Crisis or Revolution? The Story of Swatch
How a Disposable Commodity Saved the Swiss Watchmaking Industry
I like to think of the Swiss as the Hobbits of the watchmaking universe. Both are isolated, indigenous nations locked away in their own little worlds who want nothing more than to be left alone so they can get on with what they do best. For Hobbits it’s drinking ale and letting off fireworks. For the Swiss, it’s making clocks and watches. (But what about the chocolate? I hear some of you say. For you I have one just word: Belgium.)
For hundreds of years, these proud folk lived in peace, minding their own business, until one day they were thrown into turmoil by an event that would change their lives forever. In the Shire, that moment came when Frodo found The Ring. In Switzerland, it came in December of 1969 when Seiko launched the Astron, the world’s first commercial quartz wristwatch.
The arrival of the Astron was a bitter blow for the Swiss watchmakers.
True, Switzerland had produced the first ever quartz wristwatch prototype in 1967, but getting pipped at the post by the Japanese sent shockwaves through the land of mountains and lakes. Some experts say the Swiss had simply taken their eye off the ball. Others say the apparent lack of urgency regarding new technology harped back to Switzerland’s neutrality during WWII, a situation which allowed them to languish in the luxury of perfecting their traditional, mechanical watchmaking techniques while other countries were forced to throw their manufacturing resources into the frenzied mass production of cheap, military timepieces.
Be that as it may. Switzerland had been left at the starting line, and the Japanese, and the Americans, took the lead in the race to flood the world with affordable and highly accurate quartz watches.
Inside Switzerland this became know as the Quartz Crisis.
Outside of Switzerland it was called the Quartz Revolution.
Whichever way you look at it, the advent and rapid advance of quartz technology left the Swiss watchmakers in a state of complete and utter disarray and by the 1980’s the industry had declined to about one-third of its former glory.
And then in 1983, a consortium belonging to the Swiss ASUAG group was formed and given the task of saving the industry. The result was The Swatch. Sealed in a plastic casing with little probability of repair and with a minimum of moving parts, The Swatch was intentionally designed as a commodity to be worn and thrown away once it stopped working. It was a huge success and in just 2 years, sales of Swatches surpassed the 2.5 million mark.
Today, the Swatch Group is the biggest watchmaker on the planet
But modern Swatches don’t just tell (accurate) time. They have become fashion statements, and collectable items created with some of the most vibrant designs in the world; a watch for every occasion, an accessory with the ability to blend nicely with any item in your wardrobe. From colourful plastic to elegant metal, Swatch’s aggressive marketing campaigns work hard to convince us that there is a Swatch for everyone, and anyone can wear a Swatch. Maybe, maybe not.
But there’s no denying that the original, humble Swatch dragged the antiquated Swiss watchmaking industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And in an age where everyone and his auntie has a mobile phone, and every mobile phone has some kind of timekeeping app on it anyway, Swatch still attracts hundreds and thousands of new customers all around the world. And chances are, those new customers will become loyal fans of the now ubiquitous Swatch brand.