When Swatch hit the big three-O in March 2013, the fashion-watch phenomenon commandeered an entire floor of the Baselworld trade fair, filling it with every single one of their 5,000-or-so watches. Something big was going to happen, and it sure did: the Sistem51. A £100 watch, which became the talk of a town more used to £10,000 price tags.
Like its legendary plastic forebear, Sistem51 sticks to (surprise, surprise) 51 parts, but – amazingly – it’s now a purely mechanical watch, rather than battery-powered quartz, with all of its cogs mounted on a single screw. Oh, and it’s made entirely by robots in a way like no other.
Some were, and remain snobbish about its plastic micro-mechanics, but you can’t help but goggle at the achievement of creating a self-winding movement with less than half the usual parts, packing 90 hours of power reserve (the norm is around 40), plus claiming an accuracy of +/-7 seconds a day – almost precise enough to earn ‘chronometer’ status, of which Rolex, Omega and Breitling all boast.
Now available in steel ‘Irony’ guise, for a dressier look, Sistem51 is the anti-fashion fashion watch: defiantly sophisticated, deliberately anarchic. It’s peerless, unprecedented, as future-forward as fashion-forward, yet entrenched in Swiss tradition.
How The Swatch Sistem51 Came To Be
All the bubblegum designs, artist collabs and down-with-the-kids marketing aside, people forget how revolutionary the Swatch watch was. Far from being just another trendy fad of the 80s, Swatch was conceived in response to a severe (in the watch world, at least) crisis: from the early ’70s onwards, handmade mechanical watches were being threatened with obsolescence by cheap, mass-produced quartz watches pouring out of the Far East. Even James Bond had discarded his Rolex for a Seiko digital.
In stark contrast to the pouting, Swatch-toting teenie boppers on the cover of Smash Hits, it took a short, bearded, rather plump engineering consultant called Nicolas G. Hayek to turn the fortunes of Swiss watchmaking around. A hired gun, he masterminded the formation of the Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries, or ‘SMH’, by merging a consortium of mega-brands such as Tissot, Omega and Longines together.
The bail-out banks called upon Hayek, who invested 300 million Swiss francs of his own cash, then, as president, dragged SMH kicking and screaming into the modern age with production lines, machination, and one bold, desperate move: the Swatch watch.
An early Swatch ad from the ’80s
It was invented almost by accident. An SMH engineer called Elmar Mock had recklessly spent 500,000 francs on an injection moulding machine in the same year the firm had made 4,000 staff redundant. When his manager found out, he had just two hours to come up with a proposal: a cheap quartz watch that used ultrasonic welding to build the mechanism straight into the case. No screws, watertight, with just 51 parts, and little else to go wrong.
Luckily for Mock, SMH was already looking for a cheap new product, so – suitably chastened – he was given just six months to bring his ‘Swatch’ to market.
Hayek pitched it perfectly to take advantage of an age defined by disposable income and style over content. The average Swatch owner used their collection as an emotional statement to suit whatever their mood took them on a particular day. Now you could keep your father’s Omega or mother’s Cartier safely locked away for special occasions and, for everyday use, just throw on your ‘second watch’ (actually the origin of the name, not ‘Swiss watch’ as many assume).
A Swatch ad from 1984 with tennis legend Ivan Lendl
The Swatch watch’s wild success – along with all of its wacky spin-offs (remember Pop Swatch?) – bolstered the recovery of all those venerable brands up till the ’90s, when interest in traditional mechanics returned and the likes of Cindy Crawford started appearing on Omega billboards. So important was this placky 50-dollar airport gift, that SMH was renamed ‘Swatch Group’ come 1998.
By 2006, the 333 millionth Swatch had been sold, and by 2013 a product was required to mark Swatch’s 30th with fitting finesse. And boy did we get one…
A Technical Masterpiece
You can forgive Swatch’s new creative director, Carlo Giordanetti for being somewhat intimidated. Despite a history with the fashion-watch phenomenon stretching back as far as 1987 – bar a seven-year hiatus designing for Montblanc – the Italian was confronted with no mean task before the ink on his contract had even dried: mark the 30-year anniversary with something spectacular.
“In a way, I was intimidated, yes,” says a smooth but sincere Giordanetti, “after all, everyone has their own idea about Swatch. The Sistem51 was a Coca-Cola bottle exercise – to change things, but not change much.”
As it transpired, Sistem51 was arguably the most exciting launch of 2013’s Baselworld trade fair, despite a projected price tag of just CHF100–200. What that represents is not only the cheapest automatic mechanical Swiss watch on the market, but also one of the most ingenious.
“The challenge was to reach something similar to Swatch with mechanics,” says Giordanetti, “but to get down to that magic number of 51 parts? It seemed impossible. Especially when we thought we had it – only to find we were still on 54! Oh my god…”
Luckily for him and his team, this was Swatch: “It’s a fantastic advantage; the engineers are all smart enough not to present a prototype with 49 or 53. “They do things,” he adds gnomically, “in their own kitchen.”
