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 6893 Womens Purple Water Resistant Colored Analog Watch O/s BhfoSwatch Sistem 51 Blue Automatic Watch - Suts402Omega Seamaster Bumper Automatic Solid Gold Cap Over Stainless Steel Men'swatchCollection: Group Lot Of 24 Vintage Swatch Watches W/ Cases, Nice, Running!Swatch Fluted View Ycs521g Irony Chrono Stainless Steel Mens Top Swiss Watch BigBnib Swatch Watch Unisex Rebel Watch80's Vintage Swatch "x" Watch, "x Rated"Swatch Irony Chrono Gents Watch Gwo ChronographSwatch Irony Chrono Gents Watch Gwo Red & SilverSwatch Irony 'ocean Second' Men's Watch From 2005Swatch - Pwv102 - (swatch - The Woodleaker) - 1994 - Pop Coll - Swiss Watch Swatch Purple London 2012 Olympics Swiss Quartz Analogue Watch1993 Swatch Ladies Wrist Watch With Original Metal Expanding L Strap - Working Swatch Irony Rare Yellow Gold. Great Condition!Unworn Mens Swatch Watch.ag 1988.original Box & Papers.working.Swatch Ladies' Dreamwhite Chronograph Watch Ycs511gc Black Pop SwatchSwatch Watch 1984 Gm 100 "grey Memphis" Runs Great Vintage 80'sVintage Swatch Watch Olympic Games Maker Only Given To The HelpersSwatch White Watch From 2010Swatch Watches Folon Set Special Edition - Gz109 / Gz108 / Gz106 - Very RareVintage Chronograph Mens Swatch Watch Fully Working.Vintage 1992 Swatch Watch His/hers Rare Designs!Swatch WatchSwatch Watch "off" Jose' Carlos Casado - Suoz162s Special Signed Watercolor PackVintage Swatch Irony Mens Watch - WorkingSwatch "x - Ray Vision" Double Watch, By Jeremy Scott2 Classic Sports Watches Slazenger Swatch Good Condition Working Order Watch Lot Fossil,swatch,citizen,casio,timex,ak,garmin,elgin,polar Etc 11+lbsVintage 1987 Ladies Swatch Watch Swiss Made With Original Case & Paperwork Swatch Watch Vintage Deutsche Bank With World Time Bezel3 Old Used Swatch Watches See Pictures And Details BelowVintage 1997 Swiss Made Swatch Watch Zurich Financial W/ Original Case PaperworkJob Lot Of Watches For Spares / Repair Inc Bucherer Ingersoll Seconda SwatchSwatch Irony Ag 1993 Mens Watch Swiss Made Quartz Vintage Blue Face Swatch? Vintage Black Watch "radar Screen" Swiss MadeSwatch Irony Wristwatch.original Swatch Leather Strap Full Working Order.2003 Love Swatch Watch Wristwatch New Battery Fitted Menswomans1990s Retro Look Swatch Scuba 200 Divers Watch Nib (read Discription)Keith Haring Art Swatch Watch-serpent (gz 102) #5671 Of 9,999 RareSwatch Irony Hookup Ref. Yvs417 Watch ChronometerJames Bond 007 Villain Collection Swatch Watch - Hugo DraxSwatch Women's Magic Dots Black Dial Black Rubber Ladies Watch Suob111Swatch Ag 1991 Date Moon Phase Watch (used)Swatch Unisex Quartz Watch - MintJames Bond 007 Villain Collection Swatch Watch - Georgi KoskovSwatch Rare Global Hour (bi-timer Stbk102 Good ConSistem 51 Swatch Watch - Luxury Watch Made In SwitzerlandSwatch Centennial Olympic Games Collection Edition 9 WatchesSwatch Watch Shibuya Gg104 1988 Casual Unisex Rare UsedSwatch Watch Originals Lemongrass Gg205Lot Of 2 Pop Swatch Watches Rare L@@k Top Wow VintageJames Bond 007 Villain Collection Swatch Watch - Dr No.New Vintage 1992 Swatch Grand Prix Chrono Scj101 Rubber Band Box & InstructionsSwatch Translucent Plastic Adjustable Quartz Watch1980's Ladies Sheherazade Swatch Swiss Wristwatch With Guard Men's Rare 1985 Gk100 Swatch Swiss Quartz Watch W/ Skeleton-face And Red BandSwatch Wristwatch.original Swatch Strap Full Working Order.Swatch Watch Bright Red Must See WorkingSwatch Ladies' Filamento Multicolore Watch Yss1006