so amazingly primitive

There’s a little flea market down the road from us, just a few tables and a coffee stall every Saturday in the summer, where one of the regulars is an oldish bloke who sells men’s trinkets: penknives, hip flasks, metal badges, that kind of thing. One corner of his table is piled with broken wristwatches selling at fifty cents each, three for a dollar, and plenty of room to bargain for more: perfect, the sign above them says, for art projects, kids who like taking things apart, lovers of the obsolete.

To dig through them is a kind of archaeology, exposing the fashions and technology of the twentieth century in chipped plating, scratched acrylic, faded dials and wonky, detached hands. Watch designs are intensely stratified, their rough dates of origin easy to guess, whether it’s the small, simple designs of the 50s or the chunky reinforced plastic of the G-Shock and its many cheap imitators. [1]

Among the pile, it’s easiest to pick out watches from the 1970s, because everything goes crackers.

Armitron LED Watch, 1970s. All photos by Joe Haupt // CC BY-SA 2.0

Here you’ll find rotating hour and minute wheels, thick squared-off bezels, TV dials, gradient faces, blingy hour markers — and of course, the first generation of LED and LCD digital watches. Most of these design elements first appeared in the late 1960s, along with kipper ties and flares, but over the course of the 70s these space-age signifiers became mainstream.

The technological story’s been told often: Swiss and Japanese makers sought to miniaturise quartz clocks during the 1960s, producing along the way a range of short-lived alternatives harnessing accuracy from batteries: electric mainsprings powering a conventional balance, the tick replaced by the high-pitched hum of a tuning-fork oscillator. In 1969, the Seiko 35SQ Astron was placed on the market in limited numbers, at a price few people could afford; as production expanded, and other manufacturers followed suit, quartz still carried a significant premium over mechanical watches.

These early quartz movements retained a hybrid character, sandwiching the front half of mechanical watches against an integrated circuit, the watch battery occupying the space traditionally reserved for the balance wheel. They were power-hungry, draining expensive batteries in months; it became clear that the only way to make the new technology stick was to improve power efficiency, and that one way to do this was to abandon the traditional face and its multiple moving parts. The makers of calculators and industrial displays provided the means, at least for a short while, in the form of the digital LED: even then, you had to press a button to illuminate the display, in order to preserve more of the battery’s limited life.[2] These high-tech companies collaborated for some time with established watchmakers, then began putting out LED watches under their own names, especially in the USA. Some of those watches had tiny calculators of their own.

The Swiss mechanical watch industry at that time still had a structure Adam Smith would have understood: separate hand makers, movement makers, dial makers and case makers supplied the mass-market brands; a few companies produced everything in-house and sold to high-end customers. The arrival of quartz knocked the stuffing out of mass market production, provoked the high-end makers into weird experiments, forced massive consolidation of Swiss production, and threatened to demolish it outright.

As the decade ended, a Japanese calculator company incorporated LCDs into the watch face, and these efficient always-on displays swiftly killed off those LED makers who either chose not to switch over or couldn’t make the transition in time. We don’t really think of Casio as a calculator company today. A few years later, a new Swiss conglomerate introduced a quartz watch with a sealed plastic case and no serviceable parts that was explicitly designed to reflect changing fashions and be replaced on a regular basis. Swatch is the reason why Omega still exists.

In short, the 1970s was a decade of genuine transition for the watch industry, where radical styling accompanied rapid changes to the production process, electronics companies momentarily asserted their superiority to traditional manufacturers, and where customers accepted very clear compromises in order to strap the future to their wrists.

You can see where this is heading.

There are many Apple products that cite the design language of the past to tell stories about the present and future, and by ‘the past’, I mean ‘Dieter Rams‘. But I can’t think of an Apple product in recent history that implicitly signals its own limitations in the precedents it evokes.

The Apple Watch is telling that story.

There’s a willingness to combine gold [3] with a digital display. The squared case recalls designs by Pulsar, Commodore, Texas Instruments and Hewlett Packard. There’s no Oyster bracelet or Jubilee band or anything that would fit a modern Rolex or Omega. Instead, the bracelets and straps project an unabashedly retro aesthetic while offering technical improvements over their ancestors: the Milanese mesh is fastened magnetically instead of being threaded; the straightlinked stainless bracelet is reminiscent of the old-school expanding Speidel band but won’t snag the hair on your arms. The clasps and closures point to what’s possible when you’re not hobbled by battery life or sensor capability or any of the fundamental problems of smartwatch internals. They’re a statement of purpose, but can’t avoid being an acknowledgement of constraint.

We’ve often heard that Apple launches products ‘when they’re ready’ — debatable, but let’s run with that for now. What would a product from Apple look like if it wasn’t fully ready — nor likely to satisfy people’s imaginations for another few years because the underlying technology isn’t there for anybody yet — but needed to be released anyway because everybody else is having a go, and those internal improvements won’t happen without a few generations of mass production? And what if Apple decided to signify that this product wasn’t quite there yet by recalling a previous era of not-quite-there-yet technology that, even with its limitations, seemed like a pretty neat idea?

My guess is that it would look a lot like the Apple Watch.


[1] The men’s wristwatch was born on the battlefield just over a hundred years ago, and grew up in the trenches and the new theatre of the skies. It accompanied a new form of warfare carried out at scale, mechanically and mechanistically, where artillery volleys and infantry charges and aerial bombardments and mass slaughter needed to be synchronised and fought with both hands free. For decades after, wearing a watch was symbolic of having served in the war to end all wars. The woman’s watch arrived much earlier, delicate and bejewelled, and retains the memory of that distinct origin in its design.

[2] James Bond, prime engager-with-brands, wore a Pulsar P2 in Live and Let Die (1973) while his Rolex was in Q’s repair shop.

[3] If you think the terminology of the EDITION edition is clunky, you’re right; but if English is your first language, you may well be missing the point.