For many people, a Swatch is simply a cheap Swiss wristwatch, known for its bright colors, fun designs, and almost disposable nature. But when Swatch watches were introduced in 1982, they were a very serious economic lifeline to the Swiss watch industry, which had watched its sales slump from 91 million units sold in 1974 to just 43 million less than a decade later. Competition from Japan was crippling the once proud industry, which had grown as cumbersome as some of its bulky timepieces.

The future lay in a slender wristwatch that could be mass produced, even if that practice went against the tradition of Swiss watchmaking, in which timepieces were assembled by hand. To keep up with the competition in Asia, the venerable Swiss firm ETA got its quartz movements down to thicknesses of 1.98mm, then 1.68, then 1.44. As it turned out, these technological achievements paved the way for the Swatch.

The Swatch was unique to Swiss watchmaking in a number of ways. First, it used fewer parts, 51 compared to 99, with 29 components instead of 55 used in the final assembly. Second, once assembled, the watch would not be repaired. Except for the battery, it was a closed system, so reliability was key. Finally, the watch used inexpensive materials—hard plastics for the cases, soft jelly-like plastics for the wristbands.

And then there was the branding. Even the stodgy Swiss watchmakers knew they had to compete for the attentions of a new generation of customers, so they deliberately targeted their new product to them, giving it a name, Swatch, that was catchy and fun (depending on whose version of the company’s history you read, the term derives either from a combination of the words “Swiss” and “Watch” or “Second” and “Watch,” or perhaps both). It was a casual sounding name for a casual-occasion watch, and when its quirky style grew tiresome, you could just toss the thing away.

At first, many customers did just that, trashing their black, white, blue, or red 1983 GB 103s when the novelty of a dial with the numerals 3, 6, 9, and 12 in different sizes and fonts had worn out. At the time, all Swatch watches, including this model, sold for well under $100 in the United States. Today, many retailers sell that same watch for more than $700, and at the height of Swatch mania in the early 1990s, a GB 103 sold at auction in Sotheby’s, Milan, for roughly $3,000.

Other highly sought-after watches from the company’s early years include watches with faces by graffiti artist Keith Haring, whose first Swatch, called Breakdance (GO 001 for men, LO 001 for women), was produced in 1985. Capturing the energy of the urban dance craze popular at the time in Haring’s home town of New York City, the watch featured a pink-and-yellow face, a bright orange case, and black bands. Subsequent Haring Swatch watches, the GZ 101s to 104s from 1986, would feature Haring’s signature on the face itself.

In fact, Swatch worked with numerous artists in the 1980s. Kiki Picasso made a pair of artist wristwatches in the spring and fall of 1985—these remain some of the most sought-aft...

Another trademark of vintage Swatch wristwatches is the see-through face, giving the wearer a view of its fabled ETA movement. Swatch’s launch watch in the fall of 1982 (the only Swatch dated from that year) had a transparent face, as did numerous watches in the following years. Sports watches were also popular, and kept the brand from being just a toy of the art cognisanti. The Tennis Grid and Tennis Stripes watches of 1983 established this tradition, which the company continued in the 1990s with its Fun Boarder wristwatches for snowboarders.

Since 1990, Swatch has also released chronographs, some held on the wrist with conservative-looking brown-leather straps, as well as diving watches (its pirate-themed Uncino from 1999 is a good deal less staid). But Swatch also excels as making the types of watches that no one else would consider, such as the Garden Turf wristwatch from 1997, whose leathers bands are covered on the outside with artificial grass.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Watch and Clock Museum

