In the early 1980s, when just appointed Keeper of Antiquities at Derby Museum, one of my duties was to scan the more prestigious auction catalogues. The reason was because I had determined to increase our collections relating to the then total unsung Derby clockmaker and Enlightenment scientific pioneer John Whitehurst FSA. Yet by the middle of the decade, I was astonished to find much space in these catalogues devoted to gaudily coloured rubberised plastic watches, bearing the imprimatur of Swatch and attractive, remarkably high, estimates.
turned out on investigation that Swatch was (and is) a Swiss maker founded as recently as 1983 by Nicolas Hayek. The product was developed as a response to the 1970s and 1980s flood of inexpensive Asian-made digital watches.
The name Swatch is a contraction of second watch, as these watches were intended to be casual, disposable accessories. Development began in the early 1980s, under the leadership of Ernst Thomke with a small team of watch engineers.
Conceived as a standard timekeeper in plastic, Franz Sprecher, a marketing consultant hired by Thomke to give the project an outsider’s consideration, sought to create a fashionable line of watches. The Swatch was originally intended to re-capture entry level market share lost by Swiss manufacturers and to re-popularize traditional watches at a time when digital watches had achieved wide popularity.
The first collection of twelve Swatch models, introduced in 1983 ranged in price from 39.90 to 49.90 Swiss Francs but was standardized at 50.00. Sales targets were set to one million timepieces for 1983 and 2.5 million the year after. With an aggressive marketing campaign and relatively low price for a Swiss-made watch, it gained instant popularity in its home market. Compared to conventional watches, a Swatch was 80% cheaper to produce by fully automating assembly and reducing the number of parts from the usual 91 or more to 51 components, with no loss of accuracy.
This combination of marketing and manufacturing expertise restored Switzerland as a major player in the world wristwatch market. Synthetic materials were used for the watchcases as well as a new ultra-sonic welding process and assembly technology.
As I had noticed, the popularity of the Swatch peaked by the mid-1980s. Among the trends associated with Swatches are wearing more than one model, using them as ponytail holders and attaching them to clothing. This era of prosperity also marked the introduction of designs created by artists like Keith Haring, a move that added an air of style swank to Swatch’s trendy reputation.
Like other companies, Swatch’s continuing success relies on the steady introduction of new and innovative products, which makes any Swatch manufactured before the mid-1990s somewhat rare. Limited edition or themed Swatches are even harder to find and fetch significant prices at auction.
The Swatch Originals are the most widely collected and are plastic-cased. Standard ones can be got for £10-15 but new ones only range between £40 and under £100. But it is the vintage ones that people collect, because they were conceived as virtually disposable, with the result that the reservoir of available ones has shrunk significantly.
Other than Originals, limited edition models are the most rare and valuable ones. To form an idea of what constitutes a rarity Swatch, I might draw readers’ attention to the Jelly Fish Chronometer, for instance. Swatch produced only 2,000 numbered Jelly Fishes in 1990, making this one of the rarest early Swatches. It features a completely translucent strap and case through which wearers can watch the precision components in operation. The drawback is that the strap can get yellowed with use, reducing the value to £60-80. Black Nubeo ones can reach £3,000, however.
Another is the bizarrely named Cigar Box Putti Pop Swatch. This was designed in 1992 by Vivienne Westwood for the Autumn/Winter collection and features baby angels on the dial and strap. The production of only 9,999 numbered watches, released bizarrely in whimsical cigar boxes assured its rarity. Still with its box one will cost you £80-100. Another is the Trésor Magique of 1993. Although not a Swatch Original (and lacking the plastic case) its solid case and platinum crown make it very collectible and the limited edition release of only 12,999 numbered watches endows it the rarity collectors like. Recently one sold at Bamfords for over £1000.
As the foregoing makes clear, Swatch watches are available in various sizes, shapes, and designs and indeed, there are various subsidiary types as well, like the Swatch Irony which is metal cased, some self-winding with a chronograph version introduced about six years ago. Another version is the Skin, an ultra-thin version (an eighth of an inch) of the original Swatch – hence the name. There is also the Bijoux version, incorporating blingy embellishments like Swarovski crystals.
More recently, the firm has introduced digital dials and various hi-tech additions that rather cut across the original intention of the brand. That said, the firm introduced in 2013 System51 claimed to be the world’s first mechanical movement with entirely automated assembly, using the 51 components of the movement anchored to a central screw with automatic winding and a 90-hour power reserve. The movement is permanently sealed in its case with structural adhesive securing both the acrylic crystal over the dial and the case back, making it invulnerable to environmental conditions including moisture, dust or foreign objects – and also making it maintenance free (and, of course, impossible to service).
To the collector, it is the original, or at least earlier, models that are sought after.