The Unexpected Story of Swatch — PART 2

Swatch watch on a hand with colourful painted nails
Image credit: Analia Baggiano on Unsplash

This is Part 2 in a series on Swatch. If you haven’t already done so, you can read the first instalment here.

Earlier this week we looked at how Swatch as a company came about. Born from necessity and canny business strategy, Nicolas G. Hayek combined a large swathe of Swiss watch manufacturing into a single, powerful conglomerate and, in doing so, managed to revive an industry facing existential threat from its cheaper Japanese competitors.

But what about the watches themselves? The instantly-recognisable Swatch watch aesthetic, like the company that would carry its name, emerged squarely out of desperate circumstances and necessary innovation. 

Silver Swatch watch on a wrist
Image credit: Anne / CC BY-ND 2.0

Before Hayek arrived on the scene and reshuffled the Swiss watchmaking industry, a similar restructuring on a smaller scale had taken place with ETA (formerly the manufacturing arm of ASUAG, which is principally known for Longines). A man named Ernst Thomke transformed a division of ETA called Ebauches SA — formerly tasked with making parts for 16 separate brands — into a single, streamlined venture dubbed ETA SA. In doing so, he shrunk the size of the operation, cut down on production costs, and got ETA headed full-steam into quartz production. This led to the creation of the Delirium, the thinnest watch the world had ever seen. In 1979 it clocked in at 1.98mm and by the time the final model, the Delirium IV, rolled around they had shrunk it down to a remarkable 0.98mm, still the thinnest watch ever made. It was the Swiss’ first real win in the quartz battle and it sewed the seeds of what would eventually become Swatch.

Concord Delirium watch
Image credit: PersianPrince525 / CC BY-SA 4.0

In the wake of the Delirium’s success, Tomke and his crew began work on a project secretly called Delirium vulgare, Latin for ‘Delirium for the masses’. It was an accurate title — they were indeed looking to make a watch cheap enough to have mass-market appeal — but it seems equally to capture what must have been the collective frustration of Switzerland’s horological community during the quartz era.

Rather than being cowed by the competition, however, the Swiss sought to make an affordable watch that could compete head-on with Japanese quartzes at the lower end of the market. Using some of the Delirium’s space-saving innovations, they cut costs by swapping out metal parts for plastic. It resulted in a watch that retailed for just $35. Even the flashy colours and fun designs arose from practical considerations. Automated production meant that the resulting watches were all roughly the same size and shape. So, since you can’t change the picture but you sure can choose how you colour within the lines, the simplest way to differentiate watch models was to focus on individual decoration.

Back of a Swatch watch
Image credit: Mk2010 / CC BY-SA 3.0
Swatch watch with a colourful band
Image credit: Patrick on Unsplash

It wasn’t until Hayek came around that all this became a viable venture, however. Tomke showed him the designs and Hayek managed to convince the Swiss banks to fund the project. It worked, and in 1983 the Swatch was born.

Even today, it seems like a wildly improbable proposition. A cheap, garishly coloured, plastic watch made by the Swiss of all people? The whole thing could not have been more off-brand for the world leader in luxury timepieces. And yet, Swatches were an overnight sensation. In the year between 1984 and 1985, Swatch sales rocketed from $3 million to $105 million. At the same time, Swiss watch production shot up from 45 million to 60 million units, with 42% of Swiss quartz watches suddenly being made of plastic. 

Curtain made of Swatch watches
Image credit: Nikita / CC BY 2.0

Swatch would also birth an entirely new breed of watch — but first a note on nomenclature. It’s often thought that the name Swatch is a portmanteau of ‘Swiss’ and ‘watch’ (leading to popular playground jokes speculating about the name of a watch made in Croatia), but the company itself tells a different story. The ‘S’ actually stands for second, as in ‘secondary watch’. Of course, it also works as a pun (with the brand’s wild array of colourways functioning similarly to a fabric or paint swatch), but the real etymology offers a valuable glimpse into the brand’s marketing strategy and the revolution it would spark.

Swatches single-handedly birthed a whole new category known as the fashion watch. As quartz had come to rewrite watchmaking history in the 1970s and ‘80s, so fashion watches would pen the next chapter in subsequent decades. 

The idea was simple: turn the wristwatch into an accessory. In the old days, watches would have been classed as jewellery, if not as outright tools. A timepiece may have been prised, pricey, and pretty, but its main use was to tell the time and as such you needed just one of them. For all of their differences, what quartz and mechanical watches had in common was that they were all about what made a watch tick, literally — the inside was what counted. With fashion watches, all that mattered was the outside. When previously function had been fetishised, form would now become king.

Colourful Swatch watches in branded packaging
Image credit: chinnian / CC BY-SA 2.0

With this strategy in mind, Swatch cannily marketed their watches as fashion accessories. More akin to shoes or neckties, they were meant to be owned in multiples and coordinated with a given outfit. They called it ‘watch wardrobing’ and it turned watch-buying into a lifestyle choice. It’s worth noting that there were a few prior fashion brands whose names had appeared on watch faces, like Gucci or Anne Klein, but the sensational success of Swatch is what took the idea mainstream. 

Further innovative sales techniques followed. In the days before it was commonplace to do so, they produced smaller run watches in collaboration with artists like Kiki Picasso, Vivienne Westwood, and Damien Hirsh. Now brands like Nike do this with every new sneaker drop, but deliberately limiting the supply of a product was a forward-thinking move at the time by Swatch. As was their decision in 1991 to sell their ‘One More Time’ line, a food-themed collaboration with Alfred Hofkunst, via pop-up style operations in grocery stores. Later came straps that were transparent, furry, and even scented — the list of gimmicks and innovations goes on. It was enough to spawn a rabid collector’s market and meant that by 1992, a hundred million Swatches had been made.

Close-up of Swatch on a NATO strap
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Eventually — inevitably — the novelty of Swatch wore off, as it had done with quartz too. Then, in more recent times, smartphones and smartwatches alike have dented the sales of the fashion watch niche as a whole.

Yet, even so, a love of Swatch is alive and well. As recently as 2015, a collection of 5800 Swatches sold at auction for $6 million. And, if you keep an eye out, you’ll occasionally spot them on the wrists of even the most upmarket and perpetually-suited dressers. That burst of pattern and colour is unmistakable and remains a joyous way to light up just about any silhouette.

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