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    

1987 X Rated Gents Swatch Watch Straight Edge SxeSwatch Sunray Glam Suoz148 Unisex 41mm White Plastic Band & Case WatchSwatch Rise Up Gs138 Unisex 30mm Blue Plastic Band & Case Quartz WatchSistem51 Swatch Self-winding Mechanical Movement - Black Sutb400 Watch 1993 Swatch Classic Automatic Auto Classic Cheddar Sam103 Watch VgcNew Swatch Men's Full Blooded Svcc4000ag Brown Dial Stainless-steel Watch $200Swatch Diaphane Automatic Skeleton Watch Swiss MadeVintage 1980s 90s Swiss Retro Pop Art Swatch Jelly Fish Clear Skeleton Watch(3) Vintage Swatch Wrist Watch Lot 7044-p - 7414-p - 5233-pNice Vintage Authentic Swatch Watch Wristwatch Orange 7043-p Deco Look Wow NrSwatch Irony Chrono Swiss Ray Of Light Black Rubber Band Aluminium Case WatchSistem51 Swatch Self-winding Mechanical Movement Red Sutr400 Brand New Usa ShipSistem51 New Swatch Self-winding Mechanical Movement +++ Blue Suts401 Watch NewNice Vintage Authentic Swatch Watch Wristwatch 0024p Deco Depth Diver's Look Nr2000 Swatch Irony Chrono Chronograph Wheeling Bleu Date Ycs417p Watch Box PapersMens Swatch Gz209 New York City Watch Black/white -new W/ Box-look-Vintage Womens Pop Swatch Quartz Watch Fashion & 7 BandsNice Vintage Swiss Swatch Watch Wristwatch Advertising Rotating Display Case Nr Rare Vintage Watch Lot, Bulova Accutron, Pulsar, Seiko, Swatch, Lcd, Analog 1984 High Tech Gents Swatch Watch1986 Osiris Gents Swatch Watch Egyptian ThemeSwatch Black Decency Ygs749g Gents 38mm Silver Steel Bracelet & Case Date WatchSwatch Watch Lot1984 High Tech Ii Gents Swatch Watch Swatch Skin Unisex Analog Quartz Battery Retro (1997) Wrist Watch Casual Leather2004 - Gents' Swatch Watch - "coldnose" - Ge 147 (jbw 7)Ladies Swatch Irony Aluminum Watch W/ Color Strand Bracelet -unique-l@@k-1984 Pirelli Gents Swatch Watch1983 Gn 101 Gents Swatch Watch Blue With Mirror Face Faulty/not WorkingVintage -- Swatch (swiss) Chronograph ---1993 Usa Olympics New Swatch Red Sistem 51 (sutr400) Mechanical Automatic Watch AnalogRare Vintage 1990 Swatch Signal Flag Chronograph Wrist Watch-quartz - Never WornRare 1990's Swatch Black Friday Chronograph Wrist Watch - Quartz - Never WornNew 2008 Swatch Roud Of Hump White Chrono Chronograph Suik404 Watch BnibVintage Estate Large Swatch Lot Wear Repair Parts Band Swatch Irony Waterspout Diaphane Watch Strap Nice Vintage Authentic Swatch Watch Wristwatch 333 Cloth Band Ag 1992 Swiss LookModern / Retro Rara Avis Design Swiss Swatch Wristwatch - Model Gv103Job Lot Swatch Vintage Loomi Scuba Automatic Ladies Newgent Ufix Spares RepairsSwatch Yls171 Ladies Brown Calfskin 33mm Stainless Steel Case Quartz WatchSwatch Irony Chrono Medium Daydream Silver Metal Women's WatchSwatch Watch 007 James Bond Licence To Kill Watch NibSwiss Swatch Red Sunday Design Quartz Wristwatch Model - Gb750Rare! Vintage Mens Swatch Quartz Fiz N Zip Clown Watch Works! (watch Video) #25eRare Swatch Chronograph,quartz,russian Romanov Family Dial,plastic,men'sVintage Job Lot Of Collector Mathey Tissot Wenger Birks Swatch Perry Ellis SeikoCoca Cola By Swatch Swiss Men's Size Watch Vintage 80sSwatch Irony Core Collection Casse Cou - With Case And PapersCollectable Sfb101 Swatch 1997 Pure Line Skin Authentic TransparentSwiss 23j Automatic Watch, Date French Leather Band, Display Back, Swatch1997 Swatch Classic Standard Gents Sepia Gb184 Watch VgcSwatch 5121-p Swiss Pre-owned Vintage Classic Black Dial Quartz Men`s Date WatchOriginal Plastic Cased Swatch From 1983 Very Good ConditionLadies Swatch Quartz Watch,very Good,new Battery, 2008, Swiss MadeSwatch Swiss Ag 1986 Wrist Watch Vintage 640 Lady's Wrist WachSwatch Watch Skin Bracelet With Swarovski's Chrsytals "dreamlike Yellow"Rare 1990 Swatch Skipper Chronograph Wrist Watch-quartz - Never Worn - As IsSwatch Skin Watch 'shiny Swirl', Sfk188cb, Perfect ConditionWatch Women Swatch Irony Waterresistant Used Made In SwissUnique Crest Vintage Men’s Swatch Watch - W Case And Papers