Swatch - The Last Great Innovation in Horology?
By A Collected Man
By now, everybody knows the story of the Quartz Crisis. The rise of battery-powered watches from Japan reshaped the Swiss watch world in a matter of years, causing a seismic disruption to a centuries old industry. From this impact, radical new designs began to spring forth from some of the oldest houses – see Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe’s steel sports watches. However, even these forward-thinking designs didn’t come close to the divergence achieved by the subject of this article. Machine-made, plastic, monobloc construction with a rubber strap and a quartz movement. The Swatch was as far away from a traditional “Swiss Made” timepiece as it was possible to be; yet the company that they were born from, ETA SA, has probably produced more Swiss movements than anyone else.
If you only look at the retail price, these are the most affordable and accessible watches that we’ve taken the time to write about here, and by quite some margin. However, this in no way takes away from their intrinsic quality – on the contrary. While the story of these watches was only supposed to go as far as keeping the Swiss watch industry afloat, it has in fact, created a whole new section of watch collecting. A fun, easy-going, “non-compete” watch that has far more variations and permutations than any other example on the market today.
Referred to by some as more akin to an objet d’art than a timepiece, the artist collaborations that Swatch started in 1985 with Kiki Picasso have also become cult favourites. Some have even become collectable in their own right, with the auction value of the most desirable models having far surpassed expectation. Not only were Swatch engaging with artists for design collaborations, but they were also positioning themselves more widely, by sponsoring events such a music festivals and sporting competitions. Over time, they became a feature in their own right, of popular culture.
In this article, we’ll delve into the world of Swatch, aiming to understand its origins and just why the brand is so central to modern horology, in a way which is often forgotten or disregarded. We also talked to some of the collectors that enjoy these pieces, with a few surprises along the way. Did you ever think that John Goldberger, the established Italian collector, would own a plastic Swatch, alongside his Patek Philippe perpetual calendars and Rolex split seconds chronograph? Turns out he has a few.
Using the same frame of reference as we would for some of our other deep-dive articles, we also consider the collectability of early Swatch, focusing on some of the cult examples which have garnered attention at auction in recent times. Finally, embracing the spirit of these affordable and fun wristwatches – being fans of them ourselves – we selected some of our favourite vintage examples currently out there for sale, as part of a buyer’s guide.
Why Does Swatch Exist?
As mentioned above, Swatch was yet another by-product of the Quartz Crisis, in addition to the ensuing global financial downturn that took place in the early 1970s. To give a sense of the decline to hit Switzerland at the time, the percentage of watches worldwide that came from the country fell from 43% to just 15%, between 1977 and 1983. By then, the largest watch brand in the world in terms of revenue, was Seiko.
At this time, the Swiss watch industry was mainly dominated by two groups, Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG (ASUAG) and Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH). Combined, they owned an important number of the major brands and movement makers at the time. Specifically, ASUAG controlled ETA SA, along with many other component and ébauche manufacturers, as well as a handful of brands. Meanwhile, SSIH counted household names such as Omega and Tissot in its portfolio.
The one name that is brought up whenever the creation of the Swatch group is mentioned is that of Nicolas G. Hayek. A business consultant who originally started his professional life in engineering firms, he was brought into SSIH in 1980 to help restructure the company. This eventually led, in 1983, to the merger of ASUAG and SSIH to becoming Société de Microélectronique et d'Horlogerie SA (SMH). This joining together of two Swiss giants showed that the traditional watch industry hadn’t given up, but rather was gearing up for a comeback against growing Japanese competition.
Shortly before the merger, Dr Ernst Thomke, who was CEO of ETA SA at the time, had invested in injection-moulding machines; meaning that it was now possible to produce single-piece plastic watch cases on mass. During the merger, Ebauche SA and ETA SA would consolidate into one company, combing their knowledge and resources to help produce more Swiss made mechanical movements. More importantly for this article, however, Thomke also became the inaugural CEO of SMH. Alongside Mr. Hayek, on March 1st, 1983, they launched the brand new Swatch brand, with 12 watch lines. All were made of plastic, with fully Swiss made quartz movements that only contained 51 parts. This was far less than the standard quartz movement of the time, which had up to 91 components.
