Swatch Ahead

Swatch Ahead

The Swatch Group’s latest quest for watchmaking world domination is now two collaborations in. As the initial hype surrounding these partnerships fades, the question arises: Will the interest in Swatch’s collaborative ventures endure?

On 20th March 1985, Swatch released their first collaborative project during the ‘Copy Art’ exhibition in Paris — the Kiki Picasso Swatch. Bearing the reference number GZ008, this 140-piece edition is likely the most expensive collector’s watch in the history of the brand; fetching about $45,000 at Sotheby’s in Milan — twice its sale value and nearly $110,000 in today’s money. 

The collaboration was a resounding success. It was timed perfectly both from a business and contemporary art point of view; catapulting the parallel hype of the mid-80s Pop Swatch models and the artist’s sweeping fame within the avant-garde art movement. In just a year, Swatch would join hands with contemporary artist, Keith Haring, to produce four new collaborative models — a feat that would be replicated as recently as 2021. While there have been dozens of collaborations with brands, designers, artists and the like across these four-odd decades, the focus has certainly drawn away from giving artists a wrist (and accompanying price point) to showcase their work. Instead, Swatch has gone big and bold on the world of horology itself, diving deeper into the culture, ethos, and even the whimsy associated with all things watches. 

Talk about Swatch collabs today, and you’ll likely spark conversations about two specific collections — the Swatch x OMEGA Moonswatch, and the recent Blancpain X Swatch Scuba Fifty Fathoms. Both have been at the forefront of horology-chatter across the last several months, and have disrupted everything from watchmaking forums to Google search results; a quick Google Trends search reveals that online interest in Blancpain — one of watchmaking’s most iconic legacy brands — has soared to almost 10x its peak in the 2010s, following the Scuba Fifty’s launch early this September.  

It has now been just over a month since fans lined up outside Swatch stores for over 15 hours, hoping to get their hands on one of the seven Scuba Fifty Fathoms on offer. Like the MoonSwatch, the newer collaboration has largely succeeded in its apparent goal — bringing high horology to the masses. 

Playing With Icons 

The relative informality of the project allows Swatch to play with the source material in ways that the original marques couldn’t, both in terms of production volume and overall design. Both watches start life in dramatically different conditions compared to their original inspirations. Rather than spending several hand-built work hours with watchmakers at their respective workshops, the cases of the Scuba Fifty and MoonSwatch — amongst other key elements — start off as bright, spaghetti-like strands, which are processed into millions of tiny pellets of bioceramic — a soft-touch, patented compound of castor plant-sourced material and ceramic. These are then further heated, injection-moulded and crafted into the final products — all on an assembly line that allows Swatch to sell over a million MoonSwatches per annum (and likely a few hundred thousand Scuba Fifties in the coming year).

On the surface, the Scuba Fifty is a charming revisit to one of the all-time great diving watch formats — a timeless design made more timely through the use of thematic colour palettes, an admittedly breathtaking set of caseback designs, and of course, a more accessible price. Below the surface, though, the Scuba Fifty presents a range of problems that have fans of the platform rather divided. 

First up, there’s the literal substance of the watch. Despite Swatch’s ability to increase the accessibility of famous, expensive watch designs, they’ve done so by sacrificing the practicality of the product — a fact that’s peeved several MoonSwatch owners over the last year, who, in their quest for an affordable, stylish daily driver, have complained about scratches on the glass and case, as well as poor durability on key touchpoints such as the crown and button. The Scuba Fifty further complicates this topic of value — while you do get a capable automatic movement in the form of Swatch’s Sistem51, it also makes the watch nigh-impossible to repair — driving down its value as a long-term investment and furthering the ‘plastic toy’ criticisms that have been slung at the brand for multiple decades. The problem is made even more obvious when you consider comparably-priced watches from the likes of Seiko — that come clad in stainless steel and offer repairable movements along with top-notch quality and features. And then there’s the question of sustainability. While it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect true sustainability from a brand as large as Swatch, it must be noted that each of the several thousands of pieces that will be sold are — and we’re sorry to say it — single-use plastic objects, that will one day stop working and be disposed of, even if the bioceramic is indeed recyclable. Despite the superlative ways in which Swatch is pushing this watch to its customers, these are not affordable Blancpains — they are expensive Swatches. 

All this said, Swatch’s recent collabs have certainly been a marketing and sales success, with each variant set to become a collector’s item in the near future as production shuts down and a few shrewd fans keep their pieces in primo condition; much like Swatch’s long list of art world collabs. Assuming that the Swatch Group continues to play within its stable of premium brands, we can expect another set of bioceramic, sub-500-dollar watches to hit the shelves next year. Perhaps we’re due to see a Longines X Swatch Zulu Time? Maybe Swatch will take a crack at Hamilton’s iconic Murph or Cushion B, both popularised by appearances in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Oppenheimer? Even a Jaquet Droz collab with moving parts could really shake things up. With the styling cues down pat, all we need is for Swatch to dial up the refinement a notch and use a service-friendly movement — a combination that will have the likes of Seiko and Tudor quaking in their boots

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