Being laser-welded shut, even the most experienced watchmaker needs to go at a Sistem51 hammer and tongs – effectively destroying it – in order to work out how ETA’s engineers achieved that magic number. Something trade title EuropaStar did with master horloger Denis Asch as soon as the watch hit Swiss stores in March 2014. The resulting teardown report makes for a fascinating, if particularly nerdy read.
Overall, what’s most impressive is that the basic mechanical principle of a traditional Swiss watch – a mainspring barrel, wound by a peripheral rotor, powering a geartrain at a rate governed by an oscillating balance wheel and ticking lever escapement – has been entirely preserved, in 51 parts. Even the simplest mechanical movements usually number around 120.
The other two most impressive features – to Denis Asch at least – are that the escape lever is in plastic (“this is the real prowess, because this is what determines the rate!”) and that there are indeed no screws, just metallic pins. All except the single axial screw showcased through the clear caseback. And it’s this that inspired Giordanetti when it came to naming his creation.
“What I loved most was the day we settled on the story of the ‘system’,” he recalls. “The central screw around which everything orbited reminded me of Copernicus and his solar-system theory, placing the Sun at the centre of the known universe, not Earth.”
What Makes The Sistem51 Great
In design, the Sistem51 is a watchmaking revolution. But so too is the process behind it, being entirely robotised.
To do so, Swatch’s movement maestroes ETA purpose-built a vast, bleeding-edge facility in Boncourt, at Switzerland’s north-west tip. At last count (an exhaustive and exclusive on-the-ground report by technology mag, Wired), its 400 machines, spread across 15,000 square metres work 24 hours a day, up to six days a week, pumping out parts made to minute tolerances, assembling Sistem51’s five modules, fixing them to the mainplate, then decorating in a range of colours using a digital printer.
Numbers are rarely talked about in official communication (especially when it comes to Swatch Group), but by Wired’s calculations, it all amounted to at least 4,000 watches per day. Since 2016, that original capacity has theoretically doubled, with ETA building a carbon copy of the Boncourt facility literally over the road. All in all, a potential of two million watches per year, taking Swatch higher than Rolex in Swiss mechanical production.
It’s the total lack of human involvement that beggers belief – especially when it comes to the assembly process. When you’re dealing with such tiny, delicately poised mechanics, it’s almost impossible not to rely on the dexterity of trained fingers and thumbs. But sure enough, in Boncourt’s assembly room, row upon row of robotic arms whirl in perfect methodic concert, like an orchestra of conductors, all gluing, pinning and soldering the watch together, just as Elmar Mock pioneered back in 1983.
The Best Swatch Sistem51 Iterations
Carlo Giordanetti certainly isn’t resting on his artists’ laurels. In fact, the Sistem51’s clear caseback and exposed movement has inspired him to think differently about his own fixed canvas. “As Mr Hayek always said: ‘Don’t fall in love with your own good ideas. Start again every time and wipe the slate.’” To whit, the Sistem51’s own solar system now boasts an ever-expanding universe of planetary bodies, of all different patterns, colours and styles.
As always with Swatch, the watch itself is the statement, so just go with it. Lime-green plastic can work with tailoring. But for a more classic look, there’s now a metallic ‘Irony’ range in steel – a proper grown-up Swiss mechanical for less than £200.
Sistem51 Sistem Blue
The original launch design, picking out the position of the internal pins as a star chart – a clever nod to the solar-system concept. The translucent case shows Swatch’s signature 4-claw lugs are present and correct, and the contrast stitching along the rubber strap really is stitched thread.
Sistem51 Irony Sistem Through
No more destructive tear downs are required to reveal the secrets of Sistem51’s mechanical efficiency – it’s all on display dial-side now, framed in classy polished steel. And yes, that strap is real leather. How do they do it for £154?
Sistem51 Sistem Frog
The latest addition to the Sistem51 family, and a reassuringly plastic-fantastic one, after 2018’s emphasis on steel Ironys. ‘Frog’: classic Swatch lolz there.
Sistem51 Sistem Brushed
Stealth mode activated, treating the steel Irony to a super-slick PVD coating for a bang-on-trend gunmetal sheen. The use of an all-metal case and bracelet really ramps up the luxe-factor, making it look like a watch that costs three times as much.
Sistem51 Sistem White
Another one of the 2014 launch designs, it was initially pigeonholed to ‘woman’. But we don’t know… with time (i.e. four years of increasingly peacocky accessorisation) this feels more asserted than ever.
Sistem51 Sistem Soul
Appropriately named, here is a dial straight from the sandy scribbles of Socrates himself, radiating calm with pensive cream tones and monochromatic minimalism. Aaaaand…. breathe.
Sistem51 1983 Swatch x Hackett
In the same year that Swatch was tearing up the Swiss rulebook, Jeremy Hackett’s contemporary take on British spivviness migrated from Portobello market stall to full-blown King’s Road bricks and mortar. The two brands’ 35th birthday is marked this year with a bona fido (sorry) gentleman’s accessory, starring Mr H’s beloved Sussex Spaniel, Muffin.