Digital Watches Mix Technology and Style
BY ROBERTA NAAS
A glance at the alarm clock on the nightstand reveals glowing numerals that illuminate time. For some, that feature on a wristwatch can be an inviting asset—especially as fine watch brands offer superior choices in LCD (liquid-crystal display) digital wristwatches.
These digital and analog-digital combination watches (“ana-digis,” which combine analog hands for time telling and digital readouts for other indications) are worlds away from the disposable timepieces on display at a drugstore kiosk. These are sophisticated products with costs that run into the hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars. As watch brands offer more functions in their timepieces, LCD digital and ana-digi watches have become both higher-end and higher-tech.
Generally these digital watches are able to offer a host of additional functions such as compass directions, temperature indications, calendars, calculators, tachometers, altimeters, dive depths, countdowns, and even slide-rule calculations.
Technically speaking, “digital” refers only to the numeric readout, not to the mechanism that powers the watch. (In fact, even high-end mechanical watches can have “digital” indications of time—but it is usually done with digits marked on mechanical disks that rotate or turn.) The electronic digital and ana-digi watches currently making a resurgence in the luxury market are those that feature LCD displays and are powered by quartz.
While electronic digital clocks have been on the market for more than half a century, their digital wrist counterparts are younger. In fact, the world’s first-ever electronic digital wristwatch, announced in 1970, was mass-produced and unveiled to the world in 1972—at a whopping cost of approximately $2,100 (equivalent to approximately $11,500 today).
That original digital watch, the Hamilton Pulsar LED timepiece, was startlingly alluring, displaying time in bright red numbers via a light-generating system called light-emitting diodes (LED). To see the time indication, the wearer had to press a button on the watch. The then-new technology was years in the development stages, thereby making it naturally expensive to market the watch at retail.
The unusual technology of a watch lighting up to tell the time caught the attention of consumers quickly, and watch suppliers set their sights on perfecting the technology to lower the price point. In fact, by late 1975 digital watches retailed for less than $100, and not too long thereafter for less than $50. As the price declined, consumers became disenchanted with the novelty of LED watches and with the fact that one needed a free hand to push the button to see the time. Sales dropped drastically and watch brands sought other alternatives.
The next generation of digital watch product arrived on the scene in the late 1970s and was more user-friendly: LCD (liquid crystal display). Whereas the LED watch was light-generating, the LCD version was light-reflective. The display of time was constant and the wearer did not have to push buttons. By 1980, LCD digital watches were enjoying their heyday, and many were being equipped with additional features such as alarms and timers. The introduction of the first quartz watch in 1982 led to the quartz revolution, with both consumers and watchmakers fast forgetting about LCD timepieces. The category later became a catchall for extremely inexpensive watches.
Today, however, fine LCD digital watches have found a niche market around the world as instruments of precision for timekeeping and added functions. Companies such as Breitling, Citizen, Omega, and Gucci have developed new technology that offers multifunction LCD digital indications or that combines analog hands for the time with LCD digital readouts of other information.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFF GALE; STYLING BY TERRY LEWIS