The Swiss labeled it The Crisis. The Swiss mechanical watch industry was in a death spiral as cheap, highly accurate quartz watches from Asia had flooded the market during the '70s. Watch production dwindled, companies were shuttered, countless jobs were lost, and mechanical movements, considered worthless at the time, were reportedly dumped in lakes. But in 1983 Nicolas Hayek, who'd been asked to liquidate two ailing Swiss watch firms, had a genius vision: he would produce affordable, design-driven, plastic Swiss-made quartz watches that would compete by bringing a wow fashion factor to what were essentially commodity items.
Swatches were collectible, trendy and—thanks to their special editions and collaborations with artists, fashion designers and pop culture luminaries—expressive. The first Swatch/artist collaboration was with Kiki Picasso, and the 120 pieces from the 1985 edition are now the most valued Swatches in the resale market at $20,000 to $30,000. A 2015, auction of Swatches raked in $6 million for about 5,800 pieces.
Swatch not only made quartz watches cool and coveted, but helped the Swiss mechanical watch industry survive—and thrive. By the '90s, high-end Swiss watch brands managed to reposition their products as badges of status and sophistication rather than mere timekeepers. By selling the sizzle as opposed to the steak, they appealed to aspirational emotions rather than utilitarian function. And the Swatch Group also acted as a dominant force in the resurgence, supplying movements and other essential components to the industry at large and scooping up such legendary names as Breguet, Blancpain and Omega along the way.
In 2013, Swatch introduced its own take on the mechanical movement with the Sistem51, powered by the brand's first in-house automatic movement, the first of its kind built entirely by machine. Sistem51's movement has only 51 parts, boasts 17 pending patents and a 90-hour power reserve, all in a watch that sells for about $150. Battery not required. You can even view the movement through the case back, the same as with pricey Swiss timepieces. And this year, the aptly named Sistem51 Irony ($195 to $235), steps it up in stainless steel and further scales up the collection with dials appointed with luminous SuperLuminova indexes, as well as straps made of rubber (instead of silicone) and padded leather.
For those collectors who demand more exclusivity, the Swatch Club offers special editions to members only. The latest Club design, Piolin's Time, took its inspiration from a colorful, hand-embroidered wall hanging, "Selva Blanca" by Argentinian artists Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone. Limited to 2,626 numbered pieces, the watch is embroidered with vivid motifs interpreted from the original work featuring the artists' pet Dachshund, Piolin.
Always count on Swatch to lighten the mood. While we still treasure our high horology masterpieces—and the niche isn't going anywhere—sometimes, we just want to have some fun.