This was watchmaking in a way that no Swiss Canton had ever seen. The fully automated production line was able to produce watches at a rate that had never been heard of before. It took them less than 10 years to produce 100 million watches, reaching that figure on April 7th, 1992. If it wasn’t already obvious by this point, the production numbers when it comes to Swatch are on a completely different level compared to what we ordinarily write about. When Swatch produced limited editions, they were still in the triple figure, or even four figure, range – higher than the yearly production of some of the independent brands we’ve covered in the past.
The revenue that these quick to produce, and even quicker to sell, watches created was partly responsible for helping save the SMH group. This allowed them to reinvest profits into their more traditionally horological brands and eventually buy up more prestigious names until they became the Swatch Group as we know them today. In many ways, this plastic watch heavily contributed to the survival of the Swiss watch industry as a whole.
Why Was the Swatch Watch Culturally Important?
The impact that these plastic and rubber watches had, cannot really be compared to anything else in the watch world. This was not only due to innovative production methods, but was also thanks to how they were marketed. Spearheaded by Mr. Hayek himself, Swatch watches were pitched to the public as fashion accessories. Even the genesis of the name, being a contraction of “Second Watch”, placed them in a category closer to a necktie than a timepiece. This was a first.
New collections were released twice a year, for Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter, rather than following along the traditional yearly cycle of releases adopted by the rest of the industry. While the name may suggest that Hayek was aiming at those who already owned a watch, and might have wanted a cheaper alternative to wear on their days off, the various campaigns that Swatch ran in the ‘80s seem to aim it at a much younger audience. In fact, many watch collectors today still remember their first watch being a Swatch. This introduction to a generation of kids, who got used to having a watch on the wrist that gave them the time with three hands – instead of the numbered LCD display that was starting to pick up traction – was revolutionary.
Michael Hill was one of these children. Now the Creative Director of Drake’s, a relaxed tailoring brand based in London, Hill points out that, “Swatch watches have become part of the cultural firmament – everyone has owned one at some point. For a lot of people, a Swatch is probably their introduction into the world of watches.” These Swatch’s accustomed a whole generation of children in the ‘80s to getting used to the idea of having a watch on their wrist. Some of these have become the collectors of today, moving into more traditional, mechanical horology, while at the same time maintaining a certain nostalgia for the watches that caught their eye in the first place.
The youth of the ‘80s had a very definitive culture, one that Swatch not only tapped into but helped build. While the name came from “second watch”, it also could well have stood for “blank canvas”. The simplistic architecture of the case and strap design lent itself very easily to constant redesign and collaboration. It drew parallels with other fashion trends at the time in streetwear, acting as an easily mass-produced canvas for the bold and colourful aesthetics of the time. Swatch managed to sync perfectly with the graphic design led fashion trends that seemed to dominate ‘80s youth culture, providing a timepiece that was both unpretentious and infinitely customisable. Suddenly, having a watch collection, or “wardrobing”, was something anyone could do.
This unpretentious, democratic aspect is precisely what speaks to some Swatch aficionados. Hill enjoys how this contributes to the design of the watch, but also the spirit it embodies. As he puts it, “Men's mechanical watches can sometimes be quite large, and quite flashy, so it's nice to wear something that's unassuming, simple, discreet. I also like how democratic they are: inexpensive, widely available, it's a Swiss watch for everyone.”
Auro Montanari, otherwise known as John Goldberger, an established collector and watch scholar owns a respectable collection of them, despite having “never worn a Swatch.” As he puts it, “I have only made a couple of shots with a few interesting later models in matching locations on Instagram.” Montanari goes on to describe Swatch watches as “the last real innovation in the history of horology.”
