Mechanisms of Technology Re-Emergence and Identity Change in a Mature Field: Swiss Watchmaking, 1970-2008

by Ryan Raffaelli

Overview — According to most theories of technological change, old technologies tend to disappear when newer ones arrive. As this paper argues, however, market demand for old technologies may wane only to emerge again at a later point in time, as seems to be the case for products like Swiss watches, fountain pens, streetcars, independent bookstores, and vinyl records, which have all begun to claim significant market interest again. Looking specifically at watchmaking, the author examines dynamics of technology re-emergence and the mechanisms whereby this re-emergence occurs in mature industries and fields. Swiss watchmakers had dominated their industry and the mechanical watch movement for nearly two centuries, but their reign ended abruptly in the mid-1970s at the onset of the "Quartz Revolution" (also known as the "Quartz Crisis"). By 1983, two-thirds of all watch industry jobs in Switzerland were gone. More recently, however, as the field has moved toward a focus on luxury, a "re-coupling" of product, organizational, and community identity has allowed master craftsmen to continue building their works of art. The study makes three main contributions: 1) It highlights the importance of studying technology-in-practice as a lens on viewing organizational and institutional change. 2) It extends the theorization of identity to products, organizations, and communities and embeds these within cycles of technology change. 3) It suggests the importance of understanding field-level change as tentative and time-bound: This perspective may allow deeper insights into the mechanisms that propel emergence, and even re-emergence, of seemingly "dead" technologies and industries. (Read an interview with Ryan Raffaelli about his research.) Key concepts include:

  • The value of some products may go beyond pure functionality to embrace non-functional aspects that can influence consumer buying behaviors.
  • Introducing a new technology is not always the only way to get ahead of the curve when older technologies or industries appear to be reaching the end of their life.
  • Industries that successfully re-emerge are able to redefine their competitive set - the group of organizations upon which they want to compete and the value proposition that they send to the consumer.
  • There is significant interplay among community, organization, and product identities.
  • Swiss watches—as well as fountain pens, streetcars, independent bookstores and vinyl records—are all examples of technologies once considered dead that have rematerialized to claim significant market interest.
  • For Swiss watchmakers, "who we are" (as a community) and "what we do" (as watch producers) were mutually constitutive and may have been a potent force in the processes that sought re-coupling in the face of the de-coupling precipitated by technological change.
  • Although new or discontinuous technologies tend to displace older ones, legacy technologies can re-emerge, coexist with, and even come to dominate newer technologies. Core to this process is the creation—and recreation—of product, organization, and community identities that resonate with the re-emergence of markets for legacy technologies.
  • Substantial economic change may not be contained only within organizational or industry boundaries, but also extend outward to include broader forces related to field-level change.

Author Abstract

I examine the processes and mechanisms whereby market demand for a "dying" technology re-emerges at a later date. In 1983, fourteen years after the introduction of the first quartz watch, mechanical watches, along with the Swiss Jura community of watchmakers who built them, were thought to be "dead" (Landes, 1983). Unexpectedly, however, by 2008 the Swiss mechanical watchmaking industry had re-emerged as the world's leading exporter (in monetary value) of watches. Using qualitative and quantitative analysis, which I apply to a wealth of data, I show how changes in product, organizational, and community identities associated with a legacy technology can be reconstituted to reconfigure a field. My findings highlight that three mechanisms-identity claims, leadership, and framing (i.e., temporal, linguistic, value)-are core to explaining field re-emergence. Although new or discontinuous technologies tend to displace older ones, legacy technologies that are seemingly "dead" can re-emerge, thrive, and even co-exist with newer technologies. Building on these results, I draw out theoretical and empirical implications that focus on the interface between technological shifts and identity change at multiple levels.

Paper Information