The Apple Watch is going to hit the market very soon.
But before the Apple Watch was announced, another well-known brand captured the attention of the horological universe in dramatic fashion.
It was Swatch.
Yes, Swatch — maker of all those witty plastic timepieces that everyone wore in the 1980s, and that still have a following in both low and high places today.
Swatch is actually the Swatch Group, which includes names such as Omega, Breguet, and Rado. It’s a huge force in Swiss watchmaking and, with the creation of the Swatch brand several decades ago, is often credited with saving that country’s watch industry in the face of an onslaught of inexpensive quartz timepieces from Asia.
CREATING A SENSATION
The watch was the Sistem51 — an innovative and radically new automatic timepiece that’s purely Swiss and purely Swatch.
The Sistem51 only costs $US150 and went on sale in the US in 2014. It created a sensation at the big annual watch show in Basel in 2013.
There were four original versions of the watch. They have now been joined by five new editions, including a variation of the Sistem Blue that now has a more legible dial for timekeeping.
Sistem51 took the Swiss watchmaking community by storm.
“Jaws dropped,” said Carlo Giordanetti, Swatch’s Creative Director. “No one thought it would be possible.”
So what exactly did Swatch manage to achieve with Sistem51?
It reduced the number of parts in the movement to 51, about half of what a typical automatic watch requires.
An automatic movement is powered by the movement of the wearer. The finest watches in the world are automatics, costing tens and even hundreds of thousands. Their movements — complicated miniature machines — are a source of fascination to watch collectors and enthusiasts.
There are plenty of cheap automatics out there. You can pick up a perfectly good one for less than $US100. It won’t be anything to write home about, but it won’t need a new battery every few years, either.
And it won’t be as innovative as Sistem51.
“51 became a target,” said Giordanetti, who has been with Swatch since 1987. ” It was a challenge for our engineers to get the same number of components in an automatic as in a quartz.”
The overriding goal was to eliminate complexity. For the record, complications are what the traditional Swiss watch industry thrives on. More complications can make for a far more valuable and desirable watch. Quartz watches, by contrast, are fairly simple: they use a quartz crystal and electric oscillation to generate very precise timekeeping.
Automatic watches use mechanical action to wind a mainspring, which powers the timekeeping function.
There’s no fastidious watchmaker laboring over a bench with tiny tools and a sure, practiced hand producing the Sistem51. Instead, there are robots. The entire assembly process is automated. The movement is constructed around a single, central screw.
No shortage of traditional watchmaker know-how went into creating the watch, according to Giordanetti. It was, however, updated, forward-thinking know-how.
“There were 25 to 35 young people involved, all from watchmaking families,” he said. “No other brand could have done this.”
The traditional Swiss watch industry is doing quite well these days, supported by global demand for luxury timepieces from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and other big names. It’s all about automatics, so Swatch saw an opportunity to use its heft to introduce something radically new into this market — all while keeping intact the brand’s affection for whimsy and irreverence.
IT’S NOT ABOUT SHOWING OFF
“It was an innocent provocation,” Giordanetti said of the roll-out of Sistem51 in Basel in 2013.
But it was more than that. “It was emotional,” the Swatch veteran added.
Apart from watchmaking innovation, Sistem51 also represents another core Swatch value: cheerful unpretentiousness.
“It’s not about showing off,” Giordanetti explained. “It’s all about lightness. A Swatch collector wants to look at his or her watch and smile two or three times a day.”
“You can hide it,” Giordanetti said, and he’s right. This isn’t a watch that will live on display below your shirt cuff. It’s the farthest thing from a chunky, stainless-steel dive watch you can get. It’s the anti-Rolex Submariner. But like the Rolex, it’s still a completely Swiss watch.
And at $US150, it’s also the most affordable all-new, super-innovative all-Swiss movement you can lay your hands on.
Sistem51 is a piece of watchmaking history, as important as the arrival of Swatch quartzes were in the 1980s. The Apple Watch will be a big deal. But Apple isn’t the only innovator in watches these days!
You can find the Sistem51 here.
Here’s a look at the new designs:
NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.