The Real Story Behind Swatch

Posted by Jack Freedman on March 03, 1998 at 11:52:26:

The following condensed article, written by myself, appeared in its entirety in several watch trade publications in 1985:

The Real Swatch Story

Contrary to press releases, the Swatch is NOT a revolutionary concept and horological design novelty. According to news reports, Swatch was first to pioneer an approach to watchmaking that allows total automation and reduces the number of parts by half. It took 200 engineers, two years and $8.5 million, to come up with a way to reduce the number of parts to a mere 51 trimming production costs by over 80%. The movement is built into the plastic case which serves also as the movement main plate and then a laser seals the crystal. If the Swatch breaks down the owner can only throw it away — it can’t be repaired. For your information, this so-called new technology and design is not completely new. I bring to your attention an important development which took place fourteen years ago (1971) and was presented at the Swiss Watch Fair. A *plastic mechanical watch* put out by Tissot Watch Company, Tissot started to investigate the field of plastics in 1952 and in 1971 introduced *Astrolon* a movement and case in which the wheels, pinions, escapement, case and plates were all cast from plastic. The number of parts had been reduced to 52 from 90 and by moulding the whole movement, Tissot eliminated 40 time – and cost – consuming operations. Oiling was unnecessary since the plastic was self-lubricating. And assembly work was reduced, requiring only 15 distinct, mostly semi-automatic, operations that were done on an assembly line.

Because the new plastic watch works were cheaper to produce and easier to assemble than conventional metal models, Tissot hoped that this new invention would revolutionize watchmaking and would inject huge profits into their company and the distributors of this product under many different brand names. Indeed this watch watch was sold in the U.S.A. by Sutton Time, Dynasty, Sears & Roebuck and others for prices ranging from $22.50 to as low as $8. Though the watch was so light at 5/8 of an ounce (less strap) that it almost floated, this was not a children’s toy. Its light weight enhanced its shock resistant qualities which enabled it to withstand the rigors of repeated shock trials. Being plastic, its non-magnetic qualities, too, were enhanced. The watch also withstood normal water immersion tests at 30psi. Furthermore, Tissot’s engineers claimed that the timepiece was so reliable and accurate that it could even compete with a chronometer.

So here you see the striking similarities between the Swatch and, undoubtedly its predecessor, the Astrolon, which never became a hit with the consumer. Why then does most of the industry remember nothing about this big invention of little more than a decade ago (now 27 years)? It is incredible that Tissot Watch Co. is not given any credit for their novel idea, which truly was the original concept used in the manufacture of the Swatch. The answer may be because the whole success of Swatch depends on marketing and news releases. Swatch’s own destiny seemed uncertain at the start. Though the product caused a big stir when it was introduced in Switzerland, it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves when it was test-marketed in parts of the U.S.A.

The Swiss, this time, realized that they needed professional marketing help. To sell Swatch, the manufacturer hired a crack marketing director from outside the hidebound watch industry – Jacques Irniger, a veteran of Colgate-Palmolive. With a heavy advertising campaign created by McCann-Erickson in Switzerland and adapted by the agency in New York, they bet on high stakes. This high-style marketing and aggressiveness conducted with Swatch was not a prevalent method used by the usually conservative Swiss in the 1970’s and not tried with the Tissot Astrolon *plastic mechanical watch*. This time around, the Swiss used Swatch’s high-tech and high-fashion mystique to recapture their share of the market. That’s the difference!

Addendum Note:

In 1985, when I wrote the original story, I must admit that I thought Swatch would peter out like the Go-Go watch, the Mood watch and other long forgotten hits. How wrong I was. Just three years later, in 1988, the 50 millionth Swatch was produced. In 1992, the 100 millionth Swatch rolled off the production line. And, finally, in 1996, the 200 millionth Swatch came off the assembly line with no end in sight to their continuous spiralling success. Only time will tell. Perhaps Swatch time?

Jack Freedman, President SUPERIOR WATCH SERVICE INC.

I beg to disagree

Posted by James M. Dowling on March 04, 1998 at 3:23:49:

In Reply to: The Real Story Behind Swatch (long text) posted by Jack Freedman on March 03, 1998 at 11:52:26:

Hi Jack,

My research (over several years and involving interviews with several of the principals) tells me that the antecedent of the Swatch was not the Astrolon but rather another SMH product. Almost equally forgotten, it was the Concord Delirium ‘The world’s thinnest watch’. Whilst the Astrolon was a manual wind watch the Concord was a quartz model. However the main difference between the Tissot and the Swatch is that the main purpose of the Astrolon was to drive guys like you out of business. That is to say it was designed to be self lubricating; to this end, all of the winding gears and train were made from fiberglass.

