The Moonswatch may have been one of the biggest stories in the horological world in the last six months, but one of the companies behind it, Swatch, has been making headlines for nearly 40 years.
Founded in 1983 – squarely within the Quartz Crisis of the ’70s and 80s – Swatch was created to be the antithesis of its more established and historically ingrained European watchmaking competitors. The watches were inexpensive, battery-powered, and quartz-regulated. They were designed to be casual, fashionable-yet-disposable (i.e., plastic-cased) accessories. Swatch was also a powerful Swiss-based response to Japanese upstart Seiko, who was battering those larger Swiss brands with inexpensive (and highly accurate) quartz watches of its own.
Depending who you ask, the name Swatch is a contraction of either “Swiss Watch” or “second watch,” and the first collections were colorful, trendy, and eye-catching. They were an instant hit with younger buyers, especially (I should know; I’ve been the proud owner of at least three of them over the years!). In its first year, the company sold over 1 million watches, and by 2003, 300 million pieces had been sold.
But beyond the quartz movements and lower price point, what really drove the success of the company was the marketing. According to Nicholas Hayak, Sr., longtime CEO of The Swatch Group, the message was, “First, the highest quality. Second, a low price. And third, provocation of society.”
Taking that third point to heart, in 1985 the company launched the Swatch Art Special (now called Swatch & Art), a program where popular artists were commissioned to create limited edition designs for the brand. Since then, Swatch has collaborated with artists including Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Kiki Picasso, and Vivienne Westwood on a variety of fun, flamboyant, statement-making watch designs – several of which are now quite collectible (and worth a lot more than their original price).
Swatches were an early example of fast fashion – and the company quickly started creating all sorts of limited-production models and pop-culture-inspired collabs with the goal of producing enticing options for all types of watch buyers. Along the way, they also earned a reputation for pushing boundaries. In the early 90s the Swatch Chronograph was launched, featuring a 1/10-second timer.
Only a few years later, it introduced its first metal cases as part of the Irony collection – a response to competition from American companies Fossil and Guess. And who can forget the Sistem51? Almost a decade ago (wow), the first mechanical movement with entirely automated assembly was released in the equally bold, hermetically sealed case.
Today, Swatch features a wide range of bioceramic and environmentally friendly watches. While it also produces higher-end mechanical and digital models, it’s still best-known for its inexpensive, technicolor, quartz timepieces. And when it comes to marketing, it’s still the master, almost 40 years later. Look no further than the company’s recent collaboration with Omega and the phenomenal success of the aforementioned Moonswatch. Here’s to many more years of surprising collaborations and splashy designs from this Swiss phenomenon. Who knows what Swatch will come up with next?
While we wait, we figured you could spend the weekend looking back at some our favorite Swatch stories from the HODINKEE archives.
In 2014, HODINKEE sat down with the man responsible for the brand’s creative vision. And as someone who first began working for Swatch in 1987, he has plenty of insights to share about the 2014 releases and the company’s place in the greater world of watchmaking.
In one of our early Watch of the Week columns, Adam Wade shared the heartwarming story of the watch his revered big brother gave to him when he left home.
Here, James Stacey highlights the Swatch Art Special collaborations that the company has had with numerous influential artists throughout the last 35 years, including a closer look at three specific special editions he believes should be on everyone’s radar: Kiki Picasso, Keith Haring, and Mimmo Paladino.
In 2013, Stephen Pulvirent went hands-on with what he called one of the most exciting releases at that year’s Basel World, Swatch’s Sistem51, the world’s first Swiss-made mechanical movement with entirely automated assembly – and the brand’s attempt to do for mechanical watch production what it did for quartz production back in the early 1980s.
For anyone growing up in the 80s and 90s, Swatch was everywhere. In this story, Robin Swithinbank looks back on three different models he owned during three important periods of his young life, and which he still owns.
It takes a certain personality to truly believe that colorful plastic wristwatches can make an impact on not just the people who wear them but also on the world at large.”
HODINKEE, in 2014, talking about Swatch Creative Director Carlo Giordanetti