Forty years after it first appeared, the stars, or rather the planets, have aligned for Swatch in a way that few, me included, could have imagined.
Rewind to the end of March last year. The watch world was getting ready for the first post-coronavirus iteration of the annual Watches and Wonders fair, when—Boom!—Swatch dropped a bomb in the form of a series of watches heavily, ahem, inspired by Omega’s Speedmaster, the watch NASA took to the moon.
Swatch does not exhibit at Watches and Wonders, so this was textbook disruptor stuff: the industry was looking in one direction, and then all of a sudden there were crowds in shopping malls, lines hundreds of yards long, and scenes of unrest outside Swatch boutiques as collectors clamored to get their hands on the new “MoonSwatch,” a play on the Omega Moonwatch.
The effect was incredible, like the moment in old horror movies when the crazed Dr. Frankenstein throws a lever and a lightning bolt of energy jumps across the room to animate the creature.
Swatch had not been so talked about or so desirable for years … maybe not since the 1980s, when the cheap, cheerful, and genuinely revolutionary plastic watch made its debut. Unfortunately, I am old enough to remember the teaser campaign that announced the impending dawn of a new age in personal timekeeping back in the early 1980s, when I was in my teens. It was one of those rare occasions when reality very nearly lived up to the marketing hype.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the Swiss watch industry had been hammered by cheap, and inhumanly precise, battery-powered watches from the Far East, the soaring value of the Swiss franc against the dollar during the oil-shock recession, and the rocketing price of gold. A few companies, namely Rolex and Patek Philippe, held their nerve and backed traditional watchmaking methods. But the low-cost, high-volume part of the Swiss industry was almost extirpated.
Down but not quite out, the Swiss industry fought back. A.S.U.A.G. (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG) played the Far East at its own game with a cheap electronic watch made of plastic.
The time was right. Anyone who has ever seen a pop video from those years will know that the 1980s loved color, and Swatch gave the go-go decade a polychromatic jolt, while also fighting against the flood of literally faceless digital watches with traditional analog hands. And suddenly Swatch was everywhere: there were Keith Haring Swatches, there were Vivienne Westwood Swatches, and there was even a giant (531 feet long) yellow Swatch hanging down the side of the Commerzbank in Frankfurt.
As well as enjoying commercial success, Swatch also shifted attitudes about watches. The 1980s were “designer” years, and design mavens lauded the Swatch as they did other totems of the times, such as the Filofax and the Montblanc pen. Gone was the idea of the watch for life. With the Swatch being issued in an abundance of colors and styles at the standard price of 50 Swiss francs, you could now have a watch for every day of the week. Multiple-watch ownership became a mainstream thing: the psychological foundations of modern watch collecting had been laid.
A.S.U.A.G. merged with S.S.I.H. (Société Suisse pour l’industrie Horlogère SA) and in 1998 the new entity was renamed Swatch Group. It embraced the full gamut of the industry, from the manufacture of specialized components, viz. Nivarox, which makes parts for watch escapements, to brands including Breguet, Napoleon’s favorite watchmaker, and Omega.
Gone was the idea of the watch for life. Issued in an abundance of colors and styles, you could now have a watch for every day of the week.
Swatch had not disappeared, but it had become part of the landscape, a landmark so familiar that it becomes almost invisible. But working in secrecy, Swatch leveraged the power and collectibility of a resurgent Omega to launch the MoonSwatch. Essentially a Swatch made to look like the well-known Omega Moonwatch, manufactured in eco-sounding “bioceramic,” each was named after one of the planets of the solar system and given its own livery (yellow for the Sun, red for Mars, etc.).
I have to admit, I was skeptical. I imagined it would be a nine-day wonder, and I was even concerned that while it would do wonders for Swatch, it might dim the luster of the Omega brand.
I was wrong. Instead, MoonSwatch seems to have surfed any number of prevailing trends: some intentionally, others serendipitously. It launched at about the time the overinflated secondary market for watches peaked, and it gave the entry-level market the thrill of flipping a desirable watch for a premium. It slotted right into the appetite for collaborations that is now as much a part of the watch world as it is in fashion.
Its appearance also coincided with the discovery of desirable inexpensive watches: new arrivals such as Furlan Marri and Baltic had been basking in the warmth of pundits praising their attention to detail in design and being quite happy with the trade-off between cheap movements and low prices.
Of course, for Swatch the true dividend has been visibility. More attention is paid to what is going on at Swatch. For instance, this year has seen the launch of the square Swatch in bioceramic. Called “What If,” the name refers to a potential alternative-history moment, when in 1982 a square case shape was considered. Round of course was the right choice, but now a renascent Swatch can ponder its past, and people are interested. A different 1980s riff can be appreciated as Swatch continues what it calls its “Art Journey,” with a collection of three Basquiat watches, which quote the 1983 works Hollywood Africans and Ishtar and an untitled work from 1982 featuring the artist’s signature three-point crown. With high demand for the artist’s work and a major show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the pairing of two 80s icons is propitious and, for Swatch, well timed.
There have of course been further editions of the MoonSwatch. Since March this year, every full moon has seen the release of a MoonSwatch with a seconds’ hand made of Omega’s Moonshine gold. And although initial hysteria has cooled, this Swatch x Omega hybrid has now established itself on the watch-scape.
It is a gift that keeps on giving in the most unexpected of ways. Horologically motivated muggings in some major cities and resorts have become a regrettable aspect of the watch boom. Only able to speak anecdotally of what I have seen over the summer, the MoonSwatch has become the travel watch of choice for collectors who, having seen social-media memes about watch muggings, want a watch that is stylish, desirable, and yet disposable … which is about as good a three-word definition of the Swatch as I can think of.
Nicholas Foulkes, the author of more than 20 books on the arts and history, is a London-based writer and editor