The real thing that links the Concord and the Swatch is the ‘plateless’ construction; that is to say the back of the watch is a structural member and no conventional plates are used; completely unlike the Tissot which used conventional construction (although unconventional materials). The real irony of all this is that Swatch have just reintroduced the Concord (in a round version) as the Swatch ‘Skin’ (today’s thinnest watch in the world); so you see there really is no such thing as a truly original thought.

Good luck & keep up the good work.

Jack’s response:

James James, While your research points to a right direction, (I agree that there is a definite link between the Swatch and the Delirium – namely the ‘plateless’ construction) the following facts show that there is much more in common between the Swatch and the Astrolon than between the Swatch and the Delirium. For that matter, even the Delirium owes part of its own success to the preceding grand daddy innovator of both – the ASTROLON by

Let’s take a closer look at all the facts:

SIMILARITIES OF SWATCH WITH ASTROLON: 1. Parts in Astrolon = 52, Parts in Swatch = 51 2. All Astrolon parts made from plastic, all Swatch parts made from plastic 3. Astrolon sold as a ‘throwaway’ watch, Swatch sold as a ‘throwaway’ watch 4. Astrolon sealed and unrepairable, Swatch sealed and unrepairable 5. Astrolon sold for less than U.S.$50, Swatch sold for less than U.S.$50

SIMILARITIES OF SWATCH WITH DELIRIUM: 1. Delirium’s movement plate uses the case back, Swatch uses similar system

Now let’s examine the differences.

The Concord Delirium, unlike the Swatch, never was made to be a ‘throwaway’ watch. With all its parts (movement train wheels and case parts) made of metal, this technical innovation was heralded as a scientific feat and an object of monumental Swiss pride. Its primary accomplishment, at the time of introduction, was that it was the thinnest watch in the world, a mere 1.98mm in thickness. Unlike the Astrolon or the Swatch, the Delirium unconventional work-of-art movement was proudly cased in nothing less than 18k gold. Thus it became known as ‘As a thin plate of fine gold which tells time’.

The late 70’s and early 80’s brought with it further refinements with fierce competition between the Japanese (Seiko, Citizen), the Americans (Bulova), and the Swiss (Concord, Omega) to create the world’s thinnest watch. Eventually, the Swiss (Concord) broke the 1mm barrier with a new thinner Delirium although admitting that such timepieces were more for show, as collector items, rather than for wear (impractical as they would bend with the tightening of the strap). Neither the Astrolon nor the Swatch (until recently with their ‘skin’ watch) considered these challenges of creating the ‘thinnest’ timepieces. The basic concept of making a ‘plastic’ watch with plastic wheels, where the number of parts were less than half of conventional movements and where assembly operations were sharply reduced, came from the original idea of the Astrolon research and constructional work. ASUAG, the giant watchmaking group and predecessor of SMH, developed the Swatch in 1983. In order to carry this difficult task to a successful conclusion, it was necessary to fall back on the technical know-how that had been built up over the past decade.

And so, Swatch relied, first and foremost, on technology developed for the Astrolon and, then, further incorporated newer innovations accomplished with the Delirium. Once again, no reference or mention was made by SMH to either the Astrolon or the Delirium both of which were manufactured by their own manufacturing group..

The newest ‘Skin Watch’, by Swatch, is undoubtedly an evolution of both technologies, the Swatch and Delirium, integrated into a thin plastic wristwatch. Weighing just 12.3 grams and with a case 3.9 millimeters thick, it’s, however, a far cry from the Delirium. But, then again, it’s not in the race to beat and conquer the ‘monumental Swiss pride’ already publicized in watchmaking’s hall of fame.

These facts dramatically demonstrate that Swatch was not interested to share with the public the origins of its pioneering developments. It seems that, from a marketing perspective, SMH was eager to hoist a new flag claiming a major breakthrough in horology. Nothing else would impress the world. And what better way to stop the Japanese in its tracks and to recapture its share in the watch industry? Thanks, James, for mentioning the Delirium connection; definitely a vital link to the Swatch. As always, you are well steeped in researched knowledge of many watch brands. And, I thought it was just Rolex (just kidding)!

Best regards, Jack Freedman