‘Cheap Chic’ Timekeepers : Swatch Watches Offer Many Scents, Patterns

Times Staff Writer

Swatch watches--colorful, plastic Swiss quartz watches that sell for $30 each and are water- and shock-resistant--have become the hottest new fashion accessory on the market.

Department and specialty stores can’t keep up with the demand for Swatch watches, which have spawned a school of imitators and have created a new genre of fun, inexpensive watches that can be matched with outfits, moods and life styles. Among the competitors are Guess?, Awatch, Mwatch, Brooks and Totes.

“I call it cheap chic,” says Cheryl Chung, product development manager for Swatch U.S.A. Inc. in New York.


Timex, with its more traditional styles, used to have a corner on inexpensive watches. But times and traditions have changed.

‘Why Not a Fun Watch?’

“People today have a wardrobe of watches,” says Lanny Mayotte, marketing director for Armitron, which makes the Awatch line. “Years ago you bought a watch for graduation, and it was handed down to the children.” But, he asks, “why not have a fun watch rather than a boring, old, expansion-band watch?”

The popularity of the inexpensive Swiss-movement watches has been a boon to the Eta division of ASUAG-SSIH, a Swiss consortium created in 1983 to help the nation’s troubled industry. Before Swatch watches, the Swiss clung steadfastly to expensive, mechanical watches with hands, surrendering most of the world market to less expensive quartz and digital watches from Japan.

The Swatch brand--whose name is a combination of Swiss and watch-- was the brainchild of Ernst Thomke, president of Eta, who also developed the Concord Delirium, the world’s thinnest watch, which sells for thousands of dollars.

A traditional Swiss watch consists of more than 100 different parts. A watch has three basic parts--a case, a movement and a band. In contrast, a Swatch watch has only 51 pieces, and its case is part of the movement.

Lasers and Robots

Swatch watches are put together in Grenchen, Switzerland, by robots and sealed by lasers. Because of their one-piece design, repairs cannot be made.


Swatch watches were not an immediate hit when they were introduced in the United States in 1983, according to Chung. They were distributed from San Antonio through conventional watch and jewelry stores that didn’t quite know what to make of the cheap Swiss watches.

Max Imgruth was hired as a consultant for Swatch Watch U.S.A. By 1984, the line had been redesigned with bright colors and marketed as a fashion item. Imgruth is now president of the unit.

In 1984, U.S. sales of Swatch watches totaled 1 million of the 3.5 million Swatch watches sold worldwide, Chung said. This year, U.S. sales are expected to account for half the projected 7 million units to be sold worldwide.

Swatch produces two different lines a year, each consisting of 22 fashion, sport, high-tech and basic designs.

Last spring, for example, Swatch introduced its Granita de Frutta (Italian Ices) line. Its pink watch had a raspberry scent, the yellow a banana scent, and the light blue an ice-mint scent.

Its fall line, called Street Smart, offers faces with paisley, tartan and fine lace designs as well as more basic, tailored styles. “They are not known for any particular watch face,” says John Gong, a buyer at Bullock’s. “They are known for the whole concept of changing faces.” The department store chain says it sells 1,900 Swatches a week.


Swatch watches typically come in two sizes, small and large, and can be worn by both sexes. Swatch targets its product at the 12-to-24-year-old market, but the watch appeals to shoppers of all ages in all income brackets.

Meanwhile, Swatch is expanding into other accessories, including pens, sunglasses, razors and T-shirts. It’s also making a seven-foot Swatch wall clock. Another briskly selling new item is a $3 guard piece designed to protect the watch crystal.

Other Firms Moving In

Swatch watches are sold principally through department and specialty stores. The company advertises on MTV, the music-video cable network, and in Gentlemen’s Quarterly, Glamour and Seventeen magazines.

A number of other watch companies are capitalizing on the fashion watch concept. Awatch, for example, was introduced last August by the Armitron division of E. Gluck Corp. of Long Island City, N.Y., a large watchmaker that produces Sutton Time and Anne Klein watches.

Awatches, which have Swiss parts but are assembled in Hong Kong, look much like Swatch watches and retail for about $25. They are sold through major chains such as Sears, J. C. Penney, Mervyn’s, Target and Best Products. Armitron expects to sell 2 million Awatches by the end of this year, according to Mayotte.

Gong, of Bullock’s, says he knows of one 4-year-old who owns three Swatch watches. “He can’t tell time, but he knows he wants a Swatch watch.”