Swatch watches are the entry-level option in its group’s portfolio of brands.
The name is short for “Second Watch,” since, in concept, they exist alongside traditional watches, rather than to replace them.
These timepieces are at low enough prices that wearers can accessorize with them, buying watches for different outfits.
In order to emphasize this distinction from the group’s more conventional brands, they draw from counterculture and contemporary art.
This, in particular, tends to lend an experimental, avant-garde quality to the watch designs.
Mass production and use of plastics are core parts of this brand’s character, significantly influencing its aesthetics.
The creation of Swatch was out of necessity, and came during a time when the Swiss watch industry needed a miracle.
However, the brand seizes its purpose with an effortless, even mischievous swagger.
Intense colors, dazzling patterns, and out-of-this-world concepts characterize its collections, while simplified mechanisms and ultra-efficient manufacturing keep costs low.
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The Quest To Save The Swiss Industry
The Quartz Crisis of the 1970s threatened to destroy the Swiss industry with an influx of cheap and accurate watches.
Hence, for the Swiss industry to survive, it needed to develop a watch at a competitive price point
In 1979, ETA released its prototype Delirium Tremens, which would then serve as a basis for later Swiss quartz watches.
Ultra-thin watches were very much in vogue during this time, and quartz technology opened up new possibilities for miniscule thicknesses.
The Delirium Tremens was only 1.98mm thick, since its components spread over a single plane inside the watch case.
This made it not only extremely thin, but much cheaper to produce than intricate multilayered mechanical movements.
ETA’s next project was to create a high-quality but inexpensive watch from this technology, resulting in the Delirium Vulgare. This line would later change its name to “Popularis.”
Swatch Is Born
Finally, in July of 1981, the Swatch brand is created and the brand certainly had its work cut out.
Firstly, these watches needed to serve as a desirable and affordable watch to cover the booming entry-level watch market. The development team simplified and streamlined the usual watch production process greatly in order to achieve Swiss-made affordability.
For example, they implemented an unprecedented level of automation for Swiss watch manufacturing. Further, the watches themselves are very simple in design, with 51 components in contrast to the average 91 of automatics.
However, in order to truly help the Swiss industry, these watches also needed to rehabilitate the image of traditional watches. For this reason, the watches were set to use analog displays, rather than digital LCD readouts.
Digital displays threatened to supplant analog dials, therefore, preserving watch dial literacy was essential.
The first Swatch watches first entered the market during the March of 1983. The brand was under a new group, which was a consolidation of SSIH and ASUAG in that same year.
Because the group wanted to win back the home market first, these watches debuted in Zürich, Switzerland.
The initial release surpassed the 1 million unit sales target for its first year, though the next year was even better. In 1984, the company sold almost double its target, at 4 million watches.
Hence, the group knew it had indeed created something that people wanted. More than a decade later, continued successes of this new brand prompted the group to take the name Swatch Group.
Swatch Style: Quirky Collections
These watches needed to have a boldly different aesthetic from other Swiss watches in order to catch attention.
Radically different shapes were out, because the automated injection molding, machining and assembly processes necessitate relative uniformity.
Hence, the watches have bright, colorful palettes, striking printed patterns on their dials, even scents and unusual materials like fur.
The names reflect this offbeat disposition. For instance, Waffelraffel, Digiwhale, Eggdreams, and La Puff are a few of Swatch’s models.
These are generally descriptive; a watch named Sardina has a photo of a sardine’s head on its dial, for example.
In general, the watches take advantage of the properties of plastic. Due to the ease of printing on and coloring plastic, bright colors and graphic or photographic dials are common.
Transparent plastic also features in lines such as Jelly Fish, where the movement is visible through the case and dial.
Striking designs combined with low prices made these an early example of a fashion watch, that is, a watch as an accessory.
Hand In Hand With Contemporary Art
Since their aesthetics allow great freedom in color, motif and imagery, these watches are an excellent blank canvas.
