When Swatch hit the big three-O in Cortege 2013, the fashion-watch phenomenon commandeered an entire floor of the Baselworld switch fair, filling it with every single one of their 5,000-or-so watches. Something big was usual to happen, and it sure did: the Sistem51. A £100 watch, which behoved the talk of a town more used to £10,000 price afters.
Like its legendary plastic forebear, Sistem51 sticks to (stupefaction, surprise) 51 parts, but – amazingly – it’s now a purely mechanical protect, rather than battery-powered quartz, with all of its cogs mounted on a set aside screw. Oh, and it’s made entirely by robots in a way like no other.
Some were, and last snobbish about its plastic micro-mechanics, but you can’t help but goggle at the victory of creating a self-winding movement with less than half the old parts, packing 90 hours of power reserve (the yardstick is around 40), plus claiming an accuracy of +/-7 seconds a day – scarcely precise enough to earn ‘chronometer’ status, of which Rolex, Omega and Breitling all crow.
Now available in steel ‘Irony’ guise, for a dressier look, Sistem51 is the anti-fashion mode watch: defiantly sophisticated, deliberately anarchic. It’s peerless, unprecedented, as future-forward as fashion-forward, yet ingrained in Swiss tradition.
How The Swatch Sistem51 Came To Be
All the bubblegum objectives, artist collabs and down-with-the-kids marketing aside, people consign to oblivion how revolutionary the Swatch watch was. Far from being just another groovy fad of the 80s, Swatch was conceived in response to a severe (in the watch world, at least) turning-point: from the early ’70s onwards, handmade mechanical watches were being daunted with obsolescence by cheap, mass-produced quartz watches discharge out of the Far East. Even James Bond had discarded his Rolex for a Seiko digital.
In flagrant contrast to the pouting, Swatch-toting teenie boppers on the cover of Smash Ask for a comes, it took a short, bearded, rather plump engineering expert called Nicolas G. Hayek to turn the fortunes of Swiss watchmaking thither. A hired gun, he masterminded the formation of the Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries, or ‘SMH’, by uniting a consortium of mega-brands such as Tissot, Omega and Longines together.
The bail-out banks whooped upon Hayek, who invested 300 million Swiss francs of his own currency, then, as president, dragged SMH kicking and screaming into the la mode age with production lines, machination, and one bold, desperate stir: the Swatch watch.
An early Swatch ad from the ’80s
It was created almost by accident. An SMH engineer called Elmar Mock had recklessly spout 500,000 francs on an injection moulding machine in the same year the dogged had made 4,000 staff redundant. When his manager rest out, he had just two hours to come up with a proposal: a cheap quartz shield that used ultrasonic welding to build the mechanism smooth into the case. No screws, watertight, with just 51 have a shares, and little else to go wrong.
Luckily for Mock, SMH was already looking for a niggardly new product, so – suitably chastened – he was given just six months to breed his ‘Swatch’ to market.
Hayek pitched it perfectly to take sway of an age defined by disposable income and style over content. The usually Swatch owner used their collection as an emotional affirmation to suit whatever their mood took them on a item-by-item day. Now you could keep your father’s Omega or mother’s Cartier safely grasped away for special occasions and, for everyday use, just throw on your ‘alternate watch’ (actually the origin of the name, not ‘Swiss watch’ as diverse assume).
A Swatch ad from 1984 with tennis inscription Ivan Lendl
The Swatch watch’s wild success – along with all of its wacky spin-offs (bear in mind Pop Swatch?) – bolstered the recovery of all those venerable sorts up till the ’90s, when interest in traditional mechanics returned and the take a shine ti of Cindy Crawford started appearing on Omega billboards. So consequential was this placky 50-dollar airport gift, that SMH was renamed ‘Swatch Bunch’ come 1998.
By 2006, the 333 millionth Swatch had been carried, and by 2013 a product was required to mark Swatch’s 30th with attachments finesse. And boy did we get one…
A Technical Masterpiece
You can forgive Swatch’s new creative numero uno, Carlo Giordanetti for being somewhat intimidated. Despite a rsum with the fashion-watch phenomenon stretching back as far as 1987 – bar a seven-year hiatus guileful for Montblanc – the Italian was confronted with no mean task in front the ink on his contract had even dried: mark the 30-year anniversary with something spectacular.
“In a way, I was terrorized, yes,” says a smooth but sincere Giordanetti, “after all, everyone has their own theory about Swatch. The Sistem51 was a Coca-Cola bottle exercise – to hard cash things, but not change much.”
As it transpired, Sistem51 was arguably the sundry exciting launch of 2013’s Baselworld trade fair, without thought a projected price tag of just CHF100–200. What that paints is not only the cheapest automatic mechanical Swiss watch on the exchange, but also one of the most ingenious.
“The challenge was to reach something correspond to to Swatch with mechanics,” says Giordanetti, “but to get down to that glamour number of 51 parts? It seemed impossible. Especially when we intellect we had it – only to find we were still on 54! Oh my god…”
Luckily for him and his combine, this was Swatch: “It’s a fantastic advantage; the engineers are all smart adequately not to present a prototype with 49 or 53. “They do things,” he combines gnomically, “in their own kitchen.”
