ONCE UPON A TIME…
In the nineteen-seventies, the Swiss watchmaking industry was in severe crisis. At a time when the world market was expanding strongly, Swiss exports were falling drastically. In less than ten years – from 1977 to 1983 – the value of exports, calculated in francs, eas halved. In terms of world market share, the number of pieces manufactured fell from 43% to less than 15% ; Hong Kong and Japan relegated the Swiss watchmaking industry to third place in the global ranking.
Taiwan, China and South Korea also gained considerable ground. In the space of just a few years, the number of persons employed in the Swiss watchmaking industry fell from 90,000 to less than 40,000. The Swiss had missed the boat, despite the fact that it was they – and not, as might be thought, the Japanese – who had developed the first quartz wristwatch. But the Swiss watchmaking industry was focused on traditional mechanical watch movements and continued to rely on proven sales methods.
Segmentation of the world watchmaking industry
ASUAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG), the biggest Swiss watchmaking group, and SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’industrie Horlogère SA) were hard hit by the crisis. Fortunately, neither was prepared to give up easily. In 1978, the Japanese challenged the Swiss watchmakers by launching a watch with a thickness of just 2.5 mm. The Swiss took up the challenge and began development of a watch that was not to exceed 2 mm, the thickness of a matchstick. After five months of arduous development and production work, ETA SA, a subsidiary of ASUAG, launched Delirium Tremens at the end of 1979. At just 1.98 mm and later at 0.98 mm in thickness, the Delirium is the world’s thinnest watch.
Keep it simple
The secret of this luxury timepiece lay in extreme simplification. On the manufacturing side, the classical division into three parts (bottom plate, case and case back), was replaced by a case made in one single piece, with the back also serving as the bottom plate. The movement was fitted from above and the sapphire crystal placed in position last, as is done when making Swatch watches today (and this is no coincidence !) The success and evolution of the Delirium Tremens project inspired the engineers at ETA SA in Grenchen (the development division of SUAG) to ask : is it possible to design a high-quality watch in plastic ? The new project took shape and, as a reference to the gold Delirium Tremens, the plastic watch was named Delirium Vulgare (later changed to “Popularis”).
In July, the project outline for the Delirium Tremens calls for the first fully-integrated production watch not requiring a separate mounting plate, with all components assembled on one plane and directly in the watch case. The fully integrated production technique developed for this project would later serve as a model for Swatch technology.