Quartz produces electricity when put under pressure, but when electricity is applied to quartz, it vibrates, it is these vibrations, similar to that of a mechanical balance wheel, which serve as a basis to use the crystal has a high precision oscillator. That said, contrary to popular belief, research into the timekeeping properties of quartz crystals began as early as 1880, when Pierre Curie (1859-1906), the husband of Marie Curie (discoverer of radioactivity), discovered piezoelectricity.
Better. Faster. Stronger
Thanks to the Enlightenment view of watches as scientific instruments, the mechanical watch industry was making technological advances by leaps and bounds – the fusee and chain which changed leverage as the spring unwound was an equalising drive force bringing never-before-seen precision to time-keeping. The bimetallic balance spring was soon invented to solve the error in balance wheels due to changes of elasticity of the balance spring due to atmospheric temperatures. Jean-Antoine Lépine’s going barrel which provided a more consistent driving force over the watch’s running period made the fusee obsolete, but even as mechanisms improved exponentially, they were still not precise enough for anyone wanting to take serious time measurements.
By 1927, Canadian-born telecommunications engineer Warren Marrison used Curie’s pioneering work with piezoelectricity to develop a reliable frequency standard for Bell Labs. His creation, the quartz clock was much more accurate than existing mechanical clocks and while it became standard in laboratories across the world, the technology was too cumbersome and expensive for household use or portability. It would take another 40 years before quartz would become useful in the development of wristwatches.
Like the legendary foot races which inspired the first Greek Olympiads, this feat of progression and advancement was a result of man’s relentlesss drive to be better, faster and stronger. Though quartz technology has often been derided by mechanical watch aficionados, we decided to cast light on this divergent exploration of one of mankind’s most enabling technologies.
A New Dawn
The introduction of the quartz watch in 1969 was a revolutionary improvement in time-keeping technology. In place of a balance wheel which oscillated at 5 beats per second, it used a quartz crystal resonator which vibrated at 8,192 Hz, driven by a battery-powered oscillator circuit. As a result of replacing the wheel train required to total beats into seconds, minutes and hours, the digital counters which replaced it made quartz movements incredibly thin. With low temperature coefficient, unprecedented high frequencies and the removal of all mechanical moving parts, these watches were more accurate, shock-resistance and more importantly, rendered the need for periodic servicing necessary, and though the Omega Marine Chronometer introduced in 1974 was the first wristwatch to hold Marine Chronometer certification and accuracy rates of 12 seconds per year, it was Longines, together with Asulab, who was pursuing a specialist approach to Quartz technology on par with the Japanese quartz tsunami which threatened Swiss watchmaking as a whole. On the Swiss frontlines, Longines was present, pioneering a range of highly accurate quartz watch prototypes by the early 80s and in 1984, they finally released the original VHP with thermocompensated movement, that is to say, a quartz movement which compensated for temperature variations (one of the biggest contributors to rate drift), was already outclassing anything its bigger cousin produced.
At this juncture, a cynic would probably level claims that Longines was merely reactionary. However, research shows that as early as 1912, the St. Imier manufacture (at the time) was already making in-roads into a then, extremely novel concept of “electronic time keeping” – it was the first system of electromechanical sports timing using a system of wires which when broken, respectively start or stop a watch; it made its debut at the Federal Gymnastics Festival in Basel.
Outside laboratories, the earliest consumer quartz clocks would finally be miniaturised and portable enough for use outside fixed locations was available in 1954, thanks to Longines once again, quickly chalking up new records for accuracy at the Neuchatel Observatory. Such was the vaunted precision of the Chronocinegines that when attached to a 16mm camera, it was the earliest use of tandem optical and measurement technology allowing sports officials to review a series of still images taken every hundredth of a second in order to judge extremely close calls as athletes crossed the finish lines.
By 1965, after some flirtation and experimentation with the hybrid electromechanical L400 calibre intended for observatory competitions, the fully quartz 800 calibre intended for on-board chronometers debuted; and it outclassed everything else available in the market in terms of chronometric precision. Within four years, Longines conceived of the Swiss watch industry’s counter-offensive against Japanese Quartz watches – Project Hourglass.
