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1999: The Year Watches Looked to the Future

By Felix Scholz

Twenty-odd years ago there was some debate as to which year marks the 'true' passing of one millennium to another. In the end, though, the psychological and cultural weight of the calendar ticking from 1999 to 2000 was hard to compete with. For the vast majority of the world, 1999 was seen as both an ending and a beginning, marked with equal measures of anxiety and excitement.

Even the watch industry, who you might have expected to have a more professionally detached appreciation for the passing of time, got caught up in millennial excitement. The quest for 'new' seems to have permeated the stoic facades of watch brands, with every other one angling for a technology or material to call their own. Silicon was looking full of potential, but it was a few years off. Omega and Seiko impressed by proving that niche new escapements could have real commercial possibilities, while Tissot showcased a brand new tactile technology. It wasn't just the corporate giants looking to the future either, as Richard Mille and François-Paul Journe both chose the auspicious year to launch brands of their own.

 

1999 marked the year when F.P. Journe launched his own brand.

 

While some surely looked to the past, for many in watches the year 1999 held a real sense of excitement and promise for the future. Even thought it might not seem all that long ago for some of us, we thought it about time to take a look back at the final year of the 20th century to see how the watch industry was gearing up for the Noughties.

 

Rise of the independents


 

It's not possible to pinpoint the birth of new era independent horology to any single date. Strong arguments can be made for the debut of Vianney Halter's Antiqua in 1998 or the launch of Harry Winston's Opus series – under the stewardship of Max Busser – in 2001. But it's fair to say that 1999 was right in the middle of that zeitgeist. It was, after all, in 1999 that Richard Mille founded his eponymous brand with Dominique Guenat. They worked with Renaud et Papi to realise their vision of a hedonistic world of high luxury, crafted from cutting-edge materials. Their disruptive design language would quick make its mark on a booming watch industry.

 

The first watch to come from the collaborative efforts of Richard Mille and Renaud et Papi.

 

At the same time Richard Mille was getting acquainted with Renaud et Papi, Stephen Forsey and Robert Gruebel both left the famed complications maker to step out on their own. It would be five years until the name Greubel Forsey appeared on a watch dial, yet the seeds were starting to be sown for their eponymous brand. In what has come to be one of his more unique watch releases, Philippe Dufour launched the Grande Sonnerie minute repeater in 1999. Only four of these highly finished pieces are known to exist and they would come to be known as his most complex creations ever.

 

A technical drawing of what would become Dufour’s most technical watch.

 

The last year of the twentieth century also saw the introduction of a brand that has become synonymous with independent watchmaking, F.P. Journe. In the 1990s, François-Paul Journe was looking to do things his way, rather than continue to build the profiles of other labels. Lacking the capital to launch his own brand, he followed a path pioneered by Abraham-Louis Breguet, centuries before. Journe released a series of tourbillons under a souscription model. A few key clients were offered a discounted rate on these watches, on the proviso that the customer would have to wait some time for delivery. In fact, the first Souscription Tourbillons were delivered at Baselworld 1999, which also served as the formal debut of F.P. Journe.

 

A young François-Paul Journe, working towards his goal of launching his own brand, courtesy of F.P. Journe.

 

While the brand was young in 1999, it clearly possessed a well-formed identity. According to collector Shawn Mehta, "Journe expressed himself through his unique design language. In tandem, his complications were all revolutionary in terms of innovation. It was somewhat rare for an independent watchmaker to excel on both fronts. From day one, an F.P. Journe wristwatch was nearly instantaneously recognisable; such was the impact of that raw design language. For example, it was relatively uncommon to expose screw heads on the dial of a watch back then." This combination of clear vision, distinctive style and exceptional technique couldn't help but serve F.P. Journe well in the coming decades.

 

The finished product.

 

The Co-Axial, A new escapement for a new age


 

Not every indie watchmaker spent the 1990s forging their own path. Take George Daniels for instance. The watchmaker, generally regarded as the greatest of this age, spent the early part of that decade convincing Omega to develop his invention, the Co-Axial escapement. Thanks to its crucial stepped double-wheel, Daniels’ Co-Axial reduced friction and practically eradicated the need for lubrication.

 

Daniels signing the contracts with Omega in 1998 to produce the Co-Axial, courtesy of Roger W. Smith.

 

Today it's widely regarded as a more elegant alternative to the traditional Swiss-lever escapement, and one of the most important innovations in modern watchmaking. However, util it was finally released in 1999 on an industrialised commercial scale, it was an innovation that looked set to be a footnote in the horological history books. Daniels came up with the Co-Axial in the early 1970s. By 1974, with a working prototype in an Omega Speedmaster Calendar, he was ready to shop it to the Swiss firms. For Daniels the next 20 years would be a long, frustrating tale of rejection, as one after another of the major Swiss makers assessed his movement, deeming it too expensive and difficult to produce at scale, or offering no significant advantages over existing methods.

 

The very first Omega Co-Axial gifted to George Daniels numbered 00 with a special engraving and letter from Nicholas Hayek, courtesy of Sotheby’s.

 

Eventually, Omega took a chance on the Co-Axial, with the deal being finalised in 1994. According to a spokesperson at Omega, "it was Nicolas Hayek, the founder of the Swatch Group, who decided that the Co-Axial was exactly the kind of technical advancement that the mechanical market needed, and that Omega was the only brand with the history and know-how to make it a reality. Not only that, but Omega has a history of taking that excellence in precision and transforming it into something that everyday customers can wear."

 

The first iteration of the Co-Axial, as imagined by Daniels and utilised by Omega.

