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    

Vintage Swatch X-rated Gb406 Swiss Watch 1987 Great Working ConditionSwatch Chrono Automatic Chronograph Right Track Svgb400 As IsNew Swatch Scuba Fun Watch Green Volt Lime Bunny Sutra Swatch 2004--nib With Tags!!!Swatch "germaholic" New In Art SleeveYas 100a Swatch-1997 Irony Automatic Body & Soul Authentic Authentic Swiss Made Swatch Men's Yis402 'sistem Soul' Automatic Black Silicone WatchSwatch Watch CollectionSwatch Freezing Rain Irony Chrono Aluminium Works Fine SwissRare Vintage Ticking Brain Gk247 Swatch Watch Jo WhaleySwatch Irony Chronograph, All Stainless Steel, Black Face, All New & MintGreat Vintage 95' Swatch Irony Chronograph WatchSwatch 2014 Lovely Metallic Sunburst Gold Dial White Hands Leather Strap V/g/c Keith Haring, Angel, Swatch, A&t Editeur, 1993 1904/9999, RareWatch Swatch Fun ScubaAuthentic Swatch Irony Diaphane Silver Chronograph UsedWatch Swatch Fun ScubaSwatch Irony Wrist WatchSwatch Chronograph Divers 2014 4 Jewels Silver Sunburst Dial Yellow Hands Vgc Swatch Watch 2005 Collectors Item: Friandise Ge159 Watch, Mint ConditionSwatch Watch Coca Cola Swiss Vintage LotLot Of 9 Vintage 1980's Swatch Watch 5 Mens 4 WomensSwatch Swiss Made Black/gray Chronograph WatchSwatch 007 James Bond. GoldfingerSwatch Digital Touch Black Bump Surb112 New In Box - Never WornSwatch Chrono I.o.c. Scz101 1894-1994 100years Of The Olympic Movement, NewSwatch Mens Irony Watch Scuba Diving 200mSwatch Chronograph 4 Jewels 2015 Lovely Divers Bezel 46mm Metallic Blue Vgc5 Vintage Swatch Watch Guard Too For Gents Size All Used All In Excellent ConditSwatch Watch Cheshire Cat Brand NewVintage Mens Swatch Quartz Wristwatch Lot Swiss Made Working Coca ColaSwatch Irony Introspective Yas108 21 Jewel Stainless Automatic Watch In BoxSwatch Eclipses - Gb128 Rare (made In 1988 To 1989) WatchGent's 2006 Stainless Steel Swiss Swatch Irony Tachymeter Wristwatch. Swatch Originals Twice Again White Dial Black Silicone Unisex Watch Suob705Scuba Swatch "seahorse" 94 Rare L@@k Excellent Box Wow New Band Very Nice "vintage" Swatch Irony Aluminium Watch Ag1995Four Swatch Wrist Watches 94 OlympicsSwatch This Is My World Unisex Watch Suoz195 - 25th Anniversary Club WatchSwatch After Dark Wristwatch In Original Box.creart Venice Billy The ArtistSwatch X-large Original Watch Strap Asudb100Swatch Chronograph WatchSwatch Back To School Gs149 Multicolor Rubber Swiss Quartz WatchSkz106 Swatch Watch 1997 "100 Year Juvecentus "Swatch Watch Gents Hidden Secrets 2006 4cm Working Bond Theme?Swatch Nos Chronograph 4 Jewels 2013 All Black Pvd Tachymeter Bezel 46mm VgcSwatch Irony Chronometer + One OtherSwatch Irony Diaphane Chronograph 2005 Lovely Metallic Gold Dial With Stones Special Edition Phil Collins X-large Swatch Watch Boxed With Papers GwoSwatch Purple Rebel Suov702 Unisex Watch 2011 Spring Summer Collection Authentic Swatch Irony Diaphane Red Chronograph UsedSwatch Gents - Smilla - Gz701pack - Club SpecialSwatch Watch Chrono "golden Globe" 1993, Scg100 New In Box 10 Vintage Swatch Watches 1980s 1990s Used Good For Parts Swiss Quartz As-is5 Battery Covers For Swatch Gents Size Watches 1980s 1990s Used Excellent ConditSwatch Watch Time To Move Sak102 Earth Summit 92 1991 In New And Unused ConditiSwatch Watch Gb 149 "glance" 1992, New In Box/mint ConditionSwatch Scuba C Monsta Rare Collector's ItemNib Swatch Womens Color The Sky Multi-color Plastic Watch 35mm Gs124 Msrp$60Swatch Watch "snowpass" Ag 1999 Original Band