Swatch Watch from the 80’s – A Throwback in Time
When looking back at the ’80s, you might immediately notice garish colors, crazy clothes and hair, and off the charts commercialism. But if you look a little closer, you can see another notable, yet modest, aspect of the ’80s: The Swatch Watch. Shorthand for second watch, the Swatch was a simply constructed plastic quartz analog watch. Its simple construction, however, served as the canvas of a decade’s worth of colorful, geometric, abstract, and sometimes minimalist designs. The design of the Swatch even inspires watch designs to this day.
Arising in a time of chunky chic digital Casio watches from Japan, the Swatch Watch stood out as a Swiss-made watch that caught the pop culture’s eye. While Swiss watches were synonymous with careful craftsmanship and a lifetime guarantee of quality timekeeping, the trendsetters of the late ’70s and early ’80s were growing tired of the bulky leather and metal workhorses. Something had to change, and it wasn’t going to be the fickle consumers seeking something new every day.
So, to keep up with the times, Swiss designers Elmar Mock and Jacques Müller put their brains together to create a more slender, mass-producible wristwatch that could be machine-made instead of painstakingly handcrafted. The Swatch, as it came to be named, was constructed with deliberately lightweight plastic quartz, composed of a neat and tidy sixty components, and made to be a closed system. That is, other than the battery, nothing is going in to repair the system at all, sealing the watch’s fate as a disposable fashion product. The potential of a trendy watch caught the eye of Nicolas Hayek, who ended up founding the company Swatch Group as its CEO in 1983 and everything after that is history.
Priced around an average of $20, Swatch watches from the ’80s were branded as a disposable, casual fashion watch that could be changed by the season, the trends, or even by the day. Swatch’s entire brand focused on the intersection of personal expression with cutting edge trendiness, featuring this philosophy in commercials that are shot more like modern-day perfume ads than dry informational clips. Selling this image of casual streetwear yet fashionable style choice, Swatch commercials featured elements such as black-tie formal wear juxtaposed against neon watch faces, lurid makeout sessions emphasized by linked watch bands, or high activity dancing and exercise to highlight the watches’ water and shock-resistant properties. Each commercial ended with the Swatch’s slogan, “The new wave in Swiss Watches.” However, they could’ve better summarized the product’s impact on the decade by just stating the new wave in fashion.
The Swatch’s main attraction point was its versatility. The watches themselves came in a staggering number of colorways, featuring anything from the beautifully- clashing neon colors to bold geometric shapes and lines. They offered muted colorways, simple black and white colorways, and even a translucent Jelly line that almost came to define the Swatch Watch in general. It helped that the watches were genuinely well designed as well, unlike other elements of the ’80s. The watch face made an excellent backdrop for both abstract designs and artist collaborations, and the bands could be interchanged to allow for as many pattern combinations as possible.
There are many notable Swatch watches from the ’80s that collectors today still go crazy over. For example, there was a limited edition, glow in the dark watch commemorating the passing of Halley’s Comet. There were also many artist collaboration watches—the simple construction of the Swatch Watch made it perfect as a backdrop for pieces of art. Pop artist Keith Haring did a series of watches, some of which were named Serpent and Blanc sur Noir, which was especially fitting considering Haring’s open attitude towards the commercialization of fine art. The watches were a perfect example of the intersection of excellent design and mass marketable commercial products. One could find a watch with literally anything and everything on it, from literary and artistic classics such as Sappho and Cupydus to illustrations of ’60s Russian astronaut superstar Yuri to severely restrained minimalism in Russo sur Blackout.
Some of the watch faces even had a clear backing or cutouts, such as in Sol\” or Mango Dream, so that the wearer could see straight into the clockwork guts of their treasured Swatch Watch. Pictures of these iconic watches can still be found all over the internet, as well as on Swatch Group’s website.
The Swatch Watch became so prevalent in ’80s culture that it became a status symbol despite its affordable price point. One trend was to wear multiple Swatch Watches at once, the more varied in their collection the better. For some it was pure aesthetic choice; for others, it was to keep track of various time zones in various other countries. Another trend involved wearing a Swatch Watch upside down so that when you went to check the time you had to flip your wrist back all cool-like. As always, teenagers embraced and defined what was cool in the decade, and advertisements featuring hot hip hop groups like The Fat Boys and watch collaborations with street artists like Keith Haring made it easy for the watches to go from being disposable to being the hottest thing around.
The watches were so hot that numerous Swatch accessories were made to either complement the watch or to fuel the flames of those obsessed with its artistic designs. Swatch Guards were rubber guards that stretched over the watch face to protect it from cracks and chipping—and it also served as a fashion point as well. People would twist together two differently colored Swatch Guards and then place them on the watch for a bi-patterned effect. There was also something called the Swatch Pop sold, whose only purpose was to attack one’s Swatch Watch to their clothing or backpack instead of their wrist. Some even used Swatch Watches as a ponytail holder, almost like a precursor to the ’90s scrunchies trend. One of the wildest novelty products Swatch Group made was giant Swatch Watch wall clocks. Yes, these were gigantic clocks made to hang on a wall but designed to look like a wristwatch, band and all.
This craze over an otherwise innocuous accessory, the watch, still lingers to this day. You could even compare its popularity to the way Apple currently curates its following through a strongly maintained design philosophy and ever updating models of their rather disposable products; the main difference would only be the price point. Many of the original Swatch watches from the ’80s are now revered collectors’ items, and those who don’t wish to part with their watches continue to wear them to this day—the careful Swiss craftsmanship shining through despite the Swatch Watch’s throwaway nature.
Swatch Group continues to make watches to this day, maintaining a streak of their quirky and kitschy design even as most of their watches now have a more classic and simpler look to them. Whether you are a fan of bold visual aesthetics or simply like to tell what the time it is without having to look at your phone, there is a Swatch Watch to suit your style even forty years after the 80s.