For Montanari, the brilliance of Swatch can be distilled down to four separate innovations. “First innovation, a simple quartz wristwatch with only 51 parts, assembled with full automation. Second, the design process, a rigorous and continuous interaction between concepts and knowledge. Third, the innovative marketing. And fourth, the global distribution.” Beyond what we’ve already discussed, he highlights another key aspect of Swatch’s success: the fact that they managed to distribute their watches all around the globe. With the umpteen iterations, there was appeal in every possible market and the smaller than average size meant that it was not exclusionary to anyone.
The Limited Editions Worth Knowing About
As we mentioned above, Swatch collaborated with countless artists to bring a fresh, relevant feel to their watches. They constantly reimagined what these plastic and rubber watches could look like. It only took two years for them to team up with their first artist to take advantage of this blank canvas, when Kiki Picasso designed a 140-piece limited run. It depicted a graphic-novel-style figure inside a post-modern, stained glass window motif. While this was a run of 140 pieces, each one of them was unique, with the colours on the dial being different for each model Swatch produced. That’s right, there is such a thing as a unique Swatch.
When they were first released the limited edition, a poster, listing 120 of the dial variations, was given out as well. It’s said that not many of these posters are still around, because the day the Kiki Picasso Swatch was released it was raining. These colour combinations displayed on the poster are now the most sought-after ones in the Swatch collecting community, where a “poster dial” can fetch a premium. Possibly the most impressive accumulation of Kiki Picasso pieces, including many prototypes, reside in the collection of Rainer Haas, a Swatch aficionado of over two decades. Possibly the largest Kiki collection in the world, he owns 33 Kiki Picasso models, including the very first two design proposals and original design sketches, prototypes, poster models, Schmid Müller frame and 51 Kiki Picasso dials. You can discover the catalogue of the full collection on his dedicated website.
The next one worth keeping an eye out for is the Mimmo Paladino design, named Oigol Oro. Produced in 1988, this is often referred to as the most sought-after model in the entire Swatch back catalogue. With only 140 made and all numbered on the back, there are some slight variations here that can have a significant impact on the price. There were 40 made with Roman numerals on the back which were given to the artist and Swatch employees. The other 100 are numbered with Arabic numerals, with the first 27 being the most desirable, as they were given to VIP clients of Swatch, such as the Dalai Lama and Sting. Finding one of these can be a grail watch for any Swatch collector.
Though we may have become accustomed to this level of minutiae within more traditional collecting areas, such as vintage Patek Philippe or Rolex, it is interesting to see the same mindset extended to the world of Swatch. After all, the same elements are at play which make people care about “double Swiss” Rolex dials, all within a more affordable, vibrant and playful environment. More traditional collectors will recognise the commonalities of thinking, and this is precisely part of the appeal of collecting Swatch.
Possibly the most well-known of the artist collaborations that Swatch did in the ‘80s, is that with Pop artist, Keith Haring. Starting his career graffitiing the New York subway, Haring was asked to produce four separate watches for his release. Known as the Modèle Avec Personnages, Serpent, Milles Pattes and Blanc sur Noir.
With incredibly widespread appeal thanks to the popularity of Haring as an artist, these watches seem to be particularly sought-after. In a way, Haring and Swatch’s success come from a similar place. One of the early pioneers behind street art and pop art more generally, Haring’s work was at its very core democratic, unpretentious and targeted towards a mass market audience. These are some of the same characteristics embodied by the Swatch brand. Again, the more dedicated enthusiasts will be on the lookout for the rare prototypes and colour test models of these, but more about them later.
The final artist collaboration which we wanted to touch on is the “One More Time” one, made as part of the “Swatchables” series. It was a collection of three watches, released in 1991, which took the shape of a chilli, a cucumber and bacon and eggs. You read that right. Designed by the Austrian painter Alfred Hofkunst, they were numbered and “limited” to 9,999 pieces but, in an interesting marketing move, were only available to buy at certain high-end food stores. While they may not seem that limited from the number, the fact is that these watches do not hold their condition well once they’ve been removed from their packaging. However, thanks to their odd shape, many of these pieces were kept sealed and there are still some to be found in near NOS condition. Trying to wear a chilli pepper on your wrist can be quite hard to pull off, even for the most avant garde of dressers. These pieces prove just how playful Swatch can be, as well as their non-conformist, almost disruptive approach, to distribution and retail. Another aspect which sets them apart.