Being laser-welded shut, orderly the most experienced watchmaker needs to go at a Sistem51 hammer and tongs – effectively make an end ofing it – in order to work out how ETA’s engineers achieved that magic sum up. Something trade title EuropaStar did with master horloger Denis Asch as happily as the watch hit Swiss stores in March 2014. The resulting teardown broadcast makes for a fascinating, if particularly nerdy read.
Overall, what’s sundry impressive is that the basic mechanical principle of a traditional Swiss cautious of – a mainspring barrel, wound by a peripheral rotor, powering a geartrain at a reproach governed by an oscillating balance wheel and ticking lever escapement – has been stock preserved, in 51 parts. Even the simplest mechanical relocations usually number around 120.
The other two most impressive promotes – to Denis Asch at least – are that the escape lever is in shapeable (“this is the real prowess, because this is what selects the rate!”) and that there are indeed no screws, reasonable metallic pins. All except the single axial screw showcased into done with the clear caseback. And it’s this that inspired Giordanetti when it came to designation his creation.
“What I loved most was the day we settled on the story of the ‘approach’,” he recalls. “The central screw around which the whole shooting match orbited reminded me of Copernicus and his solar-system theory, placing the Sun at the concentrate of the known universe, not Earth.”
What Makes The Sistem51 Marvy
In design, the Sistem51 is a watchmaking revolution. But so too is the process behind it, being completely robotised.
To do so, Swatch’s movement maestroes ETA purpose-built a vast, bleeding-edge aptitude in Boncourt, at Switzerland’s north-west tip. At last count (an exhaustive and closed on-the-ground report by technology mag, Wired), its 400 machines, spread across 15,000 nerd metres work 24 hours a day, up to six days a week, grill out parts made to minute tolerances, assembling Sistem51’s five modules, clamp them to the mainplate, then decorating in a range of colours capitalize oning a digital printer.
Numbers are rarely talked about in authentic communication (especially when it comes to Swatch Group), but by Wired’s computations, it all amounted to at least 4,000 watches per day. Since 2016, that creative capacity has theoretically doubled, with ETA building a carbon ape of the Boncourt facility literally over the road. All in all, a potential of two million tends per year, taking Swatch higher than Rolex in Swiss machine-made production.
It’s the total lack of human involvement that beggers tenet – especially when it comes to the assembly process. When you’re parcel out with such tiny, delicately poised mechanics, it’s on the brink of impossible not to rely on the dexterity of trained fingers and thumbs. But assured enough, in Boncourt’s assembly room, row upon row of robotic arms whirl in pre-eminent methodic concert, like an orchestra of conductors, all gluing, home and soldering the watch together, just as Elmar Mock launched back in 1983.
The Best Swatch Sistem51 Iterations
Carlo Giordanetti certainly isn’t catching on his artists’ laurels. In fact, the Sistem51’s clear caseback and show movement has inspired him to think differently about his own fixed canvas. “As Mr Hayek usually said: ‘Don’t fall in love with your own good recommendations. Start again every time and wipe the slate.’” To whit, the Sistem51’s own solar combination now boasts an ever-expanding universe of planetary bodies, of all different patterns, warps and styles.
As always with Swatch, the watch itself is the averral, so just go with it. Lime-green plastic can work with change. But for a more classic look, there’s now a metallic ‘Irony’ number in steel – a proper grown-up Swiss mechanical for less than £200.
Sistem51 Sistem Obscene
The original launch design, picking out the position of the internal immobilizes as a star chart – a clever nod to the solar-system concept. The translucent instance shows Swatch’s signature 4-claw lugs are present and redress, and the contrast stitching along the rubber strap really is stitched string.
Buy Now: £110.00
Sistem51 Irony Sistem Through
No more destructive hurry downs are required to reveal the secrets of Sistem51’s mechanical adroitness – it’s all on display dial-side now, framed in classy polished steel. And yes, that strap is legal leather. How do they do it for £154?
Buy Now: £154.00
Sistem51 Sistem Frog
The latest besides to the Sistem51 family, and a reassuringly plastic-fantastic one, after 2018’s underscoring on steel Ironys. ‘Frog’: classic Swatch lolz there.
Buy Now: £110.00
Sistem51 Sistem Encountered
Stealth mode activated, treating the steel Irony to a super-slick PVD spread for a bang-on-trend gunmetal sheen. The use of an all-metal case and bracelet de facto ramps up the luxe-factor, making it look like a watch that expenses three times as much.
Buy Now: £172.00
Sistem51 Sistem White
Another one of the 2014 hurl designs, it was initially pigeonholed to ‘woman’. But we don’t know… with outdated (i.e. four years of increasingly peacocky accessorisation) this be conscious ofs more asserted than ever.
Buy Now: £110.00
Sistem51 Sistem Fervour
Appropriately named, here is a dial straight from the sandy scribbles of Socrates himself, diffuse calm with pensive cream tones and monochromatic minimalism. Aaaaand…. suggest.
Buy Now: £132.00
Sistem51 1983 Swatch x Hackett
In the same year that Swatch was dividing up the Swiss rulebook, Jeremy Hackett’s contemporary take on British spivviness drifted from Portobello market stall to full-blown King’s Route bricks and mortar. The two brands’ 35th birthday is marked this year with a bona fido (depressing) gentleman’s accessory, starring Mr H’s beloved Sussex Spaniel, Muffin.
Buy Now: £148.00