In the late-1960s, a consortium of 20 Swiss watch brands came together to develop quartz technology. The resulting Beta 21 encouraged a revolution in case design that led to the creation of some of horology’s most extraordinary timepieces.

Come second in the Olympics and you get a silver medal. Come second in the Palio – a bareback horse race around the center of Siena – and your supporters will try to assault you. For, in their eyes, coming second means that you could have won, if you had only tried a little harder. Watchmaking is more like the Palio than the Olympics as no one remembers who came second, which is why the Beta 21 quartz watches of the 1970s have drifted into relative obscurity. You see, they contained the second quartz watch movement ever produced, launched four months after Seiko’s Quartz Astron took the crown.

Seiko had some history with quartz timekeeping, having produced large clocks for astronomical observatories and then shrinking that technology to the size of a table clock, so it became obvious to everyone that the next step would be the quartz wristwatch, and the competition would be between the Swiss and the Japanese. Seiko pulled together a team of engineers from within the company, whilst the Swiss did what they do best and formed a committee. That committee pulled in engineers from several competing brands, non-watchmaking electronics firms and academics. The group, based in Neuchâtel, was named Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) and by 1967 made the Beta 1, the world’s first quartz wristwatch, but only as a small series of five prototypes.

CEH Caliber Beta 1, prototype 1967 © H.R. Bramaz
CEH Caliber Beta 1, prototype 1967 © H.R. Bramaz

There is an old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee; and the truth is that if it were not for the disagreements and conflicting objectives experienced by the group at Neuchâtel, CEH would probably have beaten Seiko and made the world’s first production quartz wristwatch but, alas, it was not to be.

One of the biggest rows at CEH was over how to reduce the frequency of the quartz crystal from its natural 8,192 vibrations per second to a rate at which they could drive the watch. The discussion was whether to use a stepping motor or a vibration oscillator (like the Bulova Accutron’s tuning fork). It was thought that the stepping motor solution would require too much power, so the decision was made to go for the vibrating oscillator.

The time spent on this debate could have been spent developing the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductors (CMOS), which CEH was already working on. These would not only have reduced the power demands of the movement but would also have greatly reduced its size. As it were, the production versions of the movement were a massive 30.9 x 26.5mm. This was at a time when slim and elegant watches were in vogue – not a description you can apply to any of the Beta 21 timepieces.

A Sign of the Times

Mechanical watches had always been sold on the premise that the more you paid for a watch, the more accurate it would be. This made sense, as the longer the manufacturer spent regulating the watch, the more accurate it would be, hence the folks who did the regulation work were the highest-paid employees. Added to the fact that, after the huge amounts of money the firms had poured into the project they were determined to recoup their investments, it is easy to understand why the Beta 21s came to market as very expensive watches.

The sheer size of the movement prohibited the firms from producing slim elegant watches and so they decided to emphasize the new movement by giving the watches a futuristic style. Perhaps the most radical design came from the most conventional of firms, Patek Philippe, whose watch only came in yellow or white gold and bore no resemblance to any previous model they had made. It resembled two half-egg shapes joined together with a TV-shaped aperture set inside it and was finished in a brushed effect with a thin polished surround to the dial, which, in a radical departure for Patek Philippe, was blue. Adding to the modern appearance was the perfectly flat sapphire crystal, a first for the company. It came to market in three versions, one with hidden lugs, one with conventional lugs and one with a gold bracelet that brought to mind Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon.

Patek Philippe Beta 21 watches
Patek Philippe Beta 21 watches

If possible, IWC was even more radical in its version of the Beta 21: the Da Vinci. A horizontal hexagonal shape, there were no visible lugs, as the integrated bracelet flowed directly into the case. Like the Patek, it was an amazingly adventurous design from a very staid company and, once again, it used a blue dial under the firm’s first sapphire crystal. A further IWC model, called the International, was much more sedate in design than the Da Vinci and was more vertical in its layout.

