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FASHION : All Wound Up : Collectors Waste No Time in Slapping Hot New Watches on Wrists

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For almost 12 hours the crowd of 500 stood in a line last week to make the cut. No, they weren’t waiting for concert tickets, a club opening or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

They were hot to tick-tock.

The folks who gathered at the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in the Beverly Center--and at other locations across the United States--were scrambling to get their wrists wrapped with $100 limited-edition plastic watches called Swatchetables. There are three such styles and they retail for $100 each or $300 a set. The unusual setting was dictated by unusual design: The new Swatch watches look like a red chili pepper, a cucumber and an egg on a strip of bacon, and are being sold only at produce markets and grocery stores.

How the times have changed.

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When the first Swatch watches were introduced in the United States in 1983, the colorful timepieces--many of which were difficult to tell time by--sold for $25. They were no big deal. But the products sold by the Biel, Switzerland-based company soon became must-have fashion accessories for the McWatch Generation. Especially the limited-edition designs of European and American artists.

They’ve also become good investments. Three months ago, a Swatch designed by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino sold for $25,432 at a Christie’s auction in Zurich. In 1990, a KiKi Picasso (an artist based in Paris) design went for $34,340 at Sotheby’s in Milan. And a Swatch by the late New York artist Keith Haring that originally cost $50 in 1986 brought in $5,555 at the same auction.

What gives? And why have other watches from companies such as Fossil, Hi-Tek and Guess? become such an indispensable part of our wardrobes?

There will always be collectors looking to bid up the price of anything that’s sold in a limited edition, but Alan Millstein, publisher of the Fashion Network Report, a New York-based monthly newsletter for retailers, sums up the costume-jewelry watch craze this way: People want funk with their function.

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“The whole perception of a wristwatch has changed,” says Millstein. “It’s become a fashion accessory that you don’t have to buy in drugstores any more.”

It used to be, Millstein says, that most people really didn’t care what their watches looked like, as long as they kept time. But today, dials are loaded with color, abstract designs and moving objects such as cutouts of fish floating in water.

Millstein says many consumers--particularly those who are 18 to 35--are thumbing their noses at pricey timepieces and are plunking down $40 to $100 for a Guess? or a Swatch. “They want throwaway chic.”

Other, more established companies, such as Timex and Bulova, he says, have jumped on the bandwagon and have manufactured nontraditional watches as well. Still, he says, Swatch is to the wrist “what Levi’s are to the rump.”

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“Swatch understood that a whole generation of consumers under 30 didn’t want to own a Timex or a big, ugly, clunky watch,” says Millstein. “Swatch has created a watch identity. The whole concept among Swatch wearers is that you buy an outfit at The Gap or The Limited on Thursday and buy a Swatch to go with it on Friday.”

“It has become a part of the youth culture’s uniform,” says Millstein, who wears a Cartier during the day and a Swatch at night.

According to Women’s Wear Daily, Swatch expects worldwide sales of $300 to $400 million in 1991. The company estimates U.S. sales of $50 million, up 50% over 1990.

Amy Beth Chamberlain, of the New York-based Swatch public relations office, says Swatches may not be “the most artistic thing you’ve seen . . . but these things are still collectible.”

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At last week’s mob scene outside Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, hundreds of collectors and scalpers lined up inside the Beverly Center’s parking garage and outside near the Hard Rock Cafe. Swatch had made only 999 watches--333 sets--available, and within two hours the watches were sold out. Afterward, die-hard collectors took part in impromptu bidding wars, offering as much as $600 for one watch.

Similar scenes have been played out in New York, Minneapolis and Newport, R.I. On Saturday, Dallas will be bracing for the Swatch siege, and in the next two weeks vegetable markets in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Seattle are anticipating a flood of enthusiasts.

A total of 9,999 Swatchetables, designed by Vienna-born artist Alfred Hofkunst, are being sold in the United States at 10 locations. Each watch is numbered and signed.

“Swatch has created a mystique by creating scarcity, which drives up the cost,” says Dave Stewart, a consumer psychologist and USC marketing professor. He adds that those people who were not in line at Irvine Ranch Farmers Market last week probably reasoned, “ ‘Well, if I can’t get the limited edition at least I can get what else is available and still make that fashion statement.’ ”

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Swatch, apparently, is counting on it. The company has started to market the Swatch Chrono, a stopwatch in seven styles. Closer to the holidays, the company will distribute its Swiss Art Swatch--a signed special edition--that will celebrate Switzerland’s 700th birthday, and the Bottone, a ‘70s-inspired watch with 10 large buttons on the band and comes with a sewing kit and extra buttons.

“There are plenty of people out there who will spend money on jewelry that just happens to be a watch,” says Stewart.

Stephan Gubler, Elizabeth Staffeld and Mike Callahan are among those who bought Swatchetables at the market.Gubler, who flew in from Zurich to buy the Swatches, teamed up with his friends from Santa Barbara and arrived at the store at 4 a.m., hours before it opened.

Costumers were limited to one set, but Gubler and company got 13 sets by paying others--from $50 to $100--to stand in line for them. Gubler says he has already mailed several sets to collectors in Zurich--where the demand is high--who have responded to newspaper ads and have promised to pay more than $1,200 for a set of plastic watches that look like vegetables.

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Gubler, 24, always wears a “Swatch Hollywood Dreams” timepiece he bought in 1990. He stood in line for that watch in Zurich and says he witnessed fist fights among angry collectors who were left empty-wristed.

He says he doesn’t know how long the Swatch collectible frenzy will last, but he’s not worried.

“I’ve got requests from 70 people who want the (vegetable) watches.”


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