In the early 1990s, consumers in New York City were so desperate for the latest Swatch watches, that after queuing to purchase the one item they were allowed per customer, there were reports of several shoppers donning wigs and changing clothes in order to buy another. What led a cheap, plastic-cased quartz watch to become one of the hottest fashion items of the late ’80s and mid ’90s? The key to the success of Swatch was marketing.
By the end of the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was struggling. The invention of the quartz movement had destroyed the need for mechanical horology overnight, and with Japan having begun to corner the market with affordable quartz and digital watches, suddenly the Swiss brands, global leaders for centuries, found themselves in trouble.
Salvation was to come in the form of a new automated way of making watch cases in plastic, which allowed for fewer parts, a degree of waterproofing, and low cost. Overnight, the Japanese watches could be beaten on price, but to really succeed in the long term, what they needed to do was to beat them in desirability.
Step forward to the marketing genius Max Imgruth, who realised that as people changed their ties, shoes and even handbags to match outfits and occasions, so too could people change their watches. The idea of Second Watch, or Swatch, was born. Using the low-cost production method, and ease of colour changing that injection moulded plastics brought, Max, set about making the cheap timepieces fun, bold and funky.
Subject to a bold advertising campaign, Max, who was now president of Swatch USA, set about working with the hottest artists of the time to design limited edition watches, which would be small in number, and no greater in price. The more ‘zeitgeisty’ the artist, the better. Keith Haring, Kiki Picasso and others were commissioned to design faces and straps and when these sold out in hours, the age of the limited edition watch began.
Global anniversaries, food, countries, even colours were sold on a limited basis, and buyers couldn’t get enough. The secondary market for these sold out watches boomed, as wealthy buyers paid sometimes 10 times over the odds for the latest must-have design. Top-end jewellers also began to step into the market, with ranges of precious-metal watch cases being made for those who wanted a swatch, but also enjoyed sterling silver or rose gold on their wrist.
Today, even though the idea of limited release watches is no longer new, Swatch continues to thrive. While a percentage of their market share has been lost to new brands, and even smartwatch brands like Apple, the joy of the original designs are still appealing, and the company is still able to keep up with the times.
As the interest in mechanical watch movements began to increase in the mid-2000s, Swatch developed its own automatic movement, the Sistem 51. Capable of automated production, this ingenious movement enjoys just 51 moving parts, held around a single central cog. Fully automatic and enjoying an impressive 90h power reserve, overnight Swatch changed the game for automatic watch lovers. A range of well designed, and affordably priced mechanical watches hit the shelves, hit the hearts of consumers and hit their wrists just as fast. As a near-instant sell-out success, the Sistem 51 Swatch had shown once again that the time was right for affordable accurate and stylish watches.
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