IWC Beta 21 watches
IWC Beta 21 watches

Surprisingly, it was Rolex – an adventurous company in the 1960s, regularly launching new sports models and innovative designs – that introduced the most conservative design for its Beta 21 watch. Unlike the previous two, it used a conventional round dial and sapphire glass and even used the signature milled bezel. However, unlike the Oyster Datejust cases, which had introduced the milled bezel, the new Rolex Quartz was not waterproof. Perhaps because of its more conservative design, the Rolex was by far the most successful of the three, selling 1,000 pieces, 80 per cent of which were in yellow gold. But, for Rolex, 1,000 watches is a failure and so the watch barely features in most histories of the company.

Rolex Beta 21 watch
Rolex Beta 21 watch

Shape Shifters

But if Rolex was conservative, then it was the smaller firms who went completely in the other direction. Longines, for example, chose to rotate the movement through 45 degrees, resulting in the crown and the date being positioned at 4.30. But that was nothing compared to the dial, which is two-tone brushed silver with a grey minute-track and features huge three-dimensional applied diamond-cut indices which stand like eagles’ beaks above the dial, the words “Quartz Chron” at 6 o’clock separated by a block of blue lacquer and faceted parallel index style hands with polished surfaces and tritium inserts.

Longines Beta 21 watch
Longines Beta 21 watch
Longines Beta 21 watch

Rado went one step further with a simple rectangular case with rounded corners and an octagonal dial aperture with a mixture of curved and straight sides revealing the most audacious dial in any of the Beta 21 watches. Made from a thin slice of lapis lazuli, it has its hour indices grouped in blocks of three, connected by a slim steel band, whilst the indices themselves are huge steel, diamond-cut and faceted blocks, interspersed with strange applied arrow-shaped half-hour markers. The company name and logo are not in the usual place below 12 o’clock, rather they have moved next to the 9 index where they balance the unusual circular date window at 3 o’clock with its steel surround. The whole watch is completed with a massive steel bracelet with the biggest links I have ever seen.

Rado Beta 21 watch
Rado Beta 21 watch

Like IWC, Omega produced two different designs, the first with an asymmetric sloped case, like a truncated wedge of cheese. It gained the nickname “Pupitre” (French for writing desk) and like other Beta 21 watches was quite a radical design with (again) a blue anodised face with a date window at 6 o’clock. Unusually, the date was printed on a red disc, leaving a blob of red at the bottom of the dial balancing the red Omega logo at the top of the dial. Like Longines, Omega moved the crown, but this time through 180 degrees, so that it now sat on the left of the watch. The lack of a crown in its usual position indicated that this was a watch that never needed to be wound. Also like IWC, Omega produced a more sedate version of the Beta 21 in a massive rectangular case with curved sides and a silvered dial that retained the red date disc and logo of the Pupitre.

Omega Constellation Beta 21
Omega Constellation Beta 21

Designed for Fit

Piaget has almost always been known for dress watches and for the slimness of its movements, so producing a watch using the massive Beta 21 movement was a special challenge for the brand. The problem was solved by simplifying the case and dial – the case became a simple rectangle with curved corners and stepped sides to emphasize the height and make a feature of what had seemed a problem. The dial was completely devoid of any indices or text other than the brand name. And to confirm that this was a dress watch, the seconds hand disappeared.

Piaget Beta 21 watch
Piaget Beta 21 watch

One of my personal favorite Beta 21s is by Bucherer. The biggest of the bunch, it measures 50.5 x 46mm and is 15mm high, its octagonal case accented by alternating brushed and polished surfaces – but the main feature of the watch is the dial. It is silver with a sunburst finish, huge applied diamond-cut indices, which rise a considerable height above the dial and are set on to an outer track of large orange painted blocks, one for each minute. Inside this track there are white painted blocks for each index and a printed black track segmented into 1/5th of a second. Looking at the entire watch it is difficult to believe it was designed almost 45 years ago – it looks as if it could have been launched at this year’s Baselworld.

Bucherer Beta 21 watch
Bucherer Beta 21 watch

Importantly, all of the Beta 21 watches are perfectly wearable today – they are large and their sapphire crystals make them look contemporary whilst their movements have one huge advantage over modern quartz versions: as the Beta 21 watches lacked a stepper motor, the seconds hand on the Beta 21s does not beat once per second, rather it sweeps smoothly round the dial, just like a mechanical watch. So they provide the fortunate owner with all the advantages of a quartz watch with none of the visible stigma. What more could a lover of watches and design ask for?