A range of watches that was never designed to be a limited series but signified a step forward in Swatch’s design and mechanical capabilities, were their chronographs. This addition of a complication to the range came in 1990 and took the size of the Swatch up to 37mm. In typical Swatch fashion, these were released in a riot of colours, originally in a group of six from the blue, pink and yellow accents of the White Horse to the bright, flashy dial of the Signal Flag
These six pieces are a favourite of watch writer, photographer and hopeless enthusiast Justin Hast, who says, “these watches are the ultimate non-compete for me. You might have a Lange 1 sat at home, but you really can’t beat one of these on the wrist.” The fact that some of these chronographs have essentially started to developed patina – from the lume turning a brownish hue to the colours losing some of their vibrancy – has started to create an almost contradictory aesthetic. That of a quartz, plastic watch, which now feels vintage, in the most charming way possible.
The final limited edition that we wanted to bring your attention to is called the Jellyfish. Introduced in 1983, with only 200 models produced, it was the first limited run of watches that Swatch made which wasn’t in collaboration with a well-known artist. This completely see through watch took the idea of a skeleton timepiece and made it uniquely Swatch. It showed all 51 pieces of the quartz movement, with a sizeable amount of wrist visible through the top of the dial. This has gone on to become somewhat of a cult classic in the Swatch community and was recently redesigned for modern tastes in the larger Big Bold Jellyfish, that clocks in at 47mm.
How Collectable Can A Plastic Watch Be?
From our perspective, Swatch is best understood from the perspective of art and object collecting, rather than strictly horological collecting. Counter intuitively, it is almost equivalent to those who collect early examples of streetwear – from sneakers to limited edition t-shirts – where the same elements of popular culture, graphic design, nostalgia and a repeatable canvas intersect. Considering these from a purely horological angle takes away some of the fun and doesn’t necessarily capture why a community has developed around them.
These pieces not only represent a significant moment in the Swiss watch industry, but their infinite iterations and permutations make them one of the most fun things to collect. This is why we see whole collections, numbering well into the thousands, going up for auction under one lot. While this makes it easier for the auction houses to achieve a stronger price, it also means that some of these collections, like the Blum Collection, can take on a life of their own. Indeed, the aforementioned collection sold at Phillips back in 2011, totalling over 4,000 pieces and sold for an eye watering $6,618,560. It contained some of the most desirable models, many of which we mentioned above, in NOS condition. This was one of the first important, public indicators that these watches were becoming a collecting category in their own right.
James Marks, an international specialist and Director at Phillips, believes in the simplicity of this form of collecting, “they represent the purest sense of acquisition: a purchase with your eyes and your heart and not for complication or the advertisement of success.” No one is buying a neo-vintage Swatch for its technical brilliance, nor are they approaching it with the same mindset someone would when bidding on a 2499. In fact, Marks says, “I have clients with outstanding examples of the 2499 that ask me to source Swatch for that nostalgic pick up.”
We are seeing more and more people lean towards these fun, smaller watches as something of a palate cleanser. They offer a complete break from wearing a more fragile, vintage piece or a chunkier steel sports watch. There also seems to be a shift towards people combining these with sharp tailoring, with an enjoyment for breaking traditional convention. Take for example, Sergio Loro Piana, founder of the Loro Piana clothing brand and widely known as the “King of Cashmere”. He took the rather bold decision to wear his classic Swatch over his shirt cuff, Gianni Agnelli-style.
