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.

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