It takes a lot to truly shake up the watch world.
Apple is attempting to do it with the Apple Watch, due out next year.
But before the Apple Watch was announced, another well-known brand captured the attention of the horological universe in dramatic fashion.
It was Swatch.
Yes, Swatch — maker of all those witty plastic timepieces that everyone wore in the 1980s, and that still have a following in both low and high places today.
Swatch is actually the Swatch Group, which includes names such as Omega, Breguet, and Rado. It's a huge force in Swiss watchmaking and, with the creation of the Swatch brand several decades ago, is often credited with saving that country's watch industry in the face of an onslaught of inexpensive quartz timepieces from Asia.
CREATING A SENSATION
The watch is the Sistem51 — an innovative and radically new automatic timepiece that's purely Swiss and purely Swatch.
The Sistem51 only costs $150 and went on sale in the US late this year. It created a sensation at the big annual watch show in Basel in 2013.
"Jaws dropped," said Carlo Giordanetti, Swatch's Creative Director. "No one thought it would be possible."
So what exactly did Swatch manage to achieve with Sistem51?
It reduced the number of parts in the movement to 51, about half of what a typical automatic watch requires.
An automatic movement is powered by the movement of the wearer. The finest watches in the world are automatics, costing tens and even hundreds of thousands. Their movements — complicated miniature machines — are a source of fascination to watch collectors and enthusiasts.
There are plenty of cheap automatics out there. You can pick up a perfectly good one for less than $100. It won't be anything to write home about, but it won't need a new battery every few years, either.
And it won't be as innovative as Sistem51.
"51 became a target," said Giordanetti, who has been with Swatch since 1987. " It was a challenge for our engineers to get the same number of components in an automatic as in a quartz."
The overriding goal was to eliminate complexity. For the record, complications are what the traditional Swiss watch industry thrives on. More complications can make for a far more valuable and desirable watch. Quartz watches, by contrast, are fairly simple: they use a quartz crystal and electric oscillation to generate very precise timekeeping.
Automatic watches use mechanical action to wind a mainspring, which powers the timekeeping function.
There's no fastidious watchmaker laboring over a bench with tiny tools and a sure, practiced hand producing the Sistem51. Instead, there are robots. The entire assembly process is automated. The movement is constructed around a single, central screw.
No shortage of traditional watchmaker know-how went into creating the watch, according to Giordanetti. It was, however, updated, forward-thinking know-how.
"There were 25 to 35 young people involved, all from watchmaking families," he said. "No other brand could have done this."
The traditional Swiss watch industry is doing quite well these days, supported by global demand for luxury timepieces from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and other big names. It's all about automatics, so Swatch saw an opportunity to use its heft to introduce something radically new into this market — all while keeping intact the brand's affection for whimsy and irreverence.
IT'S NOT ABOUT SHOWING OFF
"It was an innocent provocation," Giordanetti said of the roll-out of Sistem51 in Basel in 2013.
But it was more than that. "It was emotional," the Swatch veteran added.
Apart from watchmaking innovation, Sistem51 also represents another core Swatch value: cheerful unpretentiousness.
"It's not about showing off," Giordanetti explained. "It's all about lightness. A Swatch collector wants to look at his or her watch and smile two or three times a day."
The current lineup of Sistem51 watches — there are four — has a face design vaguely evocative of astronomy, emulating the arrangement of the movement. The movement itself can been seen in action through a clear caseback (it's hermetically sealed and doesn't require servicing). Sistem51
I tried all four and decided that I liked the "Sistem Blue" version with a soft, silicon strap best ("Sistem Black," with a simple black leather strap, is the most conservative, while "Sistem White" and its festive aesthetic is the least serious; "Sistem Red" is Sistem Blue in a hotter color). I sported a Swatch for several years back in the 1990s and was immediately reminded by Sistem Blue of how light and easy these watches are to wear.
"You can hide it," Giordanetti said, and he's right. This isn't a watch that will live on display below your shirt cuff. It's the farthest thing from a chunky, stainless-steel dive watch you can get. It's the anti-Rolex Submariner. But like the Rolex, it's still a completely Swiss watch.
And at $150, it's also the most affordable all-new, super-innovative all-Swiss movement you can lay your hands on.
It's obviously not for everybody — the translucent plastic case is very Swatch and will compel some to compare the Sistem51 to a toy. But there will be more examples to choose from in 2015, according to Giordanetti. Slightly less witty face designs are on the horizon. You could wear these Swatches with business suits.
Sistem51 is a piece of watchmaking history, as important as the arrival of Swatch quartzes were in the 1980s. The Apple Watch will be a big deal. But Apple isn't the only innovator in watches these days!