Michael Hill of Drake’s follows a very similar path, wearing formal, often hand tailored, clothing with these mass produced, colourful watches. The paradoxical combination and the breaking of traditional norms is exactly what makes this exercise so appealing. In Hill’s own words, “I certainly wasn't the first person to wear one with formal clothing, but I enjoy the juxtaposition between clothes that are refined, elegant and tailored, and a timepiece that's simple, fun, perhaps brightly coloured.” Ultimately, it also becomes a way to show that certain worlds – be it horology or classic clothing – don’t need to be so stern. As Hill puts it, “classic menswear can sometimes come across as a rather poe-faced business, so it's nice to be able to signal that you don't take your clothes – or, indeed, yourself – too seriously.
You even have the superstars of the silver screen favouring these, proving that Swatch really taps into popular culture in a significant way. Robert Redford was known for liking his Swatches. In fact, he was so attached to one model that when he lent it to his daughter, who unfortunately subsequently lost it – Swatch made sure they replaced it for him as soon as possible. Redford was also on that list of those deemed important enough to be one of the first 27 people to receive a Mimmo Paladino watch mentioned earlier.
According to Marks, it can be tough to use auction listings as a barometer for the health of the Swatch market, as most of the established houses won’t list individual pieces, “unless a collection is sold in a single lot. The very nature of the Swatch brand does not fit with the vintage, complicated, traditional offerings of a watch department.” These pieces are mostly trading hands privately, over eBay or through specialist websites such as squiggly.com or, for the rarer pieces, you can head to swatch-prototypes.com.
While Swatch might not fit into the bracket of true “vintage”, with the earliest models only dating back to the early 1980s, we are starting to see a sense of nostalgia building around them. Many watch collectors today will remember Swatch from their childhood or teenage years, possibly having one bought for them as their first timepiece. It could be what got them used to having an analogue watch on their wrist. Being able to trace this passion back to something that is still readily available today is special, with even some of the limited editions, being sold at an accessible price.
If you’ve stuck with us this far, thank you! By way of gratitude, we thought it might be nice to put together a selection of some of our favourite pieces currently for sale online. After all, due to their general affordability, they’re the sort of watches almost anyone can purchase and enjoy. In fact, we would venture to say that – in terms of wearing pleasure – Swatch offers some of the best value for money out there. It’s worth pointing out at this point, that we have no commercial relationship with Swatch or incentive to write any of this. Sadly, there are no ACM limited editions on the horizon either. We’re just fans.
With so many iterations and variations available, it can be hard to get a sense of value, especially when cult examples have sky-rocketed in terms of price, in a way that may not be understandable by all. With that in mind, we’ve selected a relatively wide range of pieces, going from those which speak to us on a purely visual level, to some of the more seminal models in the brand’s history.
Prototype Keith Haring
The word prototype is akin to gold dust in the traditional watch collecting world. It turns out this extends to Swatch as well. Our first selection is a rare “colour test” prototype of a Keith Haring, Modelle avec personnages. These colour test models were never made to be sold and so a lot of them either stayed in the Swatch factory or were taken away by Swatch employees. Many of the colour tests were not even fitted with working movements, however this one seems to be fully functional. You can identify prototypes by the number stamped on the back. If the watch was from a limited edition it would show a “XXX/9999” mark, whereas the prototypes logically display the “P” letter.
As evidence, this example bears a 5073-P signature on the back. The combination of the Keith Haring design and the prototype aspect go some way to explain the rather ambitious price set by the seller. Whether it’s for you or not, the fact it exists in the first place is already rather intriguing.
This example is currently up for sale on eBay, with a price tag of just over £3,000 at this time. You can view it here.
“Prototype” Color Window
As much of the fun within the neo-vintage world of Swatch comes down to accessibility, we also thought we would feature a more affordably priced prototype. This one is from the paired back Color Window collection. A testament to Swatch’s unusual and whimsical design approach, this blacked-out Swatch features an open window which displays a different range of colours over a 24-hour period. This complication – if we can refer to it as such – is in no way functional, though it is oddly intriguing and playful. This particular example, identifiable as a prototype thanks to the 9254-P mark on the back, was given to a Swatch employee on 22nd June 1989.
This example is currently up for sale on eBay, with a price tag of £119 at this time. You can view it here.
