Opinionista Kalim Rajab 19 August 2013

A Revolution to Watch

As Swatch turns 30, the revolutionary watch making company launches a new game-changer – a luxury model to rival the Rolex. Will it fly in the age of the smartphones and iWatch? We’ll see, but in the meantime, here is an ode to the allure of the intangible (all the better if it’s Swiss).

Remember those cheap Casio digital watches from the late 1980s that doubled as calculators? The ones that had us going round looking for multiplication problems to solve, even if there wasn’t a rational need?

Growing up in the early 1980s, I first heard a story told to me by my father which has stayed with me ever since. My family loved watches ever since my great-grandfather, after a lifetime of toil, had belatedly made enough of a success of himself to acquire a handmade Rolex Oyster in 1952. A few family members and friends had trained as jewellers and lunchtime discussions often turned to meditations on the craft of fine watch making, of handmade movements and intricate “complications”. This being 1980s South Africa, it took some time for global economic shifts and consumer trends to reach our isolated shores, and so in our discussions the apogee of watch making remained all things Swiss (and mechanical). But times were changing fast, or in my family’s watch-obsessed minds, deteriorating.

The story went that a few years previous, the Swiss watch federation had sent a gift of a Swiss watch “with a difference” to their Japanese counterparts at the Horological Institute, on the occasion of the latter’s 30th anniversary. Now, Japanese watch-making production had been decimated during the war and despite intensive government subsidies and investment in technological advancements, an aura of inferiority lingered in the minds of the West for all things Asian. “Made in China” was a commonly used pejorative in those days to show one’s contempt for Asian craftsmanship. “Made in Japan” was not too far behind. Against this bigoted viewpoint, the Swiss federation’s gift was a calculated one to enhance their notions of unsurpassable skill. With a disdainfulness that would later come to haunt them, their “watch with a difference” contained (hidden amongst the working parts) the most minute of hairsprings with an almost undetectable flaw housed within. A Swiss Trojan Horse, of sorts.

A week later, the Japanese sent the watch back having drilled a perfect, hair-thin incision through the once undetectable flaw.

Game on.

The story is probably apocryphal, but like all good apocryphal stories there is probably a dose of truth in it. In countless retellings amongst family members it became a cautionary tale. The Japanese were here. The barbarians were at the gate and had come (if you’ll allow the mixed metaphor) with a Trojan Horse of their own. It was called the quartz cell. Already, the jewellers in my family were seeing sales of battery-operated quartz watches outstrip traditional mechanical (Swiss) ones. The next few years would see the advent of Casio, Seiko and Citizen. In time, even James Bond would embrace the shift with (horror of horrors for aficionados) a digital battery-powered Seiko. Shortly thereafter, a hundred-year-old Swiss watch industry, founded on craftsmanship and design, lay in tatters.

And yet, three decades later, why do Generation Y-ers not remember those Japanese timepieces, those gimmicky calculators, with any degree of fondness? Why is “Swiss-made” still the ultimate watch brand? The reason has less to do with how the humble Japanese quartz was a disruptive technology and a game-changer, and more to do with how the Swiss were somehow able to pick themselves off the mat and introduce a disruptive technology of their own, the real game changer – the Swatch.

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of Swatch’s phoenix-like entry into the world. In 1983, the company behind it had the idea of launching an ultra-thin, plastic watch that concentrated on design rather than movement. Swiss technicians realised that at the same time as incorporating the quartz cell which had so decimated their industry, their unsurpassed technical skills could allow them to reduce the number of parts in an analogue watch and still be able to produce a high-quality watch. What’s more, they could use highly automated production lines to produce such watches so cheaply they were virtually disposable. This meant the middle class could now afford to buy and replace a fashionable, rock-solid Swiss quality watch every year, or every season. But more importantly, it also meant a production line that could handle hundreds of unique designs printed onto the faces of the watches. In an instant staid watch faces were out and immediate choice was in. The Japanese could only watch on with envy.

As British design critic Stephen Bayley has noted, “Zeitgeist is an abused word, but not in this case. Swiss quality entered the mass market, not as a bit of craft-produced, hand-me-down eternity, but as a fashion accessory you might change weekly. Suddenly, buying a watch was amusing.”

Over the years, it seems everyone had their personal favourite Swatch from among the thousands of face designs introduced. Remember the range designed in luminous colours? Or the one replicating the Milky Way? Was it the Dali-esque edition, with a melting figure 8, that did it for you? Or perhaps one with cheeky polka dots emblazoned on both strap and face? The zany, enduring ideas were endless, and out of nowhere Swatch scaled the heights to become the world’s largest watch company.

I find it impossible to believe that Swatch is 30 years old this year. Their designs are so fresh and inspired, so in tune with modern lifestyles even in the age of smartphones and iPads, that it’s impossible to think of them as belonging to the age that gave us the Sony Walkman.

But will they be able to capture the zeitgeist of our current age? In celebration of their 30th anniversary, Swatch recently announced a pioneering new watch – the Sistem 51 – that they believe will once again be a disruptive technology.

To understand the revolutionary nature of Sistem 51 it’s important to note that Swatch watches, until now, never played in the high end market, an area usually reserved for Swiss mechanical watches made by hand and requiring hundred of moving parts, springs and rotors to operate automatically. But now Swatch’s latest invention, consisting of only 51 parts and a single screw, is capable of running automatically with a power reserve of 90 hours, and a lifespan of 20 years. Essentially, for about R1,000 you will now be able to buy an automatic watch whose quality of mechanics is generally on par with the Rolex my great grandfather spent all those years saving up for.

But will it work? Aren’t Generation Z-ers already no longer wearing watches, preferring to check the time on the digital clocks in their smartphones? And even if they do still feel the need for a watch, won’t Apple’s anticipated iWatch, which connects to a handset, be the real game-changer? Perhaps. But the romantic in me prefers to remember that no one buys a Swiss watch to do something as prosaic checking the time. They do it to be seduced by the “allure of the intangible” of a piece of art with precise engineering beautifully displayed.

This, then, is an unabashed ode to the allure of the intangible, all the more rewarding if it happens to be Swiss. Happy 30th birthday Swatch! DM

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