Project Hourglass and VHP (Very High Precision)
1969 was the turning point. Longines’ Project Hourglass conceived of the first cybernetic quartz calibre, the Ultra-Quartz L6512; and in ten years, St. Imier went from giving the Swiss watch industry a fighting chance to delivering the world’s thinnest quartz watch measuring only 1.98mm thin. It was this scholarship which eventually attracted the attention of the legendary Nicolas G. Hayek and their resulting incorporation into Societe Suisse de Microelectronique et d’Horlogerie (SMH), the precursor to what we know today as Swatch Group. As a result of integrated operations, the company was able to follow up with the 276 VHP calibre a scant five years later, pioneering a whole genre of high precision Quartz timekeeping. Yes, it’s true, a run-of-the-mill quartz calibre, by virtue of its 32,768 Hz frequency will run more precise than any watch with a mechanical oscillator. However, quartz has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion, this meant that temperature variations of any kind caused frequency variation in crystal oscillators. Thus, for any semblance of constant chronometry, the crystal needed to be kept at a constant temperature and the vaunted Longines VHP calibre was among the first of its kind to be equipped with thermo-compensating technology which neutralised the effects of temperature while a regular Quartz timepiece depended on a “dome” effect, constructing a watch in such a way that the warmth of your wrist could keep the vibrating crystal at a constant temperature.
Over the years, consumer willingness to pay for such levels of sublime timekeeping precision waned and as it became more and more of a niche business, Longines discontinued the VHP line and for the next 30 years, it remained a mythic tale. Then without warning, it was revived in 2017.
Today, the new Longines VHP carries the design spirit and technical ethos of St. Imier’s pioneering work in the field of high precision quartz mechanisms. Guaranteed to within ± 5 seconds per year, Longines new VHP calibres double the precision rates of most of its competing precision quartz movements which typically top out at ± 10 seconds per year. Available in a three-hand-and-date variation, including the special commemorative Commonwealth Games limited edition, the new Longines VHP calibre delivers significant improvements over its progenitor: Dubbed GPD or “gear position detection” system, the new VHP calibre allows the hands to be automatically re-aligned following accidental displacement by shock (up to 500Gs) or strong magnetic field, either immediately, or at 3am if the problem cannot be resolved immediately for some reason. This functionality also includes automatic correction at 3am every three days to ensure the precision.
In addition to its extraordinary five year battery life, the watch is capable of signalling the end of battery life by making one of its hands jump every five seconds. If the battery is not replaced during the E.O.L. ( end of life ) phase, the system goes into E.O.E (end of energy) mode by setting the watch hands to 12 o’clock. You have then 6 months to change the battery or risk battery leakage damaging the precision movement.
Interestingly, the new Longines VHP has a little known “energy saving” feature which further extends its power reserve – pulling out the crown stops the hands from moving, returning it to the 12 o’clock position but the timepiece continues to keep a running count of time until the moment her user returns the crown to a locked position, following which the watch adjusts itself to the correct date – though it’s more of a feature for distributors and retailers to use for logistics and transportation purposes, since this in essence serves as a time-reset to its Swiss time and date as it left the factory.
The smart crown of the new Longines VHP also allows to set the time minute by minute or hour by hour (quick setting), by turning the crown either slowly or vigorously. When changing the time (in summer/winter, for example), the movement automatically repositions the second and minute hands to the exact position of the previous time, therefore ensuring extra precision.
Finally, the addition of a perpetual calendar, makes the new VHP series all the more user friendly – the date mechanism keeps track of leap years and odd dates, thus there are no headaches when it comes to keeping track of date adjustments when the watch does it all for you. Should you make an errant adjustment unknowingly, the calibre is intelligent enough to not allow one to move the time forward or backward more than one day, in order to avoid disrupting the perpetual calendar. If the battery is exhausted ( or removed from the movement more than one day ), the timepiece will require total resynchronisation as all the functions are affected. If the battery is removed from the movement less than one day, only the hour needs to be re-adjusted.
Time and calendar only variants exist in 41 and 43 mm editions, while chronograph variants with a 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock, a 12-hour counter at 9 o’clock and a 60-second counter in the centre can be found in 42 and 44 mm dimensions.
Even with precision timekeeping available to all and sundry thanks to the satellite and internet technology beamed directly into smartphones and other consumer electronic devices, the dumbing down of this tech into mass brand fashion watches has re-ignited pursuit of the ultimate quartz watch. The proprietary quartz technology found in the Conquest VHP is part of a long tradition of advances in quartz chronometry stretching back all the way to the 1950s, specially developed for use to time sporting events. Given the immense provenance and technical know-how of Longines VHP, it would take the most cynical watch connoisseur to ignore what a milestone this timepiece represents.