Swatch’s Sistem51 Rethinks The Mechanical Watch

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I have a soft spot for mechanical watches, which is why the so-called Sistem51 (Swatch calls it the shouty SISTEM51) is so near and dear to my heart. It is, in short, one of the most interesting developments in mass-market micro mechanics since the invention of the quartz Timex. It is a mix of cool high-tech and ridiculous, Tamagotchi-like old tech, and it’s interesting that it hasn’t been covered more.

First, some background. Swatch (which, under the Swatch Group umbrella, owns a number of major watch brands, including Jaquet Droz, Omega, and Breguet) makes most of its money off of the sale of low-end watches. In 1980, the Swiss watch industry was in turmoil. The first quartz watches were hitting the market and buyers were snapping them up — even though one of the first Seikos cost more than a Toyota. As prices fell, however, mechanical Swiss watches fell by the wayside, considered staid and boring by a new generation of buyer.

Elmar Mock and Jacques Müller, two engineers inside the Swatch Group, noticed that no one wore a watch to the beach even though many watches had been waterproof for years. The company had also created a very simple, very thin quartz movement — the guts of the watch — and had nowhere to put it. The pair stuffed the quartz movement into a plastic, ostensibly waterproof case, and called it the Swatch. Swatch, which was an elision of “Second Watch,” became a fashion item and gave the company a massive base customers who may have looked in askance at a fancy gold or steel dive watch.

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These low-cost, high-design timepieces are what prop up the massively expensive and extremely complex manufacturing operations that produce some of the most beautiful watches in the world. And now the SISTEM51 is here to improve that range with a mechanical movement that doesn’t use a battery, is simpler than any before and, thanks to a hermetically sealed case, requires almost no maintenance.

These are the first items of desire with techno-guts.

This is important because, thanks to research into materials, lubrication and manufacturing, Swatch has been able to create the Platonic ideal of a timepiece: It works for a long time without maintenance, it does exactly what it is supposed to do, and it is as simple as possible.

It’s also important because where the watch industry goes, so goes high-tech. For all the talk of the little Swiss watchmaker at his bench, the reality of Swatch is far more technological. These are mass-produced items that require a great deal of quality control to get right. Each gear and gimbal has to work perfectly in order to function and, like a PCB inside a new phone, the parts have to work with the whole to maintain accuracy and control.

Watch companies were using sapphire glass and liquid metal, as well beveling, long before Apple was and they were branding mass-market technology to the world long before Samsung thought of it. In short, these are the first items of desire with techno-guts.

The watch began shipping in limited quantities last year but is now reaching stores (and airport kiosks) near you. Priced below $200, these fashion watches may look cool, but remember the movement inside is the real triumph of compression, mechanics, and design.