China, Saudi Arabia, USA – three nations fighting for pole position in the race to Mars in 2021. However, 50 ago it was the race for precision timing which was driving engineers from several countries, Germany included, to the pinnacles of excellence: Development of the world’s first quartz watch. This even captured the imagination of politicians. Baden Württemberg’s Department of Trade and Industry provided Junghans with funds due to the company having invested more than any other German manufacturers in this new technology. The race to be the first to achieve precision timing was also a project of prestige.
Media-savvy presentation of the Astro-Quartz
Under the guidance of Junghans from Schramberg (Baden-Württemberg), the four watch makers Junghans, PUW, Para and Bifora banded together to form a consortium at the end of the 1960s, for the purposes of bringing the first German quartz watch to market. This day arrived on the 14th of April, 1971: the corporate management from Junghans unveiled their new product, the Junghans-Astro-Quartz, to the public to much media attention at the Hotel Intercontinental in Frankfurt/Main.
The only fly in the ointment: Japanese company Seiko had already brought out their first quartz watch in December 1969, and Omega of Switzerland introduced their own product onto the market at the beginning of 1970. This did not, however, dampen the elation surrounding the first Junghans quartz watch. Germany’s Black Forest rejoiced “Never, in hundreds of years of time measuring technology has such perfection been demonstrated in a watch before the Junghans Astro-Quartz”. Though due to the complex and costly technology, the purchase price was set at a lofty 800 Mark each.
Engineers from each of the manufacturers were presented the same technical challenges at the time. Junghans developed and produced the majority of the components, as well as the tuning fork crystals themselves. For the crystal oscillator, however, the company found themselves in uncharted waters and were forced to pay “substantial apprentice’s premiums”, as attested in documents of the time. Accounting for up to 50 percent, the majority of waste produced by Junghans came from surface grinding and rags. Junghans continued to use their own tuning fork crystals for a preproduction series of 25 units, but then opted to purchase more competitively priced AT-cut crystals for series production. The integrated circuit (IC), exciting the quartz to its nominal frequency and then reducing the number of vibrations to one a second presented the next challenge. When the collaboration with the Siemens company came to an abrupt end during ongoing production, Junghans were forced to look for alternatives – which they found in the USA: Motorola supplied the quartz resonator for the calibre W666.02.
Development begins in the summer of 1967
Development of the first W666 quartz movement for watches was inaugurated by Junghans in the summer of 1967 and centred around the large quartz movement W610. For the first prototypes, the engineers used an 8192 Hz quartz tuning fork and a 13-stage divider circuit. As the IC manufacturer then opted for 32,768 kHz as a standard frequency for quartz watches, Junghans also adapted the frequency in their workshops accordingly. The wheel train was driven by an armature motor, and the 60-tooth escape wheel moved the second hand directly. However, it quickly became evident that the production costs for the 666 calibre family were far too high. For the follow-up movement W667, Junghans integrated a 32-kHz tuning fork crystal and the Lavet-type stepping motor, which would then become the standard for all subsequent calibres. In total, approximately one million W666 and W667 were produced in Schramberg, including those with chronometer certification onwards of 1977.
At the time, accuracy of the quartz watches enthralled experts and buyers in equal measure. A discrepancy of a tenth of a second per day was a tremendous leap when compared to mechanical watches. The rate deviation in these versions was one minute per week, and one minute per month in electronic watches. In quartz watches it was one minute per year.
Onset of the great watch making crisis
What nobody was to know at the time: hype surrounding the pursuit of the world’s most accurate quartz watch marked the beginning of a major crisis for the watch making industry in the 1970s, and would bring about existential hardship for many manufacturers in Germany and Switzerland. Quartz technology gradually supplanted the mechanical watch, even causing Junghans to shut down their production completely in 1976. With cheap copies from the Far East driving prices of quartz watches down like lead weights, many companies in this part of the world were left unable to compete. Uhrenfabrik Junghans, at that time a subsidiary company of the Diehl grouß from Nuremberg, had the financial means available to survive the crisis.
Do we still see remnants today of the race against time 50 years ago? It is the unfaltering quest, the relentless pursuit of the most accurate watch possible, that ensures that time continues to become ever more precise. In this regard, Junghans were consistently first over the line, accomplishing milestones in radio technology – while several other watch manufacturers completely disappeared from the market or focussed entirely on mechanical watches. Junghans initially commanded the attention of the world in 1985 with series production of the first radio-controlled clock, and then achieved the next huge development success in 1990 with the first radio-controlled wristwatch. Today, Junghans offers a wide range of watches with the most diverse drive types: Quartz, quartz-solar, multi-frequency radio-controlled, with and without solar cells, and a connected function to your smartphone via app. Half of the watches produced have a mechanical movement – a regained radiant power is just one aspect that the Junghans star is indebted to for this resurgence.