How we made ... the Swatch

‘At one point, their hands turned back­wards. Then they stopped work­ing af­ter five days’

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts - In­ter­views by Etan Smallman

El­mar Mock, co-in­ven­tor

My first dream wasn’t to make a watch. It was to have an in­jec­tion mould­ing ma­chine! It was 1980 and I was work­ing as a watch­mak­ing en­gi­neer at the

Swiss com­pany ETA. That ma­chine rep­re­sented the very lat­est tech­nol­ogy. The only thing was it cost 500,000 Swiss francs.

Any­way, with­out any author­ity, I just put in the or­der. Then, at 11am one day, I got a call from the gen­eral man­ager, telling me to be in his of­fice at 1pm. I knew I was close to be­ing fired – the firm had got rid of 4,000 peo­ple in one year. I had a choice: go in cry­ing, “Please don’t fire me,” or say, “Hey boss, this will be in­ter­est­ing for you.” I had two hours to come up with a pro­posal.

I went straight to my col­league, Jac­ques Müller. For a month, we had been think­ing about a new watch. Jac­ques sketched a child­like pink and blue quartz model made of plas­tic. For the first half-hour of that meet­ing, my boss just kept ask­ing if I was crazy. But it turned out that he had been look­ing to man­u­fac­ture a cheap Swiss watch. He gave us six months.

It was 15 months be­fore we had a pro­to­type, though. At one point, due to an en­gi­neer­ing mis­take, the hands turned back­wards. By late 1981, we had five com­pleted watches – but they stopped work­ing af­ter five days.

Al­though the Swatch is now known as a fash­ion item, our fo­cus was to make it cheap. Our big in­no­va­tion was to use ul­tra­sonic weld­ing to build the mech­a­nism straight into the case, which was made of the same type of plas­tic used in Lego. We de­cided that ev­ery screw was a dan­ger: if you can screw some­thing, it can un­screw. So ev­ery­thing is welded, mak­ing it wa­ter­tight.

Since this means it can­not be taken apart, we had to pro­duce some­thing of the high­est qual­ity that would not need re­pair­ing. It also meant we could halve the num­ber of parts to just 51. The re­sult was a watch three times cheaper than any other that could be pro­duced in Switzer­land.

My first pro­duc­tion tar­get was 50,000 watches. Swatch has now sold more than 700m. Has it made me rich? Well, a year af­ter the prod­uct went on sale, I got 700 Swiss francs as a thank you bonus.

Franz Sprecher, mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant

When I was brought in, the Swatch was just a plain black model that would sell for $20. The aim was to beat the Ja­panese. I said: “If you do that, you will sell maybe 500,000 and then it’s gone.” It was im­por­tant to make a brand, not a com­mod­ity.

It had been called Vul­garis, but I came up with Swatch, from Swiss and watch. It wasn’t sexy but we knew that, al­though Switzer­land had lost a lot of mo­men­tum to the Ja­panese, any­one who owned a Ja­panese watch would still pre­tend to have a Swiss one.

One slo­gan I was pleased with was: “You don’t wear the same tie ev­ery day, do you?” It ex­pressed my phi­los­o­phy: “This is a fash­ion ac­ces­sory that ticks.” Fun­nily enough, lots of cus­tomers started com­plain­ing about the noise. Be­cause the mech­a­nism was built di­rectly into the case, it caused vi­bra­tions. Peo­ple said: “Oh, they’ve made a watch that ticks! And you can­not sleep!”

So we came up with an­other slo­gan: “It’s only Swatch that ticks.” We turned it around, mak­ing the point that, if it doesn’t tick, it’s not a Swatch. In the

US, peo­ple would queue up when­ever a new col­lec­tion came out. I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the Plaza ho­tel in New York and notic­ing that all the yup­pies were wear­ing Swatches. It was a state­ment: “I don’t need a Rolex.”

A lot of de­sign­ers and artists wanted to de­sign their own. Keith Har­ing’s were a big hit. One thing that caused con­tro­versy was that the Swatch could not be re­paired, but we did tests that showed it had a life­span of 30 years. I still have Swatches from 1982. Put a new bat­tery in them and they work.

Orig­i­nally called the Vul­garis … the Swatch, which has sold more than 700m; be­low, co-in­ven­tor Jac­ques Müller

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