When smartphones became more of a necessity than a creature comfort for users, this was yet another threat against the traditional watch industry. This was not the first — nor will it probably be the last time — that a disruptive element caused people to reevaluate their relationship with the age-old method of telling the time. In fact, technology’s challenge is actually a good thing for watch manufacturers. Whereas something like an iPhone XI or Galaxy S10 speaks to our desire to have the latest and greatest that Apple and Samsung have available, watches (whether analog or digital) allow people to embrace their individuality.
That sentiment should and probably always will be attributed to Swatch — the brand that ushered in the technicolor timepiece revolution in the early ’80s — and continues to be a diverse design brand.
Long before Swatch ever became a part of the pop culture lexicon, a watch was purely a mechanical device. For the layperson, this meant that in order for it to work properly, the user needed to either manually wind the crown, or it needed to be a self-winding automatic that was powered through the movement of the wearer.
This long-standing tradition was challenged in Tokyo on Christmas Day of 1969. Seiko — who had been established 88 years earlier by upstart, 22-year-old entrepreneur, Kintaro Hattori — introduced its Astron model, the world’s first quartz wristwatch which relied on a tiny battery instead of the aforementioned methods for generating power. Without any fuss, it could run uninterrupted for an entire year (250 times the average mechanical watch) and was 100 times more accurate than other watches at the time. When taking off the case back on the original Astron, the area reserved for the battery appeared like a crop circle left behind by extraterrestrials.
The quartz revolution didn’t arrive as a one-man band. Rather, it was a symphony orchestra. All Japanese firms would eventually follow suit.
By 1977, Japan’s Seiko was the largest watch company based on revenue. Switzerland — the country that had always been seen as the industry leader — was facing an identity crisis. The marketplace had clearly shifted from appreciation of heritage, to convenience. As such, the number of pieces manufactured in Switzerland fell from 43% to less than 15% between 1977-1983.
The two biggest Swiss groups at the time ASUAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG) and SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA) were left to assess the damage; more of the same might win a few battles but probably lose the war, while admitting defeat might cause the entire Swiss industry to fold under the weight of a tiny watch battery. A 1983 merger between the two companies signaled a fight was imminent.
Dr. Nicolas G. Hayek, a prominent consultant — first with his own firm in Zurich in the 1960s — and later with ASUAG-SSIH following the merger, seemed to understand that turning up a nose at what Seiko had accomplished would be a misstep. They just needed a product that could address the needs of the entry-level buyer, but was also viewed as a revolutionary step forward.
When Hayek transitioned from consultant to steering the entire ship, the Swatch Watch (then called the “Popularis”) had already existed since 1981 — albeit lacking the Joie de vivre that would embody the product in later years. The product would undergo a massive transformation when Ernst Thomke, the director general of the subsidiary of the company which produced the Swatch in quantities of 300,000, presented a new vision to Hayek.
The Swatch would be affordable and cost no more than 50 Swiss francs. It would run on quartz. And finally, it would become a bonafide fashion statement that still relied on using an analog display. This last objective would allow ASUAG-SSIH to remain committed to their strong design principals which had come to define their heritage pieces.
In order to make the timepiece less expensive, they theorized that they could use the archetype from a previous model, the Delirium Vulgare — the world’s thinnest watch in which the movement was mounted in the rear — and construct the entire watch out of plastic. By using less precious material — and reducing the number of parts to just 51 instead of 91 — the initial prototype satisfied Hayek’s vision for the future.
But there was a problem. Names like “Delirium Vulgare” and “Popularis” don’t exactly scream qualities like “tough,” “water-resistant,” and “able to run for three years on a single battery.” They needed another moniker with a bit more ’80s pizazz. In turning to a New York City advertising agency, they conjured up the idea of the “second watch.” While it may be a bit defeatist thinking of oneself as a silver medalist, the newly minted “Swatch” certainly had a ring to it.
On March 1, 1983, the world was introduced to what had been marketed in Switzerland, Germany, and Great Britain as, “the impossible watch.” One million “Gent” or “Lady” models — that cost between 39.90-49.90 Swiss francs — were put into production. The goal was to ship 2.5 million Swatch watches by the end of 1984.
