Sliding the Swatch Sistem51 out of its box and strapping the black and blue watch onto my wrist was a pretty intensely nostalgic experience for me. You see, the first watches I bought with my own money and collected were Swatch watches. And putting the familiar jellybean case on for the first time in over a decade took me back to a time before I knew my Rolex from my Richard Mille, and before I could even imagine that watches would become a big part of my life. Such a big part of my life, in fact, that Swatch would send me the watch a full week ahead of its release on the 5th of September. Our two stories collide via Time+Tide. (Pardon me being a little starstruck throughout.)
But enough about me and my Swatch backstory. Why am I writing about this $185 Swatch on a website dedicated to discussion about some of the best high-end luxury timepieces that money can buy?
Well, not to overstate the occasion, but the Sistem51 has achieved a number of firsts for mechanical watches; it has been called everything from “a bolt of lightning” to “a sensation” and “a revolution”. To understand why, you need to understand a little bit about Swatch.
The first Swatch was released just over 30 years ago. The perception of the luxury mechanical watch then could not be any more different to now. In 1983 the entire Swiss watch industry was crippled, decimated by cheaper quartz watches from brands like Seiko and Citizen that were flooding the market. The era was coined ‘the quartz crisis’. Swatch, a product inherited and radically repositioned by the late (great) entrepreneur Nicolas Hayek, was introduced as a Swiss made, but cheap, fun and disposable fashion watch to rival the Japanese quartz watches. While the watch used a robotic quartz movement, the key to its success was in fact the opposite: the emotions it aroused.
I understood that we were not just selling a consumer product, or even a branded product. We were selling an emotional product. You wear a watch on your wrist, right against your skin. You have it there for 12 hours a day, maybe 24 hours a day. It can be an important part of your self image. It doesn’t have to be a commodity. It shouldn’t be a commodity. I knew that if we could add genuine emotion to the product, and attack the low end with a strong message, we could succeed. – Nicholas Hayek, The Science and Art of Branding, by Giep Franzen and Sandra Moriarty
It caught the imagination of the entire world, selling hundreds of millions of units. The Swatch effectively bankrolled the other Swatch Group brands and is credited as saving the Swiss luxury watch industry. High praise for a lowly plastic watch, but all true. 30 years on, Swatch release the Sistem51 and the cycle may be beginning again. A revolution of the same scale is certainly not going to storm over the barricades, but mechanical watch lovers – even the most well-heeled among us – may still be overthrown by what this watch offers. The model takes its name from the original quartz Swatch, which was comprised of 51 components. Swatch have nicely referenced the original by creating a new automatic movement with 51 parts, accurate to 5 seconds a day and boasting an impressive 90 hour power reserve.
Oh, and it’s completely assembled by robots. But that isn’t the impressive bit. The movement is, like all Swatches, sealed in the case, and cannot be regulated or repaired should something go wrong. If it broke, you ain’t fixing it. And while this isn’t such a huge pain given the price point of the watch, I find the implicit disposability saddening, and counterintuitive to the appeal of an automatic watch. In general.
But it isn’t as if Swatch haven’t thought about it, and gone to some seriously impressive efforts to minimize the possibility of the watch losing time or being damaged. Firstly it’s made wholly from an alloy called ‘ARCAP’ that is anti-magnetic, so as to offset the impact of magnet forces on the watch’s accuracy. Secondly, the movement lacks a regulating mechanism. Its not designed to be maintained, so a regulator is superfluous. Finally, the movement architecture revolves (pun fully intended) on one central screw. The theory behind this (aside from keeping costs down) is to minimize wear and tear on the movement (more moving parts mean more potential malfunctions).
In short, the Sistem51 is a robot assembled, technically innovative automatic watch that sells for less than $200 and has the potential to democratize automatic watches in a digital age. But what’s it like to wear? The truth is, it’s pretty much the same as wearing any other Swatch. Light and comfortable on a soft silicon rubber strap (with subtle blue stitching, which Andrew, our founder, really likes) the watch has presence, but doesn’t overwhelm. It’s clearly not a watch worth many thousands of dollars, and that’s ok, because it isn’t trying to be. Instead it’s familiar, and it feels great on the wrist. I’ve been wearing it for the last week, and would happily keep wearing it.
Its also an attractive piece – the blue and black colourway has just the right mix of perky brightness and sobriety. The dial and caseback reference the Copernican revolution, because, well, because Copernicus. He revolutionized time by placing the sun at the centre of the known world, and Swatch have done something similar with the Sistem51’s central screw. Hyperbole? Maybe just a little… But it’s still attractive.
First-time mechanical watch owners will definitely think it’s cool to see the movement ticking away through the transparent rotor. The fact that the movement plates can be printed bodes well for future bright designs.
Swatch Sistem51- Australian Pricing and Availability
But lastly, what is astounding is that this watch has a retail price of $185 Australian dollars. It’s quite an amazing amount of machine for the money. Time will only tell what impact the Sistem51; with its very accessible price, completely automatic production and built in obsolescence will have on the wider luxury watch industry. It definitely seems poised But mark our words, it will have an impact.
Sistem51 provided by Swatch Australia. Available from 5th September, 2014 RRP $185
Pictures by the “master of light”, Kristian Dowling