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 Irony Aluminium Patented Water & Shock Resistant 3 Bar 4 Jewels5 Beautiful Swatch Wristwatches In Box With Papers And Catalogues C 1999Swatch Pop Watch Collection Rare Vintage Retro 80's 90's New 2013 Swatch Irony Chrono Chronograph Blackie Yvs401g Watch Boxed Papers BnibSwatch Irony Diaphane Chrono Full-blooded Night Svck4035ag Watch Box Papers Mint2008 Swatch Chrono Chronograph Sun Down Suim400 Watch Working Box Papers BnibNew 2012 Swatch Newgent New Gent Red Lacquered Suor101 Skeleton Watch BnibSwatch Watch - Mcgregor (gj100) Plaid -mid 1980's - Gents W Swatch GuardMichelle, Casio,elini, Rado, Swatch Watch Swatch X Rated Gb-406 For PartsSwatch Watch Collectors Lot 5 Pin Back Buttons Badges And Vintage Parts Cases New Swatch Mens Svck4035ag Quartz Chrono Dial Crystal Black Dial Watch $179-read Swatch Watch Irony 007 James Bond Collectible AutomaticFantastic Swatch Gold & Cream Coloured Ladies Quartz Wristwatch, Boxed - V25 G161993 Swatch Classic 23j Automatic Auto Mappamondo San101 Watch Working Mint Bnib1998 Swatch Irony Auto Automatic Noir De Noir Yas402 Watch Box Papers Mint BnibVintage Rare 1986 Swatch Watch Nautilus Gk102 By Mario Fani Orologio Reloj ! ! !Two Swatch Swiss Quartz WatchRetro Swatch Garden Turf Wrist WatchX Absolute Original Swiss Made Swatch X Rated Gb 406Classic Swatch Skin Watch "monoblue" Sfn100 Vintage ? Swatch Jellyfish Jelly Fish ?? Watch Swatch Sak401 Round 1994 23 Jewels Duke Blue Leather Band Swiss WatchMen's Swatch Irony Chrono WatchSwatch Vintage 1989 Swiss Made WatchSwatch "lots Of Dots" #2 Watch Unused With Original CaseLondon 2012 Olympic Swatch Watch Games Maker - Never Used And In Box Swatch Irony Swiss Made Mens Chronograph Quartz Watch 4 Jewels Used2003 Swatch Irony Big Casse Cou (core Collection) Ygs732 Day Date Watch BnibSwatch Men’s Watch Stainless Irony Ycs 401 Secret Agent Water Proof ChronographVintage Swatch "le Bleu" Chrono Scn117 Ag 1995 Working 96 Made!! RareSwatch Irony Skeleton Automatic Watch (used) Stainless SteelNew Swatch Skin Marrow Of Life Watch Sfm111 Mens/ladies/boys/girls Leather StrapVintage Swatch Watch Lot Of 3 1980's Collectors!Swatch Irony 1999 Windfall Analog Chronograph2x Pop Swatch Watches. Vintage Retro 80's 90's - Swiss Made. Faulty.Swatch Ladies "something New" Lb153 White Dial WatchAluminum Swatch Irony Watch W/ Red Silicone Band Swiss Made"swatch" Swiss Made Leather Band Canvas Covered Plastic Case 9" Long2002 Swatch Irony Medium Deep Night Yls125 Black Watch Vgc Men's Swatch Irony Chronograph Quartz Watch As-is,working.Vintage Swatch Automatic Watch Earth Summit 92Pre-owned Swiss Made Swatch Watch Diaphane Chrono"full-blooded Naranja" Svck4051Swatch Mystery Vintage Set Of 3 Limited Edition Watches Brand New In BoxGents Swatch Irony Automatic Wristwatch In Stainless Steel + Org. Strap2013 Swatch Newgent New Gent Daily Friend Suik701 Day Date Watch Boxed PapersRare Vintage Swatch Lady "little Jelly Fish" Watch Lk103 1986 Ladies/girls/boysSwatch Gents 'sir Blue' Gn718 - With Rubber Strap, Luminous Markings 1 Year OldSwatch Watch Display CaseSwatch Vintage Unisex Multicoloured Gentlemans Ladies Wristwatch Watch WorkingVintage Swatch Watch 1992 ' Coffee Cup 'Gk259 Swatch - 1997 Always Now Transparent White Swiss Working With BatterySwatch Irony Stainless Steel Watch Swiss Made Water Resistant AnalogVintage 90's Swatch Watch With Farm DesignSwatch "twirl" Ygs428 Irony From 2003 CollectionNew Old Stock Swatch Irony Watch / Original CaseSwatch Watch Black Super Thin Metal BandSwatch Highness Of Zermatt Skn103-snow Pass-special Key Function Swatch AccessSwatch - Lp111 - (swatch - Essaouira) - 1992 - Original - Swiss Analog WatchSwatch Watch