One More Time Full Set
Next, we wanted to feature one of the more outrageously fun Swatch designs from the past, and one which we covered earlier. This complete, and unopened set of Alfred Hofkunst One More Time three-pieces. Being sold by the Italian site Ticking Free, which specialises in second-hand Swatch, these might not make the most sense to wear, but they certainly stand out as objects of inventive design.
The three-piece set is currently up for sale on Ticking Free, with a price tag of €349.90 at this time. You can view them here.
Grand Prix Chronograph
Let’s move on to a popular sub-section of Swatch collecting – the chronographs. This Grand Prix chronograph is one of the most fun iterations of the design, with a bright range of colours features throughout, from bright yellow to orange and pink. Released in 1992, though the origin of the Grand Prix name is unclear, it may be due to the tachymeter scale seen on the watch or the general aesthetic, reminiscent of some racing dials.
Very much like the Rolex Daytona – if such a comparison can be drawn – it was also actually worn on the racing track, having been spotted on the wrist of Giovanna Amati, an Italian professional racing driver, who is the most recent female driver to have entered the Formula One World Championship. Great, colourful design and actual racing pedigree. Not bad at this price point.
This example – with its box and papers from June 1992 – is currently up for auction on eBay, with the bidding being up to £267, at this time. You can view it here.
'Patina' Black Friday Chronograph
The idea of a plastic Swatch with patina is an entirely paradoxical one. How could such a recent, mass produced watch, developed some the attractive ageing more commonly associated with vintage pieces? Turns out that they can, and therein lies the pleasure of owning a neo-vintage piece.
This Black Friday Chronograph is a perfect example of this, where the hands and hour markers have started to develop a brownish colour over time. This complements the otherwise all blacked out design of the strap, case and bracelet.
This example – with its box and unsigned papers – is currently up for auction on eBay, with the bidding being up to £12.50 at this time. You can view it here.
Finally, we thought we would finish with something simple, but which speaks to Swatch’s strength in design. A date function is a feature which is often sought-after on many watches, for purely practical reasons, but very rarely well executed in terms of design. In fact, one of the most common complaints you hear from watch collectors is how poorly integrated a date indication can be. It almost always appears like an afterthought.
This is certainly not the case with this Spot Flash from 1991. The blacked-out design stands out by its simple, yet powerful, execution of a date function, with 31 apertures displayed around the whole circumference of the dial. The specific day of the month will then be displayed with a bright orange colour, which matches the tip of the seconds hand. Simple, yet inventive. This is an example of how the date function is at the very core of the design, rather than added to it subsequently.
This example is currently up for sale on eBay, with a price tag of £48.22 at this time. You can view it here.
At first glance, you could be forgiven for dismissing Swatch altogether. If you are strictly horology focused, you might be led to believe that the bold colours, quartz movements and mass-produced nature of these timepieces do not make them worthy of attention. However, this view would be overly restrictive. After all, diversity is what makes watch collecting so appealing, in so many ways.
These plastic watches represent one of the most significant decisions taken in reaction to the Quartz Crisis. Whereas they might not be contrarian in the way the Nautilus and the Royal Oak decided to stand by mechanical timekeeping, Swatch marked a significant departure from many traditional codes of Swiss watchmaking. Mass-produced on an assembly line, they also involved a completely new way of thinking about design and distribution, which had previously never been seen in the watch world. Oddly enough, they seem to share more with fashionable streetwear than they do with what are traditionally considered as collectable watches.
These characteristics have led to a dedicated group of Swatch aficionados, from those who derive pleasure from combining them with classic tailoring to those who feel a tinge nostalgia towards what they symbolise. They are watches which can be enjoyed entirely on their own terms. Regardless of whether they speak to you or not, the Swatch pieces are a wonderful reminder that things don’t always need to be so serious.
Our thanks to Auro Montanari, James Marks, Michael Hill and Justin Hast for taking the time to talk to us about these curious plastic watches that seem to have captured all of our imaginations.