igital displays have been on a roll for the past five years with the emergence of the smartwatch. So it’s high time to honour the pioneer of the genre: the Pulsar, launched by Hamilton in 1970, the “first digital watch”. Not a smartwatch, of course. But, yesterday as today, with its red numerals that remain engraved in your memory, it has always been sufficient unto itself. Once you’ve seen it, you don’t forget it. It has a certain magnetism – in the positive sense. No need of silicon to attenuate the effects!
- The original 1970 Hamilton Pulsar, with its cushion case and 18-carat yellow gold strap. Priced at 2,100 dollars, at the time it cost as much as a family car.
- The Hamilton PSR, 2020 reedition. The yellow PVD-coated model, limited to 1,970 items, costs CHF 995, and the unlimited steel model CHF 745. Both will be available from May 2020.
- Click here for more information on the Hamilton PSR
Today, the model exactly embodies what differentiates Swiss watches from smartwatches, and what’s more, with a digital display: it’s a question of character. One might well wonder why it was not reedited earlier, at a time when Casio digital-display models are selling like hotcakes to the hipster millennial generation, hungry for the retro-futurism of a time “when people still believed in a better world”. The Hamilton Pulsar is the very incarnation of belief in progress, innovation, revolution, technology – a snapshot of a period of liberation, far from the shackles holding us down today to the point of being confined to our homes!
“This difficult period is demanding a reassessment on the part of everyone.”
Despite its sex appeal, the Pulsar did not necessarily bring good luck to Hamilton in the 1970s, a decade of “creative destruction” for the whole watchmaking industry in the throes of the quartz revolution. Like many other pioneers, it did not have the longevity it deserved. Hamilton ended up being gradually transferred to Switzerland as part of SSIH (the ancestor of the Swatch Group) and the Pulsar brand was bought by the Japanese group Seiko (which produced a new – analogue! – model). Despite this, the little marvel from Lancaster (Pennsylvania) with its LED-display – too smart too early, no doubt – had left its mark on the hearts of numerous collectors.
- Sylvain Dolla, CEO of Hamilton
For the model’s 50th anniversary, the “Swiss-American” brand Hamilton has finally launched a reedition, a quartz watch by the name of PSR (the Pulsar name is still owned by Seiko). The design, based on the Hamilton Pulsar P2, is very faithful to the original – luckily, because any “creative frenzy” would have been extremely unwelcome! And its modern, hybrid display technology (the Swatch Group is still first and foremost an industrial group, after all, and let us hope it stays that way for a long time to come) has corrected the major defect of the 1970s model: its autonomy.
- The launch of the Hamilton Pulsar as reported by Europa Star in 1970. Fifty years later, the model is undergoing a renaissance!
We talked with Hamilton’s CEO, Sylvain Dolla who, pertinently, has many years of experience of technological innovation to his credit (he formerly worked for Alcatel, then as a High Tech & Access manager with the Swatch brand), to understand all the ins and outs of this major relaunch, which is set to inspire the entire watchmaking ecosystem.
Europa Star: What happened to Pulsar between its creation in 1970 and its renaissance in 2020?
Sylvain Dolla: A revolution. It’s simple. Today, if you type “history of the smartwatch” in a search engine, the first name that crops up is the Hamilton Pulsar. It was the first “smart” electronic watch. It won the hearts of all those in the 1970s avant-garde: Elton John, Joe Frazier, Elvis Presley, Keith Richards.... It was launched with bells and trumpets. Just a few years later, Asian competitors democratised digital displays in the shape of the far cheaper LCD. This innovation has become much more commonplace. But the Pulsar was still the first! What’s more, you’ll find a model right in the middle of Silicon Valley Computer Museum.
“Today, if you type ‘history of the smartwatch’ in a search engine, the first name that crops up is Hamilton Pulsar. It was the first ‘smart’ electronic watch.”
While we’re on the subject, did you involve any players from the 1970 launch in this relaunch?
Once we decided on this relaunch two years ago, we immediately contacted the National Watch and Clock Museum in Pennsylvania (ed.: where Hamilton was founded in 1892), who are partners of ours. But the most enthusiastic supporters of the project were the Pulsar collectors and aficionados from all over the world. Personally, I have to say that it’s the only non-mechanical watch I really enjoy wearing…
What prompted this relaunch now? The vintage fashion wave?
No, it was totally an emotional decision. Following your heart is also a way of working! The biggest challenge once the decision was made was to design a display technology in Switzerland. We paid a visit to our colleagues at Asulab. That resulted in a new, hybrid display system combining “reflective” LCD (liquid crystal) technology and “emissive” OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology that works in the dark. Together, they demand very little energy. The bottom line: we guarantee five years’ autonomy, whereas the original model had to go back to the shop after six months…
As far as the design is concerned, very little has changed though…
As with another of our models, the Ventura (ed.: one of the first electric models, launched in 1957), the Pulsar design was ‘right’ from the start. Why spoil it? A crystal sapphire has replaced the synthetic crystal, but the general design is the same.
“We guarantee five years’ autonomy, whereas the original model had to go back to the shop after six months.”
How are you going to distribute this model?
We are producing a limited edition of 1,970 watches with a yellow PVD coating. The non-PVD-coated steel version is unlimited. The limited edition will be available on our e-commerce site and in a few, selected sales outlets while stocks last. Coronavirus or not, our strategy is to work with the best retailers. But this difficult period is demanding a reassessment on the part of everyone. And our priority is and always will be to design watches with character that spark excitement in all those who love watches…