A curious sight surrounded retail watch counters in the 1980s and early 1990s. The crowds that gathered as salespeople put new Swatch watches out for purchase resembled something out of the Cabbage Patch Kid craze of just a few years earlier. Shoppers would jostle one another in the hopes of scoring one of the $30 plastic timepieces, which came in a variety of colors and designs. The demand was such that sellers often set a one-watch-per-customer limit.
That’s where the odd behavior came in. Customers would buy a Swatch, leave, then return—this time in a different set of clothes or even a wig in an effort to overcome the allocation and buy a second or third Swatch. The watches were the fashion equivalent of Beanie Babies, though even that craze didn’t quite reach the heights of needing a disguise. Limited-edition Swatches were coveted by collectors who had failed in their pursuit at the retail level and paid thousands for them on the aftermarket. The accessories simultaneously became a fashion statement and an artistic canvas.
More importantly, they also became the savior of the Swiss watch industry, which had been on the verge of collapse.
To understand the unique appeal of Swatch, it helps to size up the landscape of the timepiece category in the late 1970s. Swiss watches, long considered the gold standard of timepieces, were being outpaced by quartz-powered digital imports from Japan that were cheap to produce and cheap to sell. Faced with the choice of buying a quality watch for a premium price or opting for a bargain digital model, an increasing number of consumers were choosing the imports. Business was down, factories were closing, and jobs were being lost.
Fortunately, a number of things were happening that would prove to offer salvation for the Swiss. ETA SA, a company that made watches and was headed up by Ernst Thomke, had recently invested in an injection-molding machine at the behest of engineer Elmar Mock. Mock, along with his colleague Jacque Muller, spent 15 months crafting a plastic prototype watch that was one piece and welded together. The significance of a sealed unit was that it economized the entire process, turning watches from handcrafted units to models that could be produced by automation. The watches required just 51 parts instead of the 91 pieces typical of most models at the time. In this way, Thomke, Mock, and Muller had produced a timepiece that was both durable and inexpensive.
The issue was why someone might opt for a Swatch watch over a digital Japanese model. Thomke knew that the idea of a “Swiss watch” still held wide appeal in the same way someone might opt for a real Chicago deep-dish pizza over an imitator’s version. Along with Nicholas Hayek, who later became CEO of the Swatch Group, Thomke believed he had cracked the code for a Swiss watch renaissance. He released the first Swatch in Zurich in March of 1983.
But the manufacturing process that allowed Swatches to come in at a reasonable price was also a problem. Automating the process meant the watches and bands were almost always identical in size and shape. If the watch’s general appearance couldn’t be changed, how could it stand out?
The answer was in the design. The Swatch name came from a contraction of two words: secondary watch. The idea was that a watch could be analogous to a necktie or other fashion accessory. No one owned just one tie, scarf, or pair of dress shoes. They typically had a rotation. Thomke and Hayek didn't believe a watch should be any different.
At the behest of marketing consultant Franz Sprecher, Swatches were soon flooding stores in an assortment of colors and with different designs on the face of the timepiece itself. They could be coordinated for different outfits or occasions, a practice that became known as “watch wardrobing." Someone who bought a red Swatch for summer lounging might opt for a black Swatch as part of their professional attire. The watches retailed for $30 to $40 apiece, so buying more than one was financially feasible.
That was the concept, anyway. Some U.S. retail stores received their Swatch inventory and didn’t know what to make of what was—on the surface—a cheap plastic watch. Neither did their customers.
What Swatch needed was a marketing plan. That largely fell into the hands of marketing consultant Max Imgruth, who was named president of the company’s American division. Swatch saw their sales rise from $3 million in 1984 to $105 million in 1985. Thanks to an effective advertising campaign and more eclectic color choices, public perception of Swatches put them firmly in the fashion category.
The approach opened up a new market, one Thomke, Hayek, and their colleagues had not quite anticipated: Collectors were rabid about Swatches.
To keep their biannual collections of 22 to 24 watch releases fresh, Swatch began recruiting a number of collaborators to design extremely unique offerings. In 1984, they enlisted artist Kiki Picasso to design a series. The following year, Keith Haring designed his own collection. In a kind of prelude to the sneaker design phenomenon of the 1990s and beyond, these collaborators put their own distinctive stamps on the Swatches, which acted as a kind of canvas for their artistic expression.
Between third-party designers and contributions from Swatch’s Milan, Italy, design team, collectors couldn’t get enough. There was the Swatchetables line, which imagined the Swatches in a series of food-related motifs—a red-hot chili pepper Swatch, a cucumber Swatch, and a bacon-strap and egg-faced Swatch. The entire set sold for $300 and only at select food markets, quickly shooting up to $2400 in the secondary market. (Like all aftermarket Swatches, they needed to be kept in their plastic retail case in order to realize their full value.) Some resellers bought up stock in New York, then resold them for three times the price in Italy.
The 1985 “Jellyfish” model was transparent. The 1989 “Dadali” had a face with Roman numerals that appeared to be melting off the face and onto the strap. Swatches came with cuffs to honor Mozart or adorned with synthetic fur. There were Mother’s Day editions and editions celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Some of the straps were scented.
The possibilities were endless, and so was the consumer appetite. (Except for yellow straps, which traditionally sold poorly.) Collectors camped out for Swatches at retailers or hundreds of Swatch-exclusive stores around the country. Affluent collectors dispatched employees to different retailers in the hopes of finding a limited-edition watch for retail price. If they failed, some had no problem paying thousands of dollars at auction. A Kiki Picasso Swatch, one of a very limited 121 pieces total, sold for $28,000 in 1992.
Though no one wears disguises to acquire Swatch watches anymore, the company is still issuing new releases. And while the company has seen a decline in sales over the years—the rise of smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Fitbit continue to eat into their marketing share—affection for the brand is unlikely to disappear entirely anytime soon. In 2015, one of the world’s largest collections of Swatches—5800 pieces—went up for sale, and ultimately fetched $6 million.