In the 1970s Swiss watches were considered to be the height of craftsmanship and luxury. Fitted with complicated, handcrafted mechanical movements, they were works of horological art. But the industry was resistant to change; unfortunately for them, this inability to adapt to changing trends meant they were soon overwhelmed with cheap imports from Japan. Japanese watches not only embraced new digital technology but were cheap and could be mass-produced. This led to the value of Swiss watch exports being cut in half in just a few years and watchmaking jobs slashed from 90,000 to less than 25,000. It is this crisis in Swiss watchmaking that led to the creation of Swatch. The company was created as a way for the Swiss to challenge these cheap Asian imports and to recapture the market share they had lost to competitors such as Seiko and Citizen.
In the early 1980s Nicolas G. Hayek, founder of Swatch, was to oversee the liquidation of ASUAG and SSIH, two Swiss watchmaking firms thrown into turmoil by cheap Japanese watches. However, Hayek believed Swiss watch manufacturing could be rescued, and he chose to restructure the company to compete with the cheap imports. Four years after rescuing ASUAG and SSIH Hayek merged the two in 1985 and became chairman of the board of directors. The newly formed company Société Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie went on to become the Swatch Group. It has since grown into the world’s largest watch company, acquiring luxury brands, such as Breguet, Blancpain, Jaquet Droz, Glashütte Original, Léon Hatot, Omega, Tiffany Watch Co., Rado, Longines, Union Glashütte, Tissot, ck watch & jewelry, Certina, Mido, Pierre Balmain, and Hamilton.
The first Swatch collection was unveiled March 1, 1983, in Zurich, Switzerland. The brand combined an aggressive marketing campaign with a reasonable price and made Swatch popular in in its home market. Compared to traditional Swiss watches, a Swatch was 80 percent cheaper to produce because the assembly was fully automated rather than handmade. They soon became a staple of 1980s fashion, with endorsements from celebrities The Thompson Twins, Peter Gabriel, and Phil Collins, and others.
The first ever Swatch was the GB 101 and was relatively plain; however, over the years the watches became more artistic as the brand teamed up with artists and created collections inspired by popular culture. Less than a year after the first Swatch, American painter Keith Haring created a number of prototypes, with four being produced as watches in the mid-1980s. Ever since, Swatch has produced a range of creative collaborations with artists such as Alfred Hofkunst, Jean-Michel Folon, Sam Francis, Mimmo Paladino, Mimmo Rotella, Nam June Paik, Not Vital, Akira Kurosawa, Spike Lee, Renzo Piano, and Moby.
The name Swatch is a contraction of the term “second watch,” which was coined by Nichole Lopez. Hayek’s idea was to come up with a second watch serving as a fashion accessory rather than an expensive piece of jewelry. The company revolutionized the way analog watches were made, using synthetic materials and assembly technology and reducing the number of components from 91 to 51 without compromising on accuracy or quality. With the ever-growing popularity of cheap quartz watches, engineers in Fontainemelon (Neuchatel) in the late 1970s created the Delirium Tremens, which was at that time the world’s thinnest watch at 1.98 mm. Its radical simplification removed the need for three parts (bottom plate for the movement, case, and frame) and changed it to a one-piece case, with the bottom of the case serving as the bottom plate for the movement. This discovery paved the way for Swatch a few years later.
Swatch watches now come in five different styles: Originals, Irony, Skin, Beat and Bijoux. Originals are plastic-cased watches that come in various shapes, sizes, and designs. The Irony contains all the metal watches the company produces. Skin, launched in 1997, contains two subfamilies, the Original skin and the Skin chronograph. The Skin is a thinner version of the traditional Swatch at an ultrathin 3.9 mm. The Skin entered the record books as the world’s thinnest plastic watch. The Skin chronograph is the same watch but with an added chronograph function with two additional buttons on the side of the timepiece. The Beat is a decimal time concept watch introduced by the brand in 1998. It is marketed as an alternative, decimal measure of time with the goal of simplifying the way people in different time zones communicate about time. The Bijoux is the brand’s jewelry line in which the company partnered with Swarovski to make encrusted watches.
This year is Swatch’s 30th anniversary, and to celebrate the milestone the company has released a see-through version of its New Gent model. Staying true to its artistic roots, the company has commissioned the Italian artist Lorenzi Petrantoni to create a special edition artwork for the company, looking at events from 1983.
From a company that was on the brink of collapse to a world leader in three decades! Here’s to another 30 years of Swatch!