A Swatch? Really? You come to Fratello Watches and read about exciting new watches and the weekly piece on vintage…and you’re presented with a piece that was available in every department store. And even worse, this piece isn’t the blogger’s darling, the Sistem 51. No, I thought I’d talk about a watch that was my first “adult” mechanical watch and really influenced me going forward. This watch doesn’t get a lot of press, which is a bit of a shame, because there was a fair amount of ingenuity involved and, Swatch being Swatch, loads of variety and design creativity. #TBT goes back to the era of Trans-Am’s and Aqua Net hairspray with the original Swatch Automatic.
Most people are familiar with the Swatch phenomenon that started in 1983. The brand name that now owns so many watch brands was created in order to help fend off the absolute tsunami of inexpensive Asian quartz watches. While Swatch certainly didn’t kill off the Japanese, they were enormously popular and created a name that is still successful today and, quite frankly, is often looked upon with relative admiration that is surprising given their price. In fact, I can even recall the hordes of Swatch collectors in the 80’s and 90’s – I was one of them – and the secondary prices for supposedly rare pieces. Today, the majority of that craze has subsided, but there’s still a special place in my heart for the brand.
Yes, I had bought several quartz Swatches in various forms (no POP for me!), but my interest was really piqued when Swatch released its first Swatch Automatic in 1991. I was on a near first name basis with the sales person who ran the accessories area at the local Bloomindales and she introduced it to me. What was an automatic? I had quartz Fossils and Swatches and never really had asked my Dad about his watches at that point. Of course, he was likely wearing a quartz Ebel at that time (remember…1991), so perhaps I really hadn’t noticed a difference in how the seconds hand moved. So, the original Swatch Automatic got me talking about mechanical watches and made me want to learn more. And then there was that display back…
The focal point of the Swatch Automatic, versus its quartz relative, is really the back instead of the dial. Swatch equipped the Swatch Automatic with a plastic display back so that all could see the “in-house/intercompany” non-hacking, 23-jewel, ETA 2842. From a finishing perspective, it’s extremely workmanlike, but it needed to be in order to fit an $85 price tag. It used stamped components instead of machined and even included some plastic parts. If interested, a nice review is here. However, it was accurate and later variants even added a date. The view, though, for a first-time mechanical watch owner, was fantastic. Watching that rotor spin around on its bearings and seeing the balance wheel move was a new experience for me and served as a gateway drug to the addiction I suffer from today. Come to think of it, this was a pretty wise move for Swatch: offering a reliable, Swiss-made mechanical with a low barrier of entry.
The piece before you today is the “Black Motion” and was one of two models released at the Swatch Automatic introduction. The other model, by the way, was a burgundy and black piece. As you can see, the watch still looks modern in that artsy Swatch way. The dial is mirrored and allows a creative view of the top of the movement and in my opinion, is an example of relatively sedate Swatch. The case shape follows the original Swatch design but is slightly larger than the original 34mm pieces and comes in at a nice 37. The typical ridged setup at the lugs joins a 17mm width strap. On this model, the crown is stainless. The watch was actually quite versatile like any Swatch and is water resistant to 30m. With a rubber strap fitted, I previously tested this frequently and never had an issue.
I don’t wear this watch so frequently, but I was reminded of it when the Sistem 51 was released. I bought a Sistem 51 as well due to the immense amount of press that it received and due to the affection I still harbor for the brand. Yes, the 51 is an important watch due its construction, but it caused me to pull the original Swatch Automatic out for comparison’s sake. Call me crazy, but I like the original better. It hugs the wrist far better and is really a more elegantly designed tool. I also think that the original’s French-made strap is of better quality than the current model’s. I am glad I own the 51, but I find the case ungainly and components such as the winding crown a little cheesy.
In the end, I like the size, the winding and even the view of the movement more on the original.
Today, finding NOS Swatch Automatic examples is easy. A lot of people bought these thinking that they were sitting on the next goldmine but it hasn’t turned out that way. (By the way, it still wouldn’t surprise me if Swatches appreciate one day; they’re interesting examples of art and/or industrial design.) eBay is a great place to find Swatches and you typically see automatics priced anywhere from $25 – 85. Another interesting site that pops up is here; it’s a walk down memory lane for me when browsing. Unlike in all of the other #TBT articles, I list loads of potential pitfalls when considering a watch, but that just isn’t the case here. You really only need to make sure the watch is working as servicing would likely require cracking open the back.
No, the Swatch Automatic isn’t high-end horology, but I’ve always thought that it was an important watch for Swatch and for me. It was an expansion of the brand into different arenas that continues today, but more importantly, it caused me to probe more deeply into watches in general. The Swatch Automatic is a friendly reminder that not everything in this hobby has to be expensive or in high demand in order to be interesting. Until next week…