Hence, many contemporary artists have collaborated with the brand to create limited edition series.
These often included graphic artists, such as Kiki Picasso, who made the first of these collaborations. Others from this period include Tadanori Yokoo’s black-and-red Rorrim and Keith Haring’s Serpent.
Contemporary music pioneers also worked with Swatch to create unique editions. These include, for instance, prolific producer and composer Brian Eno and electronic music visionary Jean-Michel Jarre.
Jean-Michel Jarre worked with Nicolas Hayek, the watch group’s leader, to make the MusiCall, a musical alarm watch, in 1993.
New Shapes & Possibilities: The 1990s
In the 90s, because of the increasing scale of Swatch production, new shapes and watch types became viable.
Notable among these were Alfred Hofkunst’s Swatchetables, with the shapes of food items and, accordingly, sold in grocery stores.
The collection certainly captured the brand’s often tongue-in-cheek character, with a chili pepper, cucumber, and bacon strip.
Their names Verdu(h)ra, Gu(h)rke and Bonju(h)r were wordplays on the German word “Uhr,” meaning “watch,” mirroring this air of playfulness.
The series’ three whimsical designs showcased the anything-goes case shapes now possible due to improved manufacturing facilities.
Swatchetables was a popular collection, with hundreds lining up outside grocery stores in order to buy them.
Besides the 1993 MusiCall’s aforementioned alarm function, there were new collections with many other capabilities.
In that same year, the AquaChrono hit the market with both chronograph functionality and water resistance to 200 meter depths.
Then, 1994 brought the Irony watches, which have steel or aluminum cases.
These introduced a more conservative style, in contrast to the generally unorthodox look of the brand’s other offerings.
This era also saw the first Swatch with an automatic mechanical movement, supplied by ETA.
Paparazzi: Ambitious & Connected Smart Watch
Able to receive daily reports on news, sports, weather and horoscopes, the 2004 Paparazzi was ahead of its time.
This collaboration with Microsoft used the new MSN Direct network; in fact, the Paparazzi was the network’s first compatible watch.
MSN Direct used FM radio waves in order to transmit information to a Microsoft SPOT device like the Paparazzi.
This was a subscription service, and offered access to personalized information, but unlike modern smartwatches, the connection was one-way only.
Ultimately, MSN Direct proved unpopular, because of its subscription model and increased availability of superior mobile wireless technologies.
Therefore, the network shut down in 2012. However, the Paparazzi represents an important step in smartwatch technology.
Sistem51: A Revolution in Mechanical Timekeeping
The company’s manufacturing technology continued to improve, therefore, with increasing interest in mechanical watches came 2013’s Sistem51.
Similarly to the brand’s other collections before it, a totally automated process assembles each Sistem51 watch.
Also like the other collections, the movement of a Sistem51 has 51 parts, an incredibly low number for mechanical calibers.
Unlike the brand’s earlier automatics, this is a Swatch-exclusive movement, with a design commemorating its quartz predecessors.
Significantly, 51 parts is the same number of components in the company’s original quartz movement.
In this case, a single central screw is used to hold it all together, while small pins fasten other parts.
However, despite its simplicity, it’s automatic, boasting an impressive 90 hour power reserve.
Though twice the price of a quartz Swatch, Sistem51 watches are still far below the typical mechanical watch price range.
Learn More About Swatch
The impact of this brand on the watch world has been significant over the years. It proved that the Swiss industry could indeed change and adapt to the modern market.
This brand also did much to popularize and establish our current idea of a fashion watch. Overall, its role in the creation and success of the Swatch Group is undeniable.
To learn about its many influential models throughout the years, visit the detailed chronology on the official site. Finally, follow the links below to find in-depth watch articles, reviews, and guides:
- Visit our main Swatch Group page.
- Discover our various detailed watch reviews.
- Or visit the Bespoke Unit Watch Homepage
"A unique take on Swiss-made. Youthful, fun and casual, these watches are priced to please."Rating: 5.0 ★★★★★