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 X Rated Near Mint In BoxSwatch Eastern Sun Mens Stainless Steel Chrono Round Black Dial Watch Ycs515gSwatch Watch-gn176 Love Bite- Adam & Eve With The Apple, BoxedNew In Box Swatch Daisy Touch Ladies Watch With Metal Daisy Beads Fliplock BandSolid Men's Swatch Ag2011 Analog Skeleton Watch A Pop Swatch (c) Ag 1989 Swiss Made Reg. Design Quartz Wristwatch & WatchbandSwatch Watch - New In BoxRare Watch Swatch Keith Haring Milles Pattes Art Special 1985Lot Of 2 Pop Swatch Watches-retro 1992-never Worn In Orig. Cases Swiss MadeNew Swatch Watch -light Hours, Loomi, Blue Leather Strap Gs902, Touch SeriesSwatch 'me And My Shoes' Ladies Red/black Stainless Steel Charm Watch Lm134g New1996 Vintage Retro Swatch Watch Lucky Shadow #gs105 Original Case/papersSwatch Irony Crystalline Ladies Stainless Steel Round Silver Dial Watch Yss140gSwatch Irony Skeleton Automatic Watch Leather BandSwatch Irony Chronograph Aluminium Mens Watch Ag1995Swiss Made Used Swatch Watch Men's/women's Skin/flat Line Working! No Reserve!Men's Swatch Irony Chrono Watch Analog Stainless SteelSwatch Bunny Sutra Stgk101 Touch Unisex WatchSwatch Gents Grey Memphis Automatic Mint In BoxSwatch Windfall Mens Stainless Steel Round Black Dial Chronograph Watch Ycs410gx2000 Swatch Watch Apasionada Sfk108 Skin W/ Ligne De Vie Sfk119 Strap Swiss Swatch Irony Chrono WatchRare Pop Swatch Swimmer Pwk194 Water Polo Watch, 1990s Graphic Design, As IsGents Quartz Swatch Wrist WatchSwatch 1986 Vintage 'tonga' New In Box , Rare CollectibleSwatch Original Swiss Made * Color The Sky Rainbow * Unisex Watch Ag 2003Swatch 1991 Special ' 360Vintage Genuine Used Vintage Pop Swatch Quartz Watch 1988Swiss Made Used Swatch Watch Men's Irony Ygs724g "cool Days Light Blue" Working!Rare Swatch Gn102 Flumotions Watch Fluorescent Colors 1980s New Wave Design UvSwatch Loomi Watch Happy Nightmare For Halloween!Used 1986 Vintage Swatch Watch Very Rare Musical Swatch Melody Ag 1996 By Peter Gabriel In Case - UnisexSwatch Chessboard Ladies Black/white Stainless Steel Round Dial Watch Lb160gNice Early Skeleton Retro Gents Swatch Watch Watch Lot Swatch Irony Watch & Skagen Titanium Watch Wristwatches Working Watch Swatch 1987 Vintage 'snow White' New In Box , Rare Collectible, Top Condition Swatch Asuol700 Turquoise Rebel 2011 Slim Casual Fashion Swiss WatchSwatch Quartz Man's Wrist Watch With Black Strap In Case. Model Gx 101. SwissSwatch Light Wave Ybs4005 Irony Aluminium Chronometer Swiss Big Scuba 200 Swatch 1988 Vintage ' Heartstone', Brand New Unworn, Rare CollectibleSwatch Ag Swiss 1993 435 Wrist Watch 5755 Preowned Vtg Leather Water Resistant Swatch Irony Flor De Sol Ladies Stainless Steel Yellow Crystal Watch Yss217gSwatch Pop Watch Sweet Scents #pmk152 Transparent Case Lucite Bracelet FlowersSwatch Watch Model 'irony'Swatch Watch Gn712 It's Coming Millennium 1999 In Original Planet CaseSwatch Watch Spot Flash Gb414, 1991 - Good ConditionSwiss Swatch Irony Wristwatch Aluminium Four (4) Jewels Patent Water Resistant Nice Early Retro Gents Divers Swatch Watch 1987 Swatch Maxi Nautilus Watch Giant Wall Clock Mgk102Ladies 2003 Swatch Watch Model 423 Fully WorkingSwatch Watch Swatch Ge159 Friandise 2005 Metallic Rainbow Casual Fashion Swiss Watch W/ BoxSwatch Watch Retro Rotor 1986Swatch 23 Jewels Automatic WristwatchLot Of (4) Vintage & Retro Swatch Watches For Repair Or Parts (e#44)Swatch Irony Fine Steel Ycs514Vintage Authentic New Old Stock Swatch Watch Ascot Gx117 Swiss Made Eta In BoxSwiss Swatch. Cute And Very Light. New Battery!!2005 Swatch Watch 5 Petal Joy Ge406 Orologio Reloj Armbanduhr Montre à Bracelet