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Feature: Why Are Digital Watches Still Cool In A Smart Phone Age?

Upon their introduction to the world in the 1970s, digital wristwatches were considered highly futuristic, featuring an LED display with not one ticking hand in sight but four digits intersected with a colon.

It was considered the first completely new way to tell the time in 500 years. In fact, the first digital watch ever released back in 1972, the 18k gold P1 by Pulsar was described as a “solid state wrist computer” and one version of it with a calculator cost the then-astronomical sum of $4,000. Compare this to a gold Rolex Daytona which was then priced around $500.

The striking Hamilton Pulsar P1 from the 1970s.

The striking Hamilton Pulsar P1 from the 1970s.

It’s funny to think that nowadays a digital clock is how most of us tell the time thanks to computers and smart phones. With that said, the inescapable grip that technology has on our lives poses some questions: why are digital watches still going? And why are they so popular?

Wearable Tech

These kinds of questions are hardly new. The quartz movement was another electronic-based technology that crash-landed onto the watchmaking scene during the 1970s. This new advancement had mechanical watchmakers quaking in their boots in what was called the quartz crisis. Yet fast forward to the early 2000s and they came back with a vengeance, and demand for mechanical watches hasn’t slowed since.

However, it’s easier to understand why a hand-crafted mechanical watch that’s arguably more attractive than a typical digital one can survive today. There’s an appreciation for the work that’s gone into it, the technology that has its roots in the pioneering watchmakers of centuries ago, while offering some salvation from a screen … at least for a couple of seconds.

The components that make up Pulsar's P1 watch.

The components that make up Pulsar's P1 watch.

Most digital watches, on the other hand, aren’t subject to fine craftmanship on each individual piece, although, this doesn’t detract from the work put into the design process. Plus, they don’t tell the time any differently to how a phone or computer would, apart from the fact they’re wearable. And wearable tech is in—we’re looking at you, smart watches—and it has been for decades. Think the transition from pocket watches to wristwatches, the latter meant no more digging around to find out the time. In fact, we’re inclined to call the mobile phone the modern-day pocket watch, they’re just not as romantic.

The King Of Digital Watches

Despite the efforts of Pulsar in the 70s, there’s one brand everyone thinks of when digital watches are involved—yep, it’s Casio.

The Japanese electronics giant started out in 1946 when its experts were beavering away, not creating watches, but calculators and electronic musical instruments such as keyboards, instead. Both products it continues to produce, with Casio calculators some of the most popular in the world.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Casio introduced its most beloved product to the market, its digital watch. Its first model, the Casiotron was a hit and sold like hot cakes, but that was just the start of Casio’s success.


You’d be forgiven for expecting the Casio craze of the 1970s and 80s to eventually fizzle out and for digital watches to disappear, becoming nothing more than a gimmick at best. But, boy, would you have been wrong! That Casio craze never did fade, and the brand’s watches are still selling like hot cakes.

Everything from the Vintage collection to the iconic G-Shock and Baby-G ranges have helped keep the brand, and digital watches altogether, just as relevant today.

A model from Casio's rugged G-Shock range.

A model from Casio's rugged G-Shock range.

Casio’s G-Shock isn’t any old watch either. Released back in 1984 it proved itself to be one tough cookie. Digital watches were renowned for their fragility, but Casio wanted to change this, putting its G-Shock through rigorous testing to ensure it’s ready for action in all weathers, making it a groundbreaking timepiece.

This robust technology is just as important today. Think about why GoPro cameras are used over today’s water-resistant iPhones for filming during water-based activities. It’s the same reason why adventurers still opt for purpose-built tools such as the G-Shock—they’re reliable and incredibly helpful. Even those who own high-end mechanical pieces from the likes of Patek Philippe and Rolex often look to a hardy G-Shock to see them through mucky camping trips or high-octane getaways.

Aside from the technical capabilities of Casio and other digital watches, though, it’s the look of these pieces that led to a love affair that is still ongoing today.

Everyone from Hollywood’s Kristen Stewart and Ryan Gosling to music’s Kanye West and Rihanna have sported Casio watches in the name of fashion. The latter even danced in front of a colourful collage of G-Shock Baby-Gs whilst rocking an incredible bracelet consisting of several interlinked Baby-Gs in the music video for her 2010 hit, Rude Boy. But onscreen cameos of digital watches have existed long before Rihanna was even born.

Caught On Camera

As with most must-have products, they rely on the likes of film, TV and celebrity endorsement to earn a spot on the general public’s wish lists. Just like Omega watches are a staple in Bond films, digital watches have had their fair share of onscreen appearances, too, often in sci-fi or adventure movies.

One of the most loved 80s sci-fi films, Blade Runner, saw Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard wearing a digital Microma watch in a rugged black PVD coated steel case and bracelet. This style perfectly suits the tone of the film which depicts a bleak dystopian future.

On a more lighthearted note, digital watches have featured in another 80s classic, Back To The Future, where Marty McFly rocks Casio’s famed Calculator Watch. A piece that allows for some quick totting up, as well as telling the time.

Notably, John Travolta wore the innovative Breitling Aerospace in the 1996 action-thriller Broken Arrow—proving that luxury Swiss watchmakers haven’t entirely rejected LED displays. This ana-digi number offers the best of both worlds, with a traditional analogue display, as well as a digital one.

The Breitling Aerospace features an ana-digi display.

The Breitling Aerospace features an ana-digi display.

But the use of these watches onscreen doesn’t start and end in the late 20th century. Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft wore a Tissot T-Touch in 2003 film, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life. Another multi-functional, and so-called ABC watch, it includes a compass, barometer, thermometer, altimeter and alarm—oh, and that all important touchscreen! The T-Touch was the first ever watch released to have one—making it a forebearer of the smart technology of today.

It’s clear why films set in the future with themes of science and exploration included digital watches. Not only did they look the part, but they provided the characters with some handy gadgets, as well as help get them out of some sticky situations—phew!

Enter Smart Watches

Today, digital timepieces have a younger sibling on the scene: the smart watch. Smart watches—notably the Apple Watch—allow you to send and read messages, take calls, measure your blood oxygen levels … the list goes on. Although you can still check the time on these wristwatches—or phones—it isn’t the reason people buy them.

This makes sense regarding why digital watches are thriving among technology that does much more than tell the time—not everyone wants a phone on their wrist, after all. While a watch or vintage enthusiast would snap up a Baby-G, a technology fan probably wouldn’t because it’s old hat compared to what Apple has to offer.

Just one example of the Apple watches of today and tomorrow.

Just one example of the Apple watches of today and tomorrow.

Whether you’re a fan of them or not, though, you’ve got to agree that digital watches ooze charm. From a retro aesthetic to nostalgic appeal, to wallet-friendly prices; there’s a demand for these 70s- and 80s-inspired watches, meaning you can expect them to stick around for at least a few more decades.

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