Swatch: Watches That Add ‘Pop’ To Fashion

Back in the 1980s, at a time when “pop” was king, timepieces got in on the act, as well. For some watchmakers, the opportunity to innovate couldn’t have come at a better time.

Near the end of the 1970s, there was a switch in the approach to watchmaking, with Asian-based companies bringing forth mass-produced models, wrote Stephanie Potter. Because of this sea change in watch manufacturing, there was a steep decline in the export of Swiss watches, leaving tens of thousands of people unemployed.

Shown here is a selection of Swatch prototype watches from the extensive Dunkel collection that commanded $6 million at auction in April 2015. Image courtesy of

From the ashes of this challenging time for Swiss watchmakers rose a company designed to retain business lost to manufacturers of less-expensive watches – some of decidedly inferior quality. The company Société Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie found its way into the public eye as the Swatch Group, Potter explained. The company adhered to the goal of creating quality timepieces, using an automated production process, and pricing them affordably. The company’s recipe for success included teaming up with popular artists to create watches with unique and modern “pop art” designs, and employing effective marketing techniques, Potter said. Artists Keith Haring, Alfred Hofkunst, and Akira Kurosawa; director Spike Lee, and musician Moby, are among the creative minds who lent their vision to Swatch watch creations.

One of the thousands of Swatch watches and items from the Schmid and Mueller collection, which sold through Sotheby’s for $1.33 million. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Swatch in the Spotlight

It’s been 34 years since the first Swatch collection came to market, with the first model being Swatch’s GB101. Paul Dunkel owned what was possibly the ultimate Swatch watch collection. It contained 5,800 Swatch & Art models and sold for $6 million during an April 2015 auction at Sotheby’s. Then in November of 2015 – again at Sotheby’s – there was an auction of almost 1,000 original watches and 380 prototypes and original design sheets and related art and memorabilia. The 4,000-piece collection belonged to Swatch designers Marlyse Schmid and Bernard Mueller, and sold as a single lot for $1.33 million.

The instantly recognizable art style of artist and philanthropist Keith Haring graced the face of a Swatch watch in the mid-1980s. This model and original drawing were among the items that sold as a single lot for $1.33 million at Sotheby’s in November of 2015. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The appeal of Swatch timepieces continues to resonate with people of various walks of life. Those seeking to enjoy the nostalgia and camaraderie associated with Swatch watches look to the popular Swatch Club, which includes regular gatherings, a new Club Swatch watch each year, and four different membership options.

Another example of Swatch’s continued popularity is its presence on the wrists of some world leaders, as reported in 2014 by Anne VanderMey for Fortune. The CEO and chair of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and former President of France Francois Hollande all own and sport Swatch watches from time to time.

Original drawings and illustrations accompanied vintage Swatch watches in the Schmid and Mueller collection. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

The popularity of these watches, then and now, is a sign of evolution, in engineering, affordability and fashion, says Ariel Adams, founder and editor of aBlogtoWatch. He commented on the cultural impact of Swatch and similar watches.

“What made these watches important is that they signaled the age of watches as fashion statements versus purely as functional items for much of society,” Adams said. “It isn’t that artists didn’t have fun with watches before, but it is the notion that mainstream timepiece consumption habits changed … people purchase multiple lower-cost fashion watches to go with their mood or look, as opposed to getting a single watch to wear all the time.”