How Swatch hacked fine watchmaking with a series of landmark collaborations

Following a run of high-profile partnerships with Omega and Blancpain, Swatch has helped create a new generation of horology fans

Almost two years after the original release, there are seven more editions of the Swatch X Blancpain Scuba Fifty Fathoms watch. Photo: Swatch
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If you were to cast your mind back across some of watchmaking’s pivotal moments, you would probably settle on early wristwatch designs by Cartier or Patek Philippe. Maybe you would stay with Louis Cartier for an intriguing change of shape via his Tank watch in 1919, or check IWC Schaffhausen’s first Pilot watch in 1936.

Two years ago, the world was probably not anticipating any new checkpoint to include collaborations between Omega, Blancpain and the affordable fashion of Swatch, but that was exactly what it got. That and a liberal dose of hype.

Despite offering some of the most technically complex and desirable products on the planet, the watchmaking industry has never really been in the business of hype. At least not in the word’s current streetwear usage.

Queuing overnight on cold capital city streets is not for your average watch collector. That’s not to say that they don’t have their own version of hype, they do. It just involves being treated like royalty for an hour in a cosy boutique before adding their name to a decades-long waiting list for a Rolex Daytona. Far more civilised.

But while collectors struggle to obtain certain key pieces, the industry itself has bigger fish to fry and the particulars of a new client base to worry about. It’s all well and good passing on your Patek to a progeny, but when a generation all but shuns traditional watches in favour of something smart, you need to find a workaround, and fast.

In July 2021, the journey to that solution began in a meeting room in Biel, Switzerland, as Swatch chief executive Nick Hayek Jr, Omega chief executive Raynald Aeschlimann, Swatch creative director Carlo Giordanetti and Omega head of product design Gregory Kissling came up with an 11-piece collaboration between Omega and Swatch. Eight months later, in March 2022, the MoonSwatch – a bioceramic-cased version of Omega’s Speedmaster – was born.

Suddenly, a low-cost entry into fine watches had opened up, and you could acquire a version of a watch that would usually cost about $7,000 for a very reasonable $260. At least theoretically.

The reality was shock, awe and snaking queues. Even actor Daniel Craig and footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic were pictured wearing them. In London, there were riots; in Amsterdam, the Swatch store window was smashed, and the entire display of MoonSwatches was stolen. While this madness ensued, resale sites were populated with MoonSwatches going for four or five times their original price.

“The lack of availability turned the craze mass market,” says Andrew Morgan, known as the Talking Hands on YouTube. “As soon as demand outstripped supply, the hype train snowballed, the watches were going for crazy money and the watch became legendary. And when these watches start becoming an asset with appreciating value in them, that’s when people are going to fight over them.”

The following year, Swatch paired up with Blancpain, releasing a five-piece $400 brightly coloured marriage of the Swatch Scuba and Blancpain’s iconic Fifty Fathoms. Cue similar, if more sedate, levels of chaos. But this one felt a little different.

While Blancpain specialises in complicated fine watchmaking, its brand presence is actually a fraction of that of Omega. So, now you had streetwear-clad youngsters standing for hours waiting to get hold of a watch from a brand that, hilariously, many didn’t quite know. It mattered not. These were seasoned hypebeasts looking to score an in-demand piece they could then upload to a resale site.

Now, even taking into account that all these brands are stablemates under the Swatch Group umbrella, it’s unlikely that even the most far-sighted of watchmaking clairvoyants saw this activity coming. But whichever way you dice it – and, boy, was it diced – the coming together of luxe watchmaking and the more disposable reputation of the 1990s-iconic Swatch (the word actually means Second Watch) changed things up.

“My take on the collaborations is that they very much are a marketing ploy, but in more of a hopeful, optimistic way,” says Morgan. “I genuinely believe the minds behind it want nothing but success, not just for Swatch, but for the brands they partner with, too. Goodness knows that some brands and, of course, the very concept of buying expensive luxury watches, needs to do better to capture the hearts and minds of the younger generation.”

Almost two years since the original Speedmaster MoonSwatch release, Bloomberg has reported that sales jumped 50 per cent in Omega stores, and seven other editions have been launched. August’s Mission to Moonshine Gold even came with a certificate – a true hype move, if ever we saw one – to state it was crafted under a full moon. Meanwhile, Blancpain was quick to capitalise on its own sudden Googleability, launching a version of its flagship dive watch just two weeks after the Scuba Fifty Fathoms’s release.

While these collaborations have certainly caused some consternation among watch aficionados – based on a whole range of grounds, from colour to material – the fact is they have been something of a win for all concerned, and for a variety of reasons.

“The Fifty Fathoms isn’t quite the household name that the Speedmaster is,” says Blake Buettner, managing editor of website Worn and Wound. “But where the MoonSwatch felt like a boon to Swatch, this conversely feels like it could be a boon to Blancpain.”

While the MoonSwatch quickly became something of a legend, the slightly muted response to the Scuba Fifty Fathoms could well have an impact on how the industry in general – and Swatch in particular – now moves forward.

“I’m not sure the Blancpain roll-out has been good enough to make another easy decision,” says Morgan. “I anticipate the conversation that’s been happening will be about doing another Omega, like the Seamaster, versus another Swatch Group brand. I think it’s unlikely any other brands or groups will license their products to Swatch. I think it’s unlikely, but not impossible, to see affordable Swatch Group favourites like Longines and Tissot get the Swatch treatment. They’re a bit too close in price.

“There are other brands like Jaquet Droz or Glashutte Original, which might just be too niche, which really only leaves Breguet. That’s my guess.”

But regardless of when and how the Swatch brand hacking of its luxe label mates continues, the whole operation has certainly given fine watchmaking a shot in the arm, placing it firmly on the wish list of a younger generation of consumers who will do almost anything to pick up a prized object.

And, really, that’s quite a turnaround. “Swatch saved the [watch] industry before by having a bit of cheap fun,” says Morgan. “No reason they can’t do it again.”

Updated: February 09, 2024, 3:59 PM