National Watch and Clock Museum

This virtual museum, created by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, lets you stroll through tim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Swatch Fun Scuba~ Whale Ride~ Sugk100, In Excellent Condition, Rrp £75Swatch Original Chrono~ Twice Again~ Susb401, New And Boxed. Rrp £75.00New Unisex Ultra-thin Swatch Skin Sfs103 "dive-in" Blue Silicon Strap WristwatchMens Swatch Irony Yas100g Old Stock Body & Soul Automatic Swiss Made WatchJames Bond Goldfinger Swatch Irony Mint Condition In Box With PapersRetro Swatch Ag1999 Black Unisex Plastic Calendar WatchSwatch Irony Sport Chronograph Men's Watch Analog Quartz Aluminum 4 JewelsRare & Immense 50mm 2006 Swiss Swatch Irony "your Turn" Chronograph Date Watch.Swatch Irony Chrono~ Dark Phoenix~stainless Steel, Analogue, Fully WorkingSwatch Women's Skin Sfk361 Black Silicone Swiss Quartz Watch -new-look-Swatch Watch Irony Chrono Blustery Ycs438g Men's Chronograph Swiss WristwatchSwatch Irony Chrono In Case Black Face WorkingNew Swatch Irony 'deeply Focused' Wrist Watch Ycs540Rare Vintage Limited Edition 1998 Swatch Watch Love And Nature Gz156 Men WomenSwatch Sistem51 Watch In PartsVintage 1998 Swatch Watch Orangin' Zest Ygs7002 Irony Big Men's Women's SwissSwatch Irony ChronographSwatch Irony Ag1997 And Swatch Chronograph Ag1996 , Two Watches , MensOriginal Swatch Watch X-rated : Vintage : Straight Edge : XSwatch LotSwatch Irony Full-blooded Diaphane Blueberry Chrono Svck4048ag Watch Box Papers1996 Rare Swatch Classic Automatic Auto Tarsia Sab106 Watch Boxed VgcSwatch Irony Chronograph2004 Swatch Watch Strawberry Jam Lk243 Women's Lady's Girl's Swiss Quartz RedVintage 1980s Swatch Watch Lot Swatch Watch X- Rated New In Box Nos Retro Swatch San100 Blue Matic Collectable Swiss Automatic WatchSwatch Men's Casual Alarm Chronograph Analog Quartz Plastic Watch 4 JewelsMens Swatch Skin Slim Swiss Watch W/ Silver Dial & Light Blue Strap -nice-look-Retro Swatch Pop Parade Pwbb121 - Vintage 1991 With Original PackagingNew 2012 Swatch Ladies Mint Leave Ll115 Double Length Double Wrap Strap WatchSwatch Collectible Women's Watch #586 Pink Band Green Bezel Ring Runs Great!Rare Swatch Baron Samedi "live And Let Die" Gb237 Wristwatch 2008 007 CollectionVintage1996 Swatch Watch Chrono Redbanner Scm113 Men's Women's Chronograph SwissSwatch Irony Chrono~ Spymaker~stainless Steel, Analogue, Fully WorkingWatch Job Lot Ellesse Smiths Swatch Oris West End Co Accurist Plus MoreSwiss Made Swatch Ag 1992 Eta 22 Jewels Chronograph Quartz Men Watch & Box Vintage 1997 Swatch Watch Lucky 7 Skz116 Men's Women's Collectors Club Special Swatch Automatic Watch Analog 23 Jewel Water Resistant Plastic Case Retro CasualVintage Swatch Watch Scuba Diving To 200 M /655 Ft.nib, Swiss MadeSwatch Irony Mens WatchMens Or Ladies Swatch Irony Diaphane Chronograph Watch In Great ConditionSwatch Gent Perspective Gk169 New / Sealed / Rare / Rar17mm Official Swatch Branded Black Leather Strap - Brand NewJames Bond Licence To Kill Swatch Mint Condition In Box With PapersNwt Swatch Navy Berry Chronograph Quartz Wrist Watch In Box $80 Vintage Pop Swatch Watch,black With Stars On Outer EdgeSwatch Astilbe Gp140 Pink With Stripes Unisex Swiss Watch Spring 2013 Collection1986 Black Swatch Watch Day / Date Model 7111p Clean Used Working ConditionSwatch Watch Collection, Lot Of 12 Fun WatchesSwatch Clear Plastic 30th Anniversary Watch BnibSwatch Irony Chronograph Watch.Vintage Swatch Chronograph Ag 2000 Watch Metal Band Working New BatterySwatch Pop Watch Pkb101s Snow Bump S 1998 Good Strap Swiss Made Swatch Mens Irony Watch Cool Nights Stainless Steel Cool Rare Classic Vintage Men's Don't Be Too Square Late Swatch Watch New N Box Cool Vintage Classic 80's 90's Men's Jelly Metallic Swatch WatchSwatch Irony Ag2000 Swiss Made Chronograph WatchNew Swatch Watch Men's Xl Irony The Chronograph Yos413 "your Turn" Water-resistNew In Box Retro Swatch Sag100 Gran Via Collectable Swiss Automatic Watch