BETA-21: the forgotten one is back

If you are a watch enthusiast, you have probably heard of “quartz”. This mineral almost killed off traditional watchmaking. However, it also forced Swiss companies to create some of the most important milestones in watchmaking, such as the Royal Oak, the Nautilus… and the Beta-21.

This forgotten piece of history represents a crucial moment in the history of watchmaking, and it is time to give it the respect it deserves. Let’s explore the history of this rare and important mechanism…


As some of you may know, a balance spring connected to a mechanical regulator drives the mechanical watches via a series of gears. The regulator, comprising an escapement wheel and a balance wheel, oscillates at a stable frequency. This movement allows the mechanism to release energy with a precise rhythm, reflected by the different hands.

This incredible microscopic mechanism, refined in the 17th century, is controlled by the laws of physics alone. And we are talking about simple time watches, with no mention of complications of any kind.

In the late 1800s, the Curie brothers discovered the piezoelectric properties of quartz. However, it took 40 years for the engineers at Bell’s Lab to produce a watch controlled alone by quartz. With only a one-second error in four months, they rapidly recognized this technology as a high-precision standard for laboratories and astronomical observatories around the world.

The state-of-art at the time did not allow for the widespread use of quartz watches, so much so that the Encyclopædia Britannica stated, “quartz watches will probably never be cheap enough for domestic use”. From the size of a modern refrigerator, with several fragile vacuum glass cases and astronomical prices, we can say that they were not very practical. And, speaking of refrigerators, the resonators needed precisely controlled temperature glass bells to prevent thermal expansion.

At that time, they considered this technology impossible to apply in a wristwatch, but all the watch companies worldwide took note.

Fast forward to the 1950s: the digital revolution is everywhere. Consumers are bored with tradition, with the “old”: humanity is preparing to conquer the moon and certainly cannot rely on technologies that are centuries old.

The Elgin Watch Co. (USA) and Lip (France) set up a joint venture to experiment with a miniaturized version of a new timepiece device used in experimental watches since the 19th century. Quartz, you might say. Sorry to disappoint you. We’ll get to quartz later.

First, we need to talk about electronic watches.

This technology was considered impossible to apply to wrist watches, but manufacturers all around the world took note of this new technology.

Let’s take a quick step and land in the 1950s: the digital revolution is everywhere. Customers are tired of traditional, “old” things: the mankind is preparing to conquer the moon and cannot rely on century old technologies.

Elgin Watch Co. (USA) and Lip (France) then created a joint venture to experiment a miniature version of a new time-keeping technology that’s been used in experimental clocks since the 800s. Quartz, you may think?
Sorry to disappoint, we’ll get to quartz later.

We first have to take a look at electric watches.

Electric watches

Wall clocks powered by electricity have been created since the 1840s but without great success. In 1952, Elgin and Lip introduced the first miniaturized version of a battery-powered mechanism for wristwatches.

These (there are several) mechanisms work on a common principle: a battery supplies current to a solenoid, which alternates and interacts mechanically with the balance wheel. A combination of traditional elements moved by electric current rather than mechanical force.

But the most charming movement in the electronic family (and one of the most fascinating ever, if you ask the author) is the diapason.

This mechanism is unrivaled: a small diapason replaces the balance with two “cups”, which oscillate in the magnetic field generated by two spirals. There is no contact between the two pieces, which resonates thanks to electromagnetic force alone.

We can hear the vibration emitted by the diapason as a faint “ringing”. The incredibly high cycle translates into microscopic movements of the second hand, seemingly in repeated motion.

The most famous example of a diapason movement is the Bulova Accutron, of which we can see the “space view” version in the photo below from the author’s collection.

Bulova Accutron Spaceview, original photo by Lorenzo Spolaor

The Swiss answer

What was Switzerland’s position when the United States (Elgin, Bulova, Hamilton…) and France (Lip) were betting on electronic movements?

Switzerland is a small country with limited natural resources. Thus, technological development was difficult compared to other countries, such as the United States or Japan. This led over 20 rival companies (including Rolex, Omega, IWC, Patek Philippe, JLC, Piagetand Longines, among others) to join forces in the common project of developing a new technology to project Swiss watchmaking into the 20th century.

In 1962, these companies founded a consortium in Neuchâtel, called the “Centre Electronique Horologer”, or “CEH”.

