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A Timeless History of the Swatch Watch

BY

July 4, 2019

Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch

A curious sight surrounded retail watch counters in the 1980s and early 1990s. The crowds that gathered as salespeople put new Swatch watches out for purchase resembled something out of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze of just a few years earlier. Shoppers would jostle one another in the hopes of scoring one of the $30 plastic timepieces, which came in a variety of colors and designs. The demand was such that sellers often set a one-watch-per-customer limit.

That’s where the odd behavior came in. Customers would buy a Swatch, leave, then return—this time in a different set of clothes or even a wig in an effort to overcome the allocation and buy a second or third Swatch. The watches were the fashion equivalent of Beanie Babies, though even that craze didn’t quite reach the heights of needing a disguise. Limited-edition Swatches were coveted by collectors who had failed in their pursuit at the retail level and paid thousands for them on the aftermarket. The accessories simultaneously became a fashion statement and an artistic canvas.

More importantly, they also became the savior of the Swiss watch industry, which had been on the verge of collapse.

A person models a Swatch watch on their wrist


Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images for Soho House Chicago

To understand the unique appeal of Swatch, it helps to size up the landscape of the timepiece category in the late 1970s. Swiss watches, long considered the gold standard of timepieces, were being outpaced by quartz-powered digital imports from Japan that were cheap to produce and cheap to sell. Faced with the choice of buying a quality watch for a premium price or opting for a bargain digital model, an increasing number of consumers were choosing the imports. Business was down, factories were closing, and jobs were being lost.

Fortunately, a number of things were happening that would prove to offer salvation for the Swiss. ETA SA, a company that made watches and was headed up by Ernst Thomke, had recently invested in an injection-molding machine at the behest of engineer Elmar Mock. Mock, along with his colleague Jacque Muller, spent 15 months crafting a plastic prototype watch that was one piece and welded together. The significance of a sealed unit was that it economized the entire process, turning watches from handcrafted units to models that could be produced by automation. The watches required just 51 parts instead of the 91 pieces typical of most models at the time. In this way, Thomke, Mock, and Muller had produced a timepiece that was both durable and inexpensive.

The issue was why someone might opt for a Swatch watch over a digital Japanese model. Thomke knew that the idea of a “Swiss watch” still held wide appeal in the same way someone might opt for a real Chicago deep-dish pizza over an imitator’s version. Along with Nicholas Hayek, who later became CEO of the Swatch Group, Thomke believed he had cracked the code for a Swiss watch renaissance. He released the first Swatch in Zurich in March of 1983.

But the manufacturing process that allowed Swatches to come in at a reasonable price was also a problem. Automating the process meant the watches and bands were almost always identical in size and shape. If the watch’s general appearance couldn’t be changed, how could it stand out?

A selection of Swatch watches are seen on display


Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

The answer was in the design. The Swatch name came from a contraction of two words: secondary watch. The idea was that a watch could be analogous to a necktie or other fashion accessory. No one owned just one tie, scarf, or pair of dress shoes. They typically had a rotation. Thomke and Hayek didn't believe a watch should be any different.

At the behest of marketing consultant Franz Sprecher, Swatches were soon flooding stores in an assortment of colors and with different designs on the face of the timepiece itself. They could be coordinated for different outfits or occasions, a practice that became known as “watch wardrobing." Someone who bought a red Swatch for summer lounging might opt for a black Swatch as part of their professional attire. The watches retailed for $30 to $40 apiece, so buying more than one was financially feasible.

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