The Fashion Watch
The Swatch Watch had managed to transcend the traditional “jewelry” designation. As a “fashion statement,” both young and old could color coordinate their watches with their clothing as if matching one’s belt to one’s shoes. One of the added benefits of having less mechanical parts inside the watch was that Swatch could react quickly to changing sartorial trends. Essentially, Swatch was one of the first prominent examples of both “fast fashion,” and shipping directly to the retailer by cutting out the middleman.
The move to fashion paid off. As The Los Angeles Times noted in their 1985 coverage of Swatch’s relevance outside of the world of horology, “[they] have become the hottest new fashion accessory on the market.”
The Connection to the Arts
Swatch’s connection to the arts can’t be overlooked. They launched the Swatch Art Special in 1985, and have since counted notable masters like Kiki Picasso, Alfred Hofkunst, Keith Haring, Vivienne Westwood, and Damien Hirst as collaborators.
One of the major byproducts of working with masters in their own fields was the ability to produce limited edition/small quantity runs for items. Whereas this is a common tactic today for major sneaker brands like Nike and adidas today, the thought of purposefully producing smaller runs was quite forward thinking at the time. Additionally — like in the case of Alfred Hofkunst’s 1991 collaboration “One More Time” collection which was food-themed — Swatch created immersive, pop-up style activations in grocery stores that we now see are quite commonplace for brands looking to subvert traditional retail methods.
As one might expect, these collaborations are amongst the most sought after and pricey for Swatch collectors. According to Frank Edwards’ book, Swatch: A Guide for Connoisseurs and Collectors, which was published in 1998, Picasso’s Swatch at that time was reselling for between $25,000-$40,000, and Haring’s for between $60,000-$80,000.
Welcoming the Chronograph
The brand could have easily rested on its laurels and simply kept producing more and more artists collaborations. But of course, from its earliest days, Swatch has been committed to pushing the boundaries on what was possible in the watch world.
The Swatch Chronograph was the first multifunctional Swatch Watch. Debuting in 1990, the design didn’t depart from the distinct, colorful dials the brand had become known for, but the ingenuity of the 1/10 second timer (with stop and reset facility), subsidiary dials for recording hours, minutes, and seconds, and the ability to track intervals for up to 12 hours proved that the engineering team was equally daring as its design team.
On April 7, 1992, the 100 millionth Swatch was produced in Grenchen, Switzerland. While the plastic watch had almost single-handedly saved the Swiss industry, the brand knew it had the capability to expand its reach — and also needed to compete with affordable brands of the era like Fossil and Guess who both triumphed the usage of metal cases which they marketed using a strong reliance on Americana. Thus, in 1993, Swatch introduced its first metal cases in the steel Irony collection. The impact was two-fold; Swatch was showing a maturation, and it also recognized that using plastic impacted the environment.
Today, Swatch has an environmental stance which includes doctrines like, “the conservation of the natural environment and its resources,” “the production of ecologically sound products by the most efficient means,” “the use of raw materials, energy resources and water in moderation,” and the avoidance of unnecessary waste.”
Swatch is the rare brand that resonates for both young and old. Perhaps that’s the beauty of a timepiece; an understanding of the hours in a day doesn’t need to be a complicated affair. Those that gave a Swatch as a gift, or were on the receiving end of the gesture, have all grown older since the genesis of the idea that aided in saving the Swiss watch industry. As such, there’s a fondness that is unescapable.
Nicolas G. Hayek’s original vision for the brand — embracing past success, while also being aware that today’s consumers thirst for products with additional narrative elements — is still a core tenet. In this case, they’ve continued to rely on the power of collaboration. Whether it’s with individuals like Jeremy Scott, or entities/brands like Hodinkee, the charm of a Swatch is that each partnership feels organic.
Upon Hayek’s passing, the Harvard Business Reviewpaid tribute to his acumen as leader, writing, “His turnaround strategy violated almost every piece of standard-issue advice peddled by highly paid consultants and Wall Street titans — not because he was reluctant to break from the past, but because his radical changes were built on a genuine appreciation for the past.”
Swatch may have grown larger than anyone could have imagined. And yet, it still maintains that beautiful simplicity that exists between the maker and the wearer. It’s certainly a testament to Hayek’s 20/20 vision of past and future.