A Timeless History of the Swatch Watch

Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch
Jeff Schear, Getty Images for Swatch

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.

Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images for Soho House Chicago

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?

Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

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.

Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

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.

Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Overexposed: A History of Fotomat

Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
George, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s that came before it, the familiar gold and pyramid-shaped roofs of Fotomat locations acted as a beacon. Instead of hamburgers, Fotomat was in the photography business, offering tiny huts situated in shopping plaza parking lots that were staffed by just one employee. Men were dubbed Fotomacs. Women were known as Fotomates, and management required them to wear short-shorts, or “hot pants,” in a nod to the strategy used for flight attendants at Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Cars pulled up to the Fotomat location and dropped off film they wanted processed. After being shuttled via courier to a local photo lab, it would be ready for pick-up the following day. And aside from selling film and a foray into renting videocassette tapes, this was all Fotomat did.

The idea, which was originally made popular by wealthy aviator Preston Fleet, was almost deceptively simple in concept and execution. At the height of Fotomat’s success in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were more than 4000 of the tiny kiosks located across the United States and Canada. But even with extremely low overhead—the little huts didn’t even have bathrooms—and a widespread love of photography, Fotomat fell victim to its own success. Its legacy even grew to include a former company president who became a federal fugitive from justice.

 

In the 1960s, Americans were fond of Kodak Instamatic cameras and film. People submitted the familiar yellow spools full of images from weddings, birthdays, trips, and other social events to photo processing labs, which might take days to return prints.

That’s where Preston Fleet saw opportunity. Fleet was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. His father, Reuben Fleet, had founded the Consolidated Aircraft Company—later known as Convair—which manufactured aircraft for World War II. Born in Buffalo, New York, Fleet moved with his family when the airplane business was relocated to San Diego. On the West Coast, he met Clifford Graham, an entrepreneur well-known in La Jolla, California, for his multiple business pursuits. Graham also had a reputation for carrying a gun and leading investors astray with questionable business practices.

Fotomat, however, was no hustle. The concept of a kiosk where people could easily drop off and pick up film that would be ready overnight originated in Florida, where Charles Brown opened the first location in 1965. After buying Brown's stock shares and arranging for a royalty, Fleet and Graham founded the Fotomat Corporation in 1967, with Graham president and Fleet vice-president. The concept grew quickly, boasting 1800 sites in its first 18 months of operation. Owing to its color scheme, people often thought Kodak operated the business, which led to complaints from Kodak as well as lawsuits. (Fotomat changed its design in 1970 to avoid confusion.)

While it was relatively easy to slot in a Fotomat hut in a parking lot, a business operating as an island surrounded by traffic had its problems. Remembering an old Fotomat in New Dorp on Staten Island, residents on Facebook recalled plowing into the kiosk or backing into it. (Most notably, terrorists destroy a Fotomat lookalike hut in the Twin Pines Mall lot in 1985’s Back to the Future.)

There was also the matter of bathrooms: They weren’t any. Employees often made arrangements to duck into local supermarkets or other stores when nature demanded it.

Hot pants and a lack of lavatories aside, Fotomat performed so well that Fleet and Graham decided to take it public in 1969, with each man holding stock worth $60 million at one point. But Graham’s controversial business practices made him a short-timer. In 1971, he was ousted from Fotomat over allegations he was misusing funds for his own personal gain, including his political interests—Graham was a supporter of both Richard Nixon and football player-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, who became an assistant to the president in the Fotomat corporation and referred football pros to become franchisees.

 

By the early 1980s, Fotomat—now minus Fleet, who had sold off his shares, and Graham—had opened over 4000 locations. That was both impressive and problematic. Fotomat had far overextended itself, sometimes opening kiosks so close to one another it cannibalized sales. There was also a growing number of pharmacies and grocery stores offering photo development services.

Fotomat locations were usually found in parking lots.David Prasad, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The real death blow for Fotomat, however, wasn’t over-expansion. It was the emergence of the one-hour minilab.

For an investment of $50,000 to $100,000, existing stores could install labs that could process photos in as little as one hour while customers shopped. Minilabs exploded from just 600 locations in 1980 to 14,700 by 1988. And since film never left the sites, it was less likely to get lost. It decimated Fotomat and its copycat businesses, with Fotomat moving from an impressive 18 percent market share in the photo processing industry to just 2 percent by 1988.

The company tried to recalibrate, converting home movies to videotape and even offering VHS rental during the VCR boom of the 1980s, but it wasn’t successful. Mass layoffs and closures followed. (Minilabs would have their own reckoning, both due to the rise of 35mm photography and digital photography.) In 1990, Fotomat was down to just 800 locations.

Fleet, who had exited Fotomat years prior—the company had been sold to Konica—was no worse for the wear. Prior to his death in 1995, he authored a book, Hue and Cry, which called into question the authenticity of works attributed to William Shakespeare. He was a founding director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1963. He also helped popularize Omnimax, an immersive theater experience owned by Imax, installing a screen at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Space Museum in San Diego in 1973.

Graham’s future after Fotomat was far more colorful. Promoting a bogus gold mining operation he named Au Magnetics, he promised he could turn sand into gold. Instead, he was accused of fleecing investors. When a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion in 1986, Graham was nowhere to be found. Nor would he ever be located. Associates speculate he either successfully eluded authorities or was possibly killed by an investor who was unhappy with losing money.

As for the Fotomat locations themselves: Following the company’s collapse, many were repurposed into other businesses. Some became coffee shops; others morphed into watch repair kiosks, locksmith huts, windshield wiper dealers, or tailors. Presumably, none of the owners who took over mandated their employees wear hot pants.