 

Technical merits of the Co-Axial notwithstanding, the technology would come to provide Omega with an important unique selling point with its competitors. Before that could happen, the escapement, which, until then, had been a product of manual labour, needed to be scaled up. That process, where the detailed Co-Axial escapement was reliably produced on a large scale took the rest of the decade and a significant investment. It finally came to fruition in 1999 with the release of the Calibre 2500.

By inventing the Co-Axial Escapement, George Daniels set out to solve issues around lubrication and wear on a watch. He overcame it with the aplomb you might except from a watchmaker of his skill. He was less well equipped to solve the problem of convincing the wider industry to adopt his innovation. In the end, Omega had the foresight and capacity to make it work. However, I'm willing to bet that in 1999 even Omega's executives could not foresee how pivotal this escapement would become for their company.

 

Electricity, magnetism and mechanical power meet in the Spring Drive


 

While George Daniels was grappling with the challenges of his Co-Axial movement over in Europe, a young engineer by the name of Yoshikazu Akahane was creating his own vision for a perfect, perpetual timepiece. In 1977, Akahane, who had been with Seiko Epson since 1971, set about creating a watch mechanism that blended quartz and mechanical technologies. Working at Seiko during the 70s was working on a technological frontier, as the brand was releasing sophisticated mechanical movements in parallel to the rapid developing quartz watches, which first debuted with 1969's Astron.

The potential Akahane saw was for a watch that combined the perpetual power of a mechanical movement, regulated by an incredibly accurate quartz crystal. Akahane spent the next five years developing - often in his private time - a working model. This 'Quartz Lock' prototype showed promise, but the integrated circuit was power-hungry, and could only run for four hours on existing energy sources. On an official level at least, the project was mothballed. But Akahane didn't give up hope, and in the early 90s technological advances – many developed through Seiko Kinetic – made the technology, that would become known as Spring Drive, possible. From 1993 Seiko worked on refining the system. In 1998 the Spring Drive was announced to the world in a manually wound form — and released commercially in 1999. That year also saw the development of the first automatic prototype, a movement that would become the 5R series of Spring Drive movements, and the truest expression of Akahane's vision of perpetual winding combined with quartz-like accuracy.

 

An early Spring Drive movement, courtesy of Hodinkee.

 

From the dial-side Spring Drive is easily recognised thanks to its incredibly smooth gliding seconds hands, neither the fast-paced stutter of an automatic or the regular tick of quartz. This movement, along with the impressive accuracy (+/- 1 second per day), is thanks to the Tri-synchro regulator. To put it as simply as we can, energy from the unwinding mainspring generates electrical power via a glide wheel which runs through the quartz oscillator and integrated circuit. The IC in turn regulates an electromagnetic brake on the glide wheel, which is connected to the mechanism’s gear train, leading to both the smooth seconds hand and the impressive accuracy of the overall mechanism. It might not be the easiest of things to explain, but you can see why it took Akahane so many years to perfect.

Seiko's Spring Drive, like the Co-Axial, aims to make the watch better. More accurate, and more reliable for longer periods of time. While the idea for the technology had been around for some decades, it was contingent on improved industrial technologies for Spring Drive to mature into what it has become today.

 

The first commercial release of the Spring Drive, courtesy of Seiko.

 

T-Touch changes the way we use a watch


 

Tissot's millennial milestone seems, at first glance, to be a little less glamourous than the Spring Drive or the Co-Axial. The T-Touch is a utilitarian watch above all else, lacking the fine polish and mechanical wonder of Omega or Grand Seiko. The reality though, is that Tissot's innovation led to, or at least heralded, the most widespread change in how we wear and interact with watches. In 1999, Tissot called their T-Touch a tactile watch. Today we'd call it a touchscreen. 

Touchscreens have a surprisingly long history; they were theoretically described in the late 1960s and commercialised in the early 1980s. There's also a surprisingly long list of devices with a claim to the title of 'first smartwatch', including 1994's Timex Datalink, the Seiko MessageWatch from 1995 or a Linux prototype wristwatch in 1998. The genius of the T-Touch wasn't the functionality of the watch per se, but rather how the wearer interacted with it.

Between the ana-digi dial and the compass bezel of the Tissot T-Touch was a flange marked with the many features of the watch — chronograph, alarm, altimeter etc. Rather than access this information via a convoluted series of buttons, the wearer needed only to 'activate' the crystal by pressing the crown, then tap the sapphire crystal closest to the desired feature, and the digital read-out would display the relevant data. One notable exception was the compass, which saw the hour and minute hands temporarily moved from their usual position to serve as a de facto compass needle. This might not seem too impressive today, but in an era of 56k modems, it was practically magic.

 

Arguably one of the first smartwatches, courtesy of Tissot.

 

What Swatch group R&D had managed to create with the T-Touch technology was a forerunner of the modern smartwatch. In 1999 it was a somewhat niche, but impressive novelty, its real import was in changing how we interacted with the device on our wrist.

Often, we take momentous milestones as opportunities to look back and take stock at what has been achieved. Indeed, that was the case in 1999, but the millennium's turning carried such great weight that we can't help but look forward too. For the watch industry, the longer view led to truly exciting developments across a range of fronts. There was a renewed energy and appetite for high-end watches from smaller makers. On the other end of the spectrum, there was the exiting application of new cutting-edge technology from Tissot. But most importantly, we saw the result of several sustained, decades-long attempts to add something truly new to a slow-moving field. To see not one, but two new escapements from major players is a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.



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