Happy Birthday, Swatch

Swatch, the brand that is just about everyone’s first watch, celebrated their 40th birthday this week. On March 1, 1983, Swatch unveiled its first collection of plastic cased, battery powered watches, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it just might have saved the Swiss watch industry. After a long period of dominance in the mass production of watches, quartz watches made by Japanese companies at a massive scale radically changed the watchmaking landscape, putting the traditional mechanical watchmaking industry into something of a tailspin. The massive success of Swatch through the 80s and into the 90s injected cash and enthusiasm into Swiss watchmaking that the industry still benefits from to this day. 

We write about anniversaries all the time in these pages. As we’re all fond of saying, “Every year is an anniversary year.” But in the coverage of the big Swatch 4-0 that I’ve seen this week, I’ve much more commonly heard it referred to as a “birthday,” and I think that’s important. Anniversaries can be joyous occasions, but the word implies a certain seriousness that isn’t right for Swatch. A birthday is different. It’s fun, there’s cake, and hopefully some color. That’s how I think of Swatch (minus the cake). 


Swatch and I are just about the same age. I turned 40 in October of last year, and it’s interesting to think about the brand approaching middle age, as I, much to my dismay, seem to be doing as well. Does Swatch also have nagging lower back pain and regret that second or third cocktail the next morning with increasing urgency as the years go by? Maybe Swatch prefers to forego the night out more often than not, as I do, in favor of a peaceful evening at home, watching comfort TV from our shared youth. 

I’ve owned a number of Swatch watches over the years, as I think most of us have. I don’t recall ever having one as a child or an adolescent as many of my watch enthusiast peers do, but I certainly remember them being omnipresent when I was young. They were worn by friends, teachers, coaches, co-workers, and strangers. They never looked out of place, but were woven into the style of the time – part of the 1990s uniform.

Swatch turning 40 somehow feels more significant to me this year than any of the other anniversaries we’ve covered recently. It’s because Swatch will always be a throwback, and not to some vague period in a history that isn’t my own, but to a highly specific time in my life. Call it the “coming of age years,” that period when young people develop their own initial perspective on the world, and begin to fantasize about freedom from school, their parents, and everything else. Swatch itself is a nostalgia factory for people my age, whether they are watch enthusiasts or not. Looking at old examples of Swatch watches from the first half of the brand’s existence this week has given me the same feelings I get when I rewatch Jurassic Park, or throw on records from the 90s that meant a lot to me. These watches, for me and I’m sure countless others, represent a way to commune with our youth in a manner that feels authentic.  


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Every Swatch I’ve owned I’ve either sold, lost, or given away, except for one. It’s a Swatch x MOMA collaborative edition, the Tadanoori Yokoo variant featuring imagery from his “The City and Design, the Wonders of Life on Earth” silkscreen. It’s not rare or expensive or anything like that, but I love the way it looks for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a watch I never wear (just the one time, probably, in the photo above), but it means an awful lot to me. I bought it in the Geneva Airport Swatch store a year ago, coming back from my first Watches & Wonders experience. I’m the least sentimental person you’ll ever encounter in the watch world, but the thought of ever getting rid of this one, which sits in its original box on a nightstand cluttered with books, random watch stuff, and the like, has never and will never cross my mind. An unlikely totem, perhaps, but there we are. 

So, happy birthday Swatch. You’re 40 now, but don’t stress it. Plenty of people older and wiser than us claim that the best years are ahead. For human beings, I worry that might be wishful thinking. But for watch brands, age is an asset. That said, I’m not looking forward to the day I see “1983” on a watch dial as a flex for a long heritage. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.