The history of Swatch watches

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If you had walked into any big department store or watch store in the early eighties, you would have been greeted by something revolutionary: Swiss made cheap plastic wristwatches with funky designs and colors. Watches that you could wear with shorts and shirts but also with a suit, to underline your rebellious spirit. It was 1983. The year that Michael Jackson released “Thriller,” the year 3D printing was invented, and the year The Space Shuttle Challenger was launched on its maiden voyage. This was also the year that the world’s first fashion watch was officially created in Switzerland. 

In today’s post, we’re going to talk about what I think are the most useful and also beautiful watches on the market today. The great thing is, you can buy these watches almost anywhere (online and in stores worldwide).

Of course, you know what watch I’m talking about. I’m talking about Swatch. Swatch was the very first watch that I ever owned. I was 10 years old in 1989 and wore my Swatch every day in school and when I was playing football with my friends. Little did I know that Swatch watches would become the icons of the 1980’s Pop Culture. 

Made entirely out of plastic, Swatches were durable, pretty reliable, and affordable. You have to remember that this was in the time when the Swiss watch industry was in a massive crisis because Asian watch manufacturers started flooding the market with cheap quartz and digital watches, at a fraction of the price of a Swiss-made mechanical. It was called the “quartz revolution.” Cheap quartz watches almost completely replaced mechanical watches, throwing the Swiss watch industry into despair. For the first time in history, the new players in the Watch world were no longer the traditional Swiss brands. Instead, the Swiss were overtaken by Japanese giants like Citizen, Seiko, and Casio. The move away from mechanical watches had already started in 1969 when Seiko introduced the Astron: the world’s first quartz watch. The decline of the Swiss watchmaking industry continued until the early 1980s until businessman Nicolas Hayek (later the Co-founder and CEO of the Swatch Group) arrived on the scene. He came, he saw, and he conquered. Together with Ernst Thomke, then director of ETA Manufacture Horlogère, Elmar Mock, and Jacques Müller, he co-invented the mass-produced Swatch Watch. It was a cheap, plastic watch that appealed to the masses. For their design and marketing efforts, Hayek and his partners focused on giving the watch a youthful and fun look. The first model they released was a 34mm plastic watch with a plastic strap, which was completely made in Switzerland. It was called the Swatch “gent.” It became an instant success. 

By the end of 1983, the gent had been sold over 3.5 million times, and by the end of 1992, it had sold 100 million pieces. The reason for its success was simple. There was no such thing as a “free spirit,” funky plastic watch on the market at the time. Many watches were still mechanical, with quite conservative designs. All of a sudden, Swatch came along with striking fun and provocative watch designs. Swatch focused on creating watches designs as fashion symbols rather than expensive jewelry. A business model that was later successfully copied by fashion watch brands like Fossil, Michael Kors, and others. 

The history of Swatch wtaches
400Photo by Analia Baggiano on Unsplash

The original Swatch was such a success that within five years of its release in 1988, the Swatch group became the most significant watch manufacturer in the world, overtaking its Japanese competitors. This effectively saved the Swiss watch industry, and to date, the Swatch group is still the most significant watch manufacturer of finished watches in the world. The Swatch group not only owns Swatch but many other well-known watch brands like Omega, Brequet, Harry Winston, Blancpain, Glashutte, Jaquet Droz, Leon Hatot, Longines, Rado, Union, Tissot, Balmain, Certina, Mido, Hamilton, Calvin Klein, and Flik Flak. Not only that, but Swatch also owns ETA, the world’s biggest manufacturer of mechanical watch movements. Furthermore, Swatch is a crucial player in the electronic system sector. A substantial number of Swatch brands are also active in sports marketing and are official timekeepers of the Olympic Games.  

Made by robots

Going back to the original plastic Swatch: It is made entirely on an automated production line where there is hardly any human involvement except for or quality control and operating the machines. The production line is located in Genestrerio, Switzerland. Aside from the original Swatch, this production line also focuses on the production of simple automatic mechanical watches, chronographs, and the Swatch T-Touch. 

Swatch models

Today Swatch has 7 model lines. They are: 

  • Swatch Originals – Like the original Swatch from 1983, entirely made of plastic. Available in various colors and designs. 
  • Swatch Irony – Swatch watches made of metal with metal cases and bands. 
  • Swatch Skin – which consists of the original Skin and Chronograph models. 
  • Swatch beat – Swatches offering a digital display and connected to the internet 
  • Swatch Sistem 51 – An entirely machine-made mechanical watch. 
  • Swatch Bellamy – A Swatch incorporating a chip for making contactless payments. 

Why is it called a swatch? What does Swatch mean?

Now you may be wondering where does the name Swatch come from? The name Swatch stands for “second watch,” as Swatches were originally designed to be used as second watch, besides a more expensive watch. 

So there you have it—a complete history of the Swatch watch. 

Leon

I'm Leon. I write articles about small watches (usually 38 mm or less in diameter) because I like them. They look stylish and classy to me. Most of the watches on the market today are 40 mm or more, which I think is too big. This blog was born out of curiosity when I was shopping for a small watch myself and couldn't find the info that I needed.

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