When asked about Swatch, the average non-watch-geek will probably respond along the lines of, “Those are the fun plastic watches I see at the mall!” It’s not a wrong answer; it’s just an overly abbreviated one. Swatch was originally founded to change the watch industry. In fact, the name “Swatch” comes from “Second Watch”, or in other words, a revolution of the watch. Ernst Thomke, then-CEO of ETA (the ébauche maker), set out to recapture the watch market from Japanese brands that had hit it big during the quartz crisis. His idea was to create eye-catching, inexpensive to the point of being disposable, “Swiss Made” watches. Since its birth in the 1980s, Swatch has gone on to become a global phenomenon, revered and coveted by Japanese schoolgirls and big-money watch collectors alike. Swatch did nothing less than save the Swiss watch industry from certain death.
Just over 30 years later, Swatch has once again broken trail into uncharted territory. Revealed at BaselWorld earlier this year, the Swatch Sistem51, today’s watch version of the Model T, is set to be released this month. Sistem51 is comprised of (ahem) 51 parts, completely assembled by robots. Not a single human hand touches this watch during manufacture. The 51 parts are welded together to form a single assembly, wrapped around a central screw, packaged together in a hermetically sealed case.
Quartz watches took off because of their relative ease of assembly. The Sistem51 is bringing that same simplified assembly to the mechanical world.
But if it’s not touched by the human hand, how is the movement regulated? Get this: by a freaking laser. The Sistem51’s movement won’t need adjustments due to the elements that affect your average mechanical watch thanks to its simple construction and airtight seal. The fun doesn’t stop there; Sistem51’s movement is made of copper, nickel and zinc, giving it highly anti-magnetic qualities. If your jaw still hasn’t dropped, this bad boy will have a 90-hour power reserve, unheard of for an average self-winding movement.
Of course, this level of innovation is not new to the watch world. For many years, watch parts were manufactured on tools retro-fitted with motors that could be controlled through coordinates fed by punching tape. Eventually, tools old and new were fitted with analog and digital computers that completely revolutionized machining. Watch parts could be developed faster, cheaper, and with far fewer errors. Today what used to take hours to finish manually can be done in minutes with the push of a button. Thanks to these advancements, along with programs like AutoCAD, quality mechanical watches range in price from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars.
But the Sistem51 undercuts even these relatively affordable prices. While official pricing hasn’t been released, the watch should cost a little over one hundred dollars, which, for this level of technology, is quite a bargain. Quartz watches took off because of their relative ease of assembly, and the Sistem51 is bringing that same simplified assembly to the mechanical world. While that could spell the end for some entry-level watchmaking jobs, it also kicks the door wide open for entrepreneurs wanting to break into the watch industry. For existing watchmakers, human and monetary capital is freed up for the other aspects of watchmaking. This could mean higher-end materials and case finishing as well as a greater focus on R&D. In any case, the end result is a win for the consumer.