By the late 1960s, the development of the quartz movement was well under way and its threat to the Swiss mechanical watch industry could not be ignored. Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, many mechanical watch manufacturers were forced out of business as the production of cheap quartz movements increased. Yet the 1960s and 1970s are a fascinating time of innovation by many, especially Longines and Omega who produced some extraordinary eclectic designs and unusual mechanical movements.
In 1967, as the ‘quartz’ crisis was gathering pace, Longines marked their 100th anniversary by launching the Ultra-Ultra Chron, an example of which is illustrated above. Billed as the world’s most accurate watch, the watch was guaranteed to be accurate to within a minute a month. This was an extraordinary claim for a series produced mechanical wristwatch. The movement’s accuracy was partly achieved by the extremely fast beat movement (measuring 36,000 beats per hour, twice the speed of many calibres on the market at that time). The watch was clearly meant as a direct challenge to the new electronic watches that were beginning to appear on the market. This is demonstrated by the use of the applied symbol at the base of the dial shaped like an electric coil. Similar coil symbols were used on the dials of watches by manufacturers of pioneering electronic watches, including Hamilton and Lip. This is not to say that Longines did not itself invest in electronic and quartz technology, indeed, they opened an electronics division in La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, in 1969 and as early as 1953 they had submitted the first quartz crystal marine chronometer for tests. However, it is testament to the company’s proud history as a mechanical watchmaker, that they marked their 100th anniversary with such an innovative automatic movement as the ‘Ultra-Chron’.
For the 1972 Munich Olympics, Longines introduced an “Admiral” model that used their interesting calibre 6942 movement. This movement had a high beat escapement but it’s most defining feature is the superb hack feature. Usually a hack feature will stop the seconds hand when the winding crown is pulled out, in order to ease the watch’s synchronisation with a time signal or master clock. When the crown is pulled out on Longines models with the 6942 hack feature, the seconds hand continues until the top of the next minute (i.e. the 12 o’clock position) thus allowing the wearer to easily set the watch to the minute – such as at an hourly news signal. As soon as the crown is pushed in again, the seconds hand starts off once again. The 6942 calibre is just one of many innovations that Longines worked on against the background of the rise of the quartz wristwatch, determinedly demonstrating Longines’ ability to create practical and accurate mechanical watches that were a pleasure to use.
In the mid 1970s, Longines introduced the calibre 890, the movement is still regarded as one of the finest automatic movements ever made. The calibre was modified in 1977 with reduced height and re-named calibre 990. The calibre 990 was made in a few variations (some without seconds or date) and these were the last vintage automatic movements to be manufactured ‘in house’ by Longines. The main purpose of calibre 890 and 990 was to provide a high performance and practical movement that could offer a real mechanical alternative to the increasing dominance of quartz technology. Both movements’ main features were the use of two mainspring barrels with longer duration, automatic winding, hack feature, fast date change and a high beat output (28,800 bph) to increase accuracy. The use of two mainspring barrels reduced the overall torque and therefore the stress on the movement and also helped increase the power reserve.