The engineers of CEH: Charles-André Dubois, François Niklès,  Jean Hermann, Richard Challandes and Charles Frossard (from left to right)

The engineers immediately set to work on a new regulator. The prototype, Calibre Alpha, was based on Bulova’s Accutron, with a transistor regulator shaped like an 8. Although helpful and able to escape Bulova’s patent, they abandoned it soon.

The idea of using quartz was proposed early in the CEH, but not pursued because the team believed that any crystal small enough to fit into a wristwatch would oscillate so fast that it would break.

After the failure of the Alpha Project, the group was determined to create a microscopic quartz oscillator with an array of transistors capable of withstanding stress. At the end of 1965, the CEH declared that the goal for 1966 would be to build a “montre-bracelet à quartz”. A quartz wristwatch.

The Beta-21 development

The circuit made a complete oscillation every two seconds and was connected to a small motor that advanced 1/60th of a minute every half oscillation. This gave the watch the typical one-second tic-tac that we associate with quartz watches today.

Although it performed better than the Bulova Accutron, they estimated that it would consume the battery power in only one year. The current consumption was too high, so the team had to find a different solution.

The solution consisted of a simplified 5-stage frequency reduction process (the Beta-1 had 14 stages) and a vibration motor. This last difference handled the smoother movement of the second’s hand, like that of diapason mechanisms. They completed the new calibre, Beta-2, within less than a month from the previous Beta-1. Later, on 19 December 1967, CEH announced the production of the first fully functional miniaturized quartz calibre: the Beta-21.

The caliber Beta-21

The rush to production

In all fairness, the first to announce the production of a quartz watch was Longines, in August 1969. Despite the technology of the 1960s, Longines’ “Ultra-Quartz” looked “amateurish” without an integrated circuit, and deliveries did not begin until 1971.

Longines Ultra-Quartz, credits to Mim&Croket

The achievement of the “first quartz wristwatch” is (rightly) credited to Seiko, who introduced the “Quartz Astron” on 25 December 1969. This watch was the first quartz watch to be marketed to the public. Today, when we think “quartz” we immediately associate it with cheap watches, but it represented the pinnacle of technology. And that meant a fair price: 450,000 yen the equivalent of a medium-sized car for the time. The watch was released in a limited edition, only available in a solid yellow gold case. Not exactly the 10-euro Casio of today.

Over 20 Swiss companies released their watches powered by the Beta-21 at the 1970 Basel Fair. The thickness of the movement forced the brands to design very particular cases, which today we would call “very 70s”. Like Seiko, many of the watches driven by the Beta-21 were made of gold and the prices were around 20,000 Swiss francs.

In the first six months of 1970, the CEH could produce over 1000 calibers, a much larger number than Seiko (or Longines…). Therefore, many consider the Beta-21 driven watches to be the first commercially available quartz watches in history.

Ah, let’s also remember how Seiko needed 10 years to develop its quartz movement, while the CEH took only two. Impressive.

The charm of the Beta-21

We want to ask you to stop and think for a moment about why you love and value traditional Swiss watches.

The most experienced men in Switzerland handcrafted the Beta-21 calibre, using the most expensive materials and state-of-the-art technology. And it is extremely accurate. If you ask us, this is why we love Swiss watches and why we value them.

Altogether, the CEH produced only 6,000 Beta-21s for all the companies that took part in the joint development. Thus, finding a watch driven by a Beta-21 is quite a rare event.

As you know, we at The Watch Boutique have a mission. Our goal is to provide our clients with the rarest models with the best conditions. And we do our best to anticipate trends, helping the wiser investors who rely on us to create a solid portfolio while enjoying beautiful watches on their wrists.

Piaget is famous for his eternal challenge of trying to create the slimmest of watches. And it was no exception with the Beta-21 it received, creating the “Rectangle A L’Ancienne” (ref. 14101).

We are delighted to offer this incredible forgotten treasure in NOS (stock) condition, made even rarer by its white gold case and onyx dial.

Rare, handmade, important, Swiss (and even beautiful, for some)… if you ask us, we have no doubt: the Beta-21 is a watchmaking milestone. Sure, it’s a bit of a strange page, but it’s time to show it the due respect and admiration it deserves.

written by Lorenzo Spolaor

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1 year ago

[…] The market was flooded with cheap and modern quartz watches from Japan, and traditional watch industry was suffering a very bad hit (learn more about the Swiss’ answer in our article!). […]

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