How we made the Swatch: Interviews with inventor Elmar Mock and marketing man Franz Sprecher – Published in The Guardian

In a weekly series, two collaborators on a seminal art work talk us through their original creative process

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Elmar Mock, co-inventor

My first dream wasn’t to make a watch. It was to have an injection moulding machine. It was 1980 and I was working as a watchmaking engineer at the Swiss company ETA. That machine represented the very latest technology. The only thing was it cost 500,000 Swiss francs.

Anyway, without any authority, I just put in the order. Then, at 11am one day, I got a call from the general manager, telling me to be in his office at 1pm. I knew I was close to being fired – the firm had got rid of 4,000 people in one year. I had a choice: go in crying, “Please don’t fire me,” – or say, “Hey boss, this will be interesting for you.” I had two hours to come up with a proposal.

I went straight to my colleague, Jacques Müller. For a month, we had been thinking about a new watch. Jacques sketched a childlike pink and blue quartz model made of plastic. For the first half-hour of that meeting, my boss used me as a punchbag. He just kept asking if I was crazy. But it turned out that he had been looking to manufacture a cheap Swiss watch. He gave us six months.

It was 15 months before we had a prototype, though. At one point, due to an engineering mistake, the hands turned backwards. By late 1981, we had five completed watches – but they stopped working after five days.

Although the Swatch is now known as a fashion item, our focus was just to make it cheap. Our big innovation was to use ultrasonic welding to build the mechanism straight into the case, which was made of the same type of plastic used in Lego. We decided that every screw was a danger: if you can screw something, it can unscrew. So everything is welded, making it watertight.

Since this means it cannot be taken apart, we had to produce something of the highest quality that would not need repairing. It also meant we could halve the number of parts to just 51. The result was a watch three times cheaper than any other that could be produced in Switzerland.

My first production target was 50,000 watches. Swatch has now sold more than 700m. Has it made me rich? Well, a year after the product went on sale, I got 700 Swiss francs as a thank you bonus.

 

Franz Sprecher, marketing consultant

When I was brought in, the Swatch was just a plain black model that would sell for $20. The aim was to beat the Japanese. I said: “If you do that, you will sell maybe 500,000 and then it’s gone.” It was important to make a brand, not a commodity.

It had initially been called Vulgaris, but I came up with Swatch, from Swiss and watch. It wasn’t sexy but we knew that, although Switzerland had lost a lot of momentum to the Japanese, anyone who owned a Japanese watch would still pretend to have a Swiss one.

One slogan I was pleased with was: “You don’t wear the same tie every day, do you?” It expressed my philosophy: “This is a fashion accessory that ticks.” Funnily enough, lots of customers started complaining about the noise. They weren’t used to it. Because the mechanism was built directly into the case, it caused vibrations. People said: “Oh, they’ve made a watch that ticks! And you cannot sleep! And in a concert, everybody hears it!”

So we came up with another slogan: “It’s only Swatch that ticks.” We turned it around, making the point that, if it doesn’t tick, it’s not a Swatch. In the US, people would queue up whenever a new collection came out. I remember standing in The Plaza hotel in New York and noticing that all the yuppies were wearing Swatches. It was a statement: “I don’t need a Rolex.”

A lot of designers and artists wanted to design their own. Keith Haring’s were a big hit. One thing that caused enormous controversy was that the Swatch could not be repaired, but we did tests that showed it had a lifespan of 30 years. I still have Swatches from 1982. Put a new battery in them and they work.

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