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    

Amazing Swatch Dark Steel Yrs400g Swiss Wrist Watch In Box - Lm W10Swatch Irony Aluminium Divers Very Rare From Ag 1997 Size 43mm Yds-4003 V/g/cBig Swatch Chronograph Date Automatic Men's Watch2007 Swatch Irony Retrograde Chrono Chronograph Surrounding Yrs407 Date WatchKidrobot For Swatch Pink & White Print Watch & Dunny Figurine Set NewHuge Lot 73 Watches Swatch Hamilton Bulova Elgin Timex Disney Parts RepairSwatch 2005 Rare Originals Fun Red Fish Scuba Diving 200m With Depth GaugeKeith Haring Swatch~serpent Gz102Lot Of 9 Vintage Swatch Watches. Need BatteriesModern Red Sunday Design Swiss Swatch Wristwatch - Model Gb7502008 Swatch Mister Twin Snowpass Chrono Chronograph Suik401 Watch Inc PapersSwatch Casse-cou Ygs732 Mens Brown Leather Stainless Steel Silver Dial WatchJoblot Old Vintage Wrist Watches Digital Lcd Timex Casio Swatch Spares Repair Swatch Watch Goldfinger Irony Chrono 007 James BondSwatch Irony Chronograph Diaphane With Box Stones In Dial Ag 2005 Good Size VgcModern / Retro Uphill Design Swiss Pop Swatch Watch - Model Pwb164Swatch Watch Lot(all Women's) 80's &90's Working???2010 Swatch Newgent New Gent Sea Rebel Suos701 Day Date Watch Brand New Orig. Swatch Swiss. Gold And White Women's Watch In Box2010 Swatch Newgent New Gent Warm Rebel Suom702 Day Date Watch 2011 Swatch New Irony Big In A Classic Mode Yts400 Date Black Watch Mint PapersVintage Unisex Swatch Wristwatch Swiss Made In Good Working Order Swatch Mens Windfall Black Dial Stainless Steel Bracelet Watch Fold Over Safety Swatch Eta 2842 Swiss Automatic Watch Movement ~ For Parts4 Swatch Watches! 1 Scuba 200, 3 Plastic ChronosVintage 1970's - 1980's Swatch Watch - New - Old StockSwatch Watch Scuba Green Wrist WatchSwatch Watch X LargeSwatch Ycg401 Irony Gold WatchVintage 1970's - 1980's Swatch Watch - New - Old Stock1996 Swatch Standard Gents Mustard Gb179 Black Yellow Watch Box Papers WorkingSwatch Men's Nautilus Gk102 Quartz Watch(1986),works Fine, No Reserve.Swatch Automatic 23 Jewels Earth Summit 92 Swiss Made Analog Quartz Wrist WatchRetro Purple Swatch Strap Watch In Case - Working Swiss Made1991 Swatch Sirio Chrono Chronograph Scm101 Black Strap Watch Boxed PaperworkSwatch Sochi 2014 Olympic Games Official Volunteer Watch Rare New In Box1987 Swatch Wrist Watch-swiss-runs-no Band-date-good Condition (ct)Vintage Swatch Watch Collectible LotSwatch Gk100re Jelly Fish 1986 Casual Fashion Swiss WatchSwatch Uk Mystery Dec 2014 Brand New Mint In Unopened Box With WarrantySwatch Irony Unisex Watch Chronograph V8 Four JewelsSwatch Sufb100 007 James Bond Die Another Day Flip Over Watch Needs BatteryNew 1997 Swatch Gents Hongkong I Was There (xxl) Gk171pack Watch Box Papers NosSwatch Watch Gold Mesh BandVintage Swiss Swatch Sport Collection Classic White Quartz Men's Clr Band Watch1996 Swatch Irony Big Zebah Loomi Ygs9000 Watch WorkingA Swatch Watch - Yellow/orange Flower Design (untested)1984 Rare Retro Swatch "don't Be Too Late" - Ga100 In Original Case.Boleyn Swatch Watch - Yag100g (b.n.i.b)Swatch Irony Chrono Watch Men's V8 Water Resistant Four Jewel Swiss Made Deco NrSwatch Secret Agent Irony 1996 Stainless Flex Casual Chronograph Swiss WatchVintage 1970's - 1980's Swatch Watch - New - Old StockCollectible Irony Diaphane Swatch Watch.athens 2004.full Working Order.Mens Swatch WatchesLot 3 Vintage Swatch Watches Wristwatches Swiss Heart Thorns Roses Red Metal Nr 2010 Swatch Newgent New Gent White Rebel Suow701 Day Date Watch Swatch Ygs4029 Jungle Joy Irony 2007 Casual Fashion Swiss WatchVintage 1970's - 1980's Swatch "after Dark" - Watch - New - Old StockSwatch Swiss Made Flik-flak Hello Kitty Watch-black Face W/pink RhinestonesLadies Calvin Klein - Mens Pulsar & Five Swatch Wristwatches - Spare / Repairs