AUCTION UPDATE: The Important Watches – Including The Dunkel Collection – Swatch & Art sale was held at Sotheby's Hong Kong on 7 April, where the superlot of 5,800 Swatches sold for HK$46,680,000.
HONG KONG - If there is Pop art, then Swatch is Pop watch-making, and the sale of a major collection at Sotheby’s Hong Kong this April spotlights the creativity at the heart of the Swatch story.
I am old enough to remember the earliest publicity for Swatch. I was already interested in timepieces (although my tastes were for the vintage stuff that could then be found in junk shops) and while I cannot remember the exact wording, the ads seemed to presage a totally new approach to the personal timepiece. So when the Swatch finally appeared I felt a little let down – it was still round and had hands (one shorter than the other) moving around the dial.
As a teenager, however, I was utterly ignorant about the collapse of the Swiss watch trade. It was only later that I truly appreciated that Swatch was a completely new type of Swiss watch and that this plastic timepiece had saved an entire national industry.
A selection of Swatches were offered in Hong Kong in April 2015.
When the first Swatch appeared, the grey and black liquid-crystal displays of digital watches had almost replaced traditional hands. The personal timepiece was undergoing the biggest change since the move from the pocket to the wrist. Tens of thousands of people were laid off by once-proud brands.
Swatch changed all that. Since its introduction, hundreds of millions have sold. Fun and funky and made of plastic, the watches were celebrated for being frivolous and affordable. The company benefitted from radical manufacturing techniques, chiefly the use of the back of the case as the baseplate upon which to place the movement, meaning the number of components needed to make a watch was significantly fewer than more traditional methods.
With Swatch, Helvetian horology became financially competitive again and in time its success would boost the industry. Today the Swatch Group includes brands as diverse as Omega, Jaquet Droz, Harry Winston, Breguet and Blancpain. Without Swatch, things would have looked different.
The Swatch was also the ideal cultural object of its time. The 1980s was the era of “designer” everything and the Swatch was the perfect “designer” product in that it demonstrated innovative manufacturing techniques offered at a price that made it truly democratic. The Swatch captured the polychromatic postmodern zeitgeist and put it on the wrist – as early as 1984 it was immortalised in Keith Haring’s Swatch Breakdance Championship. Since then the brand has become a canvas upon which artists and architects have expressed themselves; Sam Francis, Pol Bury, Valerio Adami, Kenny Scharf and Mimmo Rotella are among many who have collaborated with the company. Such artist-designed models are among the 5,800 Swatches to be offered in Hong Kong in a single superlot, offered by a particularly passionate enthusiast of the brand.
It may have started as a fad, but Swatch quickly became a cultural phenomenon. The Swatch succeeds because it is cheerful, life-affirming and inclusive and, as this sale shows, it has the power to make the ephemeral into something that endures over generations.
Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and How to Spend It and luxury editor of GQ.