps Omega most distinctive watch ever, the Speedsonic ‘Lobster’. So robust was this watch that a small sample was submitted to Omega for testing to replace the famous Moon watch with NASA, needless to say it passed every test.

And so to Today, testament to the strength of the Bulova design and the quality of Omegas watches that many examples survive.
What’s more staggering is that from a pricing point of view they are still relatively achievable. A good quality F300 dress watch can be found for less than a new Hamilton, a Seamaster 120 Divers watch is ½ the price of a poor PloProf (despite being twice the price when new).

Even a Speedsonic Chronograph, which was double the price of a Speedmaster Professional ‘moon watch’ when new (remember less than 15000 in total produced) can be bought for a fraction of the price of a ‘moon watch’ of the equivalent year.

The tuning fork watches are perhaps the most unsung and under valued heroes of the ‘quartz era’ of watch making. Remember, when you see one they are effectively a mechanical watch, which took things to the next level, replacing the balance with a tuning fork was innovation well ahead of its time and it’s a shame the industry isn’t as brave now as it was back then.

All of this said they truly do represent a fantastic investment opportunity and a brilliant way to enter or re-enter watch collection with a piece that will not only be unique to you but represents the pinnacle of the development of the mechanical watch. 

Article courtesy of Tom Hamilton Dick

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