The Return Of The Girard-Perregaux Casquette

The jungle stockade at night. The gates are securely barred; or so you think. The sentries are on duty. But it’s dark. Properly dark. The sort of velvet dark you can touch out and feel. And then you hear a noise – a branch snapping? What’s out there? You suddenly hear another branch give way. Then, as you look out into the night, you see them – hundreds of little red eyes staring back at you.

This, ladies and gentlemen, was the Swiss watch industry in the early 1970s. The little red eyes belonged to the advancing ranks of quartz LED watches. Along with their analogue comrades and later LCD reinforcements they wiped the floor with the traditional watch industry. So far, so much for the standard narrative. But what’s less well-known is how rapidly the Swiss redeployed to not just meet the onslaught but develop their own technology to push it back.


In fact, the Swiss started the war. Even in May 1965 they were working on developing analogue quartz movements, the first of which, the Beta 1 would come off the bench in mid-1967. By contrast, it took Seiko until the end of 1969 to launch their Astron. Girard-Perregaux was the first maker to produce a commercial analogue quartz movement with the GP350 and the firm followed this up in 1976 with its first LED digital, later nicknamed the Casquette. With all things 1970s back in fashion, GP have decided to relaunch the Casquette – now a collectable watch in its own right.

There were two big problems with the original LED watches. The initial problem was obvious; you had to press a button to find out the time. Give it a push and the display lit up with its little red numbers. That’s all fine and cool if you’re sitting around with nothing else to do, but if you’re carrying bags, walking the dog, driving, riding a bicycle, holding a cup of coffee or doing any one of any number of things you don’t have a free hand for prodding at your watch. This need for a button was actually because of the second problem with the original LED watches; the LED displays were so power-hungry that leaving them permanently lit would eat through the batteries (there were usually two back then) in a matter of hours. In fact, smart LED owners stockpiled batteries and bought shares in Duracell and Rayovac just to get some sort of upside.

It’s probably fair to say that pushing a button for the time is now more a retro-cool thing than a pain, but G-P also tell us that even if you do it 20 times a day the battery should last for two years. That’s progress, right there both in terms of the more efficient cal. GP03980 movement that has replaced the original cal. 395 and modern batteries. 

Despite all this new-fangled technology, the new Casquette is still a proper slab of retro-1970s LED wonderfulness. The ‘70s Casquette would tell you, at the push of a button, the time in hours and minutes. Another push gave you the day and the date with a further one revealing running seconds. The new model adds unheard-of–in-the-70s luxuries like the month and the year and your own ‘secret date’ you can set yourself. This would be just the thing for reminding you about an anniversary or a birthday to keep you out of trouble. And the Casquette goes even further and gives you a chronograph and a second timezone. Back in the days of medallions and open-necked paisley shirts this was the stuff of pure science fiction. In fact, even today this is one of the tiny number of LED watches with a chronograph. In the 1970s you had the choice of just a few including the Sicura 1247 Chronoflash and the Breitling 9106 Navitimer (with which the Sicura shares a module), the Heuer Chronosplit and a couple of others. Slim pickings for LED chronographs.

Where the 1970s watch came in knuckleduster stainless steel or gold plate (seriously – these were heavy bits of kit) or much lighter polycarbonate Makrolon, the modern version is made from ceramic and titanium with titanium pushers. The watch weighs in at just over 100g, so a great deal lighter than its ancestor. The bracelet is ceramic too with a rubber inner face and a titanium clasp. So while we’ve gained a chronograph we’ve lost the rather painful hair extraction facility of the stainless steel bracelet. But unlike the first Casquette, you can happily venture near water with the new Casquette too. It’s water resistant to 50m. 

Today it’s hard to get a sense of how unusual the Casquette was as a design back in the 1970s – particularly for a digital watch. Most makers were content simply to take their conventional offerings and swap their round faces for a digital display. Girard-Perregaux started from scratch with the Casquette and built a watch that used a ‘driver’ style display. This meant that the watch was well-aligned with your sightline as you pressed the activation button. It also allowed the firm to integrate the watch and the bracelet as a unified design.

So should you buy one? For some watch people, quartz is only marginally more socially acceptable than wearing a character tie to a board meeting, so G-P are aiming at quite a narrow market. Given the view that still prevails of digital watches as the invention of the devil and it gets even narrower.  But there’s a hard core of digifans who, quite rightly, regard watches like this as having their own place in the pantheon. 

That first watch from 1976 sold out very rapidly indeed. This time around, G-P are making just 820 Casquettes, a tenth of the watch’s production run back in the mid 1970s. They’ve only just launched, and the initial online stocks have already been snaffled, so it’s more a question of ‘can you’ than ‘should you’. If you decide you like the look of this slab of 1970s loveliness you may be lucky and get yourself one at a G-P dealer (they should have stocks), and the firm might even decide to extend the production run. Girard-Perregaux

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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