Last week, whilst lying on the bed in a Swiss hotel room, an urge came over me: an urge to buy a Swatch. Not just any Swatch, but a quartz Swatch. The reason, at the time, eluded me. Now, however, I find that it was the best watch related choice I have made in a long time, and is one which I would recommend to any watch enthusiast.
It’s nothing special and, with the possible exception of being one of the most iconic designs of the 20th century, very simple. It shows the day, the date and the time, all with the reassuring ‘tick’ of quartz in plastic. Nothing more.
As a lover of mechanical watches, I can say that we are all taught to be decidedly hard on quartz watches. Perhaps the Swatch is even worse. It lacks any possibility of a service, has the build quality of a child’s toy, and isn’t even desperately accurate. In short, a Grand Seiko 9F it is not.
Nonetheless, lying there, with a beautiful mechanical watch on the bedside table, I couldn’t shake the desire. So, wallet in pocket, I marched purposefully through Lucerne towards Bucherer. The look on the shopkeeper’s face was priceless as, whilst being directed towards the Jaeger-LeCoultre section, I declared my unshakeable intention to buy a Swatch. The piece (I hesitate to call it a timepiece) was the Swatch Once Again, a simple black plastic case with a “Bauhaus meets military” white dial and a black rubber strap.
I was immediately smitten. I had replaced polished steel and alligator skin for plastic and rubber and whilst the material comparison was night and day (and, unsurprisingly, steel and leather won), the swap was extremely eye opening.
The truth is that elaborate watches don’t make sense. A service will sometimes exceed the price of buying another watch, and whilst often more cost effective in the long run, buying a more costly watch raises the question of why we need it in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, watches are my passion, but sometimes the numbers are difficult to ignore. We’re also notorious for comparing specifications. Whether it’s a ceramic bezel, a SuperLuminova colour, or a solid end-link, it’s easy to be caught up in the minutiae.
Similarly, we are notorious for comparing our watches, celebrating some and deriding others for reasons which are sometimes fair, and sometimes more arbitrary. Now, I regard such criticism as crucial to maintaining a standard within the industry, though I can see how this attitude can remove the enjoyment from something which is, fundamentally, a luxury.
By contrast, the Swatch and it’s 50 CHF pricetag are entirely unapologetic. They simply are. No services, reasonable accuracy, Swiss cachet, and the responsibility for the resurrection of the Swiss watch industry. There’s also no denying that the Swatch is a design classic. With its integrated strap, infinitely varied dial selection and practical plastic case, it belongs to no era or circle. It is simply the Swatch.
This is exactly why everyone who owns a mechanical watch and loves it for the romance or mechanisation, or for the mastery of craft needed to construct its movement should try a Swatch. It forms the perfect antidote to taking watches too seriously. The Swatch needs no introduction nor mechanical explanation. It needs no servicing nor concern about condition or resale value. In truth, it removes all responsibility from the experience of ownership, and reminds one that, for most daily scenarios, no mechanical or luxury watch needs to be a watch at all. It is merely a sentimental item which makes us, the enthusiasts, smile.
Since the 1970s, mechanical watches have been outdated, and since the 1980s, the time has been irrelevant. The very existence of the Swiss watch industry is defined by the desire for watches being superior to the need for the time.
Coming back to the Swatch, the reality is that it reminds one that watches are, after all, there to make one smile, or feel a certain way. Whether that’s fascination with the mechanism, love for the history, or a sense of status is personal. Before we worry about the details, or the economics of watch ownership, the watch must offer us as the wearer more than the humble Swatch does. As a result, it reminds that we should enjoy what makes us happy, and not what fits with the status quo, or something which stretches our means due to costs. At the end of the day, it is a tool to enjoy, not to tell the time.
For these reasons, I think that a lot of us could do with the perspective lent by the wearing of a humble Swatch, even if it just to ask a Breguet dealer a for a Swatch.