There are a number of experts in all things horology who are drawing a direct comparison between the modern threat to fine mechanical watchmaking posed by the massive Smartwatch invasion, and that of the 1970s quartz crisis.
Although those dark days of the past were relatively short-lived, the damage they wrought decimated the Swiss industry to such an extent that it came within a hair of disappearing altogether; lost in an ocean of cheap, disposable yet impossibly accurate watches that not even several centuries of heritage and tradition could compete with.
Today, with devices such as the Apple Watch able to do everything from share your heartbeat to becoming your very own personal assistant (and tell the time I assume), manufacturers of high end luxury timepieces are once again braced for a fistfight, and many are already feeling the pinch.
Having learned their lessons the hard way, a number of Swiss firms are employing the same tactics with the current predicament as they did 40 years ago and playing companies like Apple at their own game. Major names such as Breitling and Tag Heuer have released their own take on the Smartwatch, and there are even rumors of Rolex joining in sooner rather than later.
It is a strategy that just about saved the industry in the 70s, when a consortium of more than 20 of the biggest players in the business joined together to create a quartz movement that could compete with the electronics flooding the market from Japan and America.
Called the CEH, or the Centre Electronique Horologer, it was actually established in 1962, following the release two years earlier of the first commercially available electronic watch, a forerunner to quartz with a 360Hz tuning fork replacing the balance wheel; the Accutron from Bulova.
While quartz technology had existed since the 1920s, the first movements were so large they were mainly used in laboratory clocks. But their potential as a marketable commodity was obvious and development continued over the decades until they had been reduced to wristwatch size—and the Accutron arrived.
By that point, of course, it was more or less too late as far as the mechanical industry was concerned and the CEH was formed more out of desperation than anything else.
Even so, with the combined resources of Piaget, Omega, Patek Philippe and Rolex themselves in the mix, among others, within five years they had produced their first prototype, the Beta-1. The following year its replacement, the Beta-2, set a new record for accuracy of +/- .0003 seconds a day.
Experimentation continued at a furious pace until, in 1969, the CEH launched their inaugural, mass-produced quartz caliber, the Beta-21.
Rolex and the Beta-21
In all, around 6,000 of the new units were created, used by 16 of the different watchmaking companies of the CEH group.
Although Rolex had actually registered a patent for an electro-mechanical watch of their own back in 1952, the Beta-21 was the first time the brand had adopted the idea with any degree of seriousness, begrudging though it was.
After typically stringent testing, their allocation of calibers were fitted into a new watch, one that had to be built around the movement rather than the other way round. With its large, awkward shape, the mechanism could not be shoehorned into an existing Oyster case, and so the Rolex 5100 Beta-21 emerged in 1970 with a then huge 40mm diameter; a thick, chunky effort with a bracelet integrated into the case that looked like the bastard offspring of the Datejust and the Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet.
Ahead of its Time
In the run-up to its unveiling at Baselworld 1970, the idea of a quartz powered Rolex caught the popular imagination and every one of the 1,000 pieces the brand produced had already been sold before the event opened its doors.
With its hefty proportions and oversized frame, coupled with the fact it was made exclusively in gold, the ref. 5100 was quickly given the nickname ‘The Texan’. It also became the most expensive piece in the Rolex stable and, besides its revolutionary power plant, introduced a couple of other firsts for the brand that have since gone on to become standard issue throughout the catalog.
It was the first Rolex watch to be fitted with a synthetic sapphire crystal, replacing the long-used acrylic covering that was vulnerable to scratches. The new movement also debuted both a hacking function as well as a Quickset date feature to the range, two innovations designed to bring an added level of convenience to setting the watch accurately.
But it was the pioneering technology beneath that brash exterior that was of the most interest to the buying public. The collaborative effort of the giants of mechanical watchmaking, their new engine outshone anything they had been able to produce previously with springs and gears by an almost ludicrous amount. Using a drive mechanism nearly identical to the Bulova Accutron, the Beta-21 kept time to within five seconds a month.
Furthermore, powered by an Omega-built micro motor, the seconds hand swept smoothly around the dial, unlike the one tick per second jumps of modern quartz movements.
It was not, however, without its problems. Apart from its cumbersome size, which gave rise to unfashionably large watches, it also ran out of power very quickly. It was only a matter of time before Rolex lost patience with using the same caliber as more than a dozen of their rivals, and that time came just two years later when they discontinued the ref. 5100 and withdrew from the CEH to develop their own in-house quartz movements.
It would take them a further five years, but eventually the Oysterquartz Datejust and Day-Date models emerged, driven by their own unique quartz calibers—to this day, the most accurate movements Rolex have ever made.
Buying a Rolex ref. 5100 Beta-21
As little more than a special edition, the ref. 5100 was produced in severely limited numbers, so finding one for sale is not easy. As you would expect with such a rare beast, and especially one that marks such a fascinating period in the history of the world’s most successful watchmaker, they go for prices that reflect their relative scarcity. Christies recently auctioned off one example, with box and papers, for around $20,000.
Of the 1,000 pieces made, the majority are in yellow gold, although there were white gold pieces created too, yet no one seems completely sure on the split. Depending on who you believe, it could be either 700 or 900 in yellow, with 300 or just 100 in white, or still others believe there may have been 2,000 produced with a 75/25 percentage ratio. It’s all part of the vintage Rolex collecting mystique.
Whichever is the true figure, it is certain that there are precious few of the Texans out there and the number available to buy will only get smaller. But, while with Rolex’s traditional offerings that is a recipe for ever increasing prices, with a quartz watch, it doesn’t necessarily work that way.
Within reason, a mechanical watch can always be repaired. Even if a certain component isn’t made anymore, a replacement can usually be located if you look hard enough. With quartz, the movement will eventually fail and cannot generally be fixed. So eventually, the Beta-21 watches are going to become items of jewelry; an interesting but non-functioning chapter in the Rolex story and little else.
For that reason, it is hard to see the ref. 5100 reaching true grail status, but you never know. Vintage watch collecting is full of surprises and it may become that vital piece to complete a hardcore fan’s hoard.