Swatchdogs on the Lookout : Promos give collectors a chance to meet the inventor and pick up some of the 'vintage' timepieces for face value.

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By the time June Berliner's Swatch read 7:45 on a recent Wednesday evening, the Beverly Hills woman had been pursuing Swatches for 14 hours straight.

Her quest began at 6 a.m. at Bullock's in Beverly Center, when she stood in line to have first pick of "vintage" Swatches to be released that morning on a one-per-customer basis. The promo meant she and other Swatch collectors could pay the $40 face value for an older model Swatch that might fetch 10 times that much on the collectors' market.

After snapping up the 1984 "Squiggly" model, Berliner was off to Costa Mesa, where another Swatch promo was under way at Bullock's in South Coast Plaza. There she bought more Swatches, attended a Swatch auction and a private reception for Dr. Ernst Thomke, Swatch inventor.

"I love Swatch watches. They make me happy," said Berliner, a shopping bag full of Swatches on her arm.

Spurred on by Swatch's smart marketing gimmicks, Swatch watches are fast becoming timeless collectibles.

The Swatch "Newseum," a traveling exhibit of Swatch watches from the first 1983 models to the spring '92 collection, has helped generate a kind of Swatch watch fever across the country. The "Newseum" will remain at Bullock's South Coast Plaza through Sunday before continuing on its two-year U.S. tour.

At the exhibit opening, collectors from San Diego to Los Angeles showed up to see the "Newseum," get Thomke's autograph and pick up a valuable older model Swatch.

Jack Armond of Van Nuys has about 50 Swatches and wound up with the 1985 "Tonga" model that has an Egyptian design on its face. He bought it for $40 knowing it can fetch $400 on the collectors' market.

"I like them for their artistic value," Armond said. "I only wear two that I have. The rest I keep."

Like baseball cards, Swatches are worth more when left in their original packaging.

Armond and Berliner eagerly awaited an auction of Swatchetables, a set of three vegetable-inspired Swatches sold only in limited quantity through select fresh produce markets--another Swatch marketing ploy. Both own the complete set: the red-hot chili pepper Swatch, the cucumber and the bacon straps and egg-faced model.

The Swatchetable set originally sold for $300 in August and September. When it fetched $2,400 at South Coast Plaza, even the collectors shook their heads in wonder.

Amy-Beth Chamberlin, Newseum project supervisor for Swatch, has seen firsthand the Swatch-watch mania. She describes scenes of customers buying a vintage Swatch at the special promos, then changing outfits and even disguising themselves with wigs and sunglasses to beat the one-per-customer limit.

Chamberlin wore a 1985 Technosphere model with a transparent face she bought for $40.

"It could go for $500 to $700 if I'd never taken it out of the case," she said.

Certain Swatches appreciate in no time. "Hollywood Dream," a rhinestone-encrusted Swatch, sold for $100 when introduced in Christmas 1990. It's already worth about $2,000.

"People call us and ask, 'Where can I get that watch?' We tell them, 'You can't,' " Chamberlin said.

Even Thomke finds the bidding wars over his inexpensive plastic watches crazy.

"I can't understand why people become almost fanatical over these," said Thomke, sporting a conservative Swatch chronograph on a brief visit to the United States from Switzerland.

Thomke, a former doctor who worked in cancer research, had been involved in sales and marketing when he and business partner Nicholas Hayek developed the Swatch to rescue the ailing Swiss watch manufacturing industry.

In the late 1970s, Japanese watch companies were eating away at Switzerland's share of the fine-watch market with their digital watches. Thomke decided that what the Swiss needed wasn't another fine watch but a practical, inexpensive one.

"I sat down with a couple of engineers to develop a product to beat the Japanese," said Thomke, then the chief executive officer of a company that produced watch parts.

The first Swatch prototype was made in 1981. Instead of the standard 91 components found in watches, the Swatch had only 51. Most important, the quartz-run plastic watches were identical in components and shape so they could be produced entirely by robots.

The automated process, however, limited watch designers' freedom "so that it was basically one single watch," Thomke said. "Then we said, 'How can we change the watch?'

"We couldn't change the shape, so we started to play with the dials, the colors and the straps. Before that, watches were either yellow gold or stainless steel. We used plastic, so we could use colors."

Although the Swatch was "born" in 1983, Swatch aficionados look on 1985 as the year the watches went from conventional to crazy with colorful graphics. Three 1985 styles featured scented straps.

"We could easily adapt to color and fashion trends," Thomke said. Swatches became a reflection of their times.

Today there are more than 500 Swatch styles, with a new collection introduced by the Swatch designers in Milan every six months. Some styles, especially those from 1989 of glowing neon, look dated.

Among the more outrageous Swatches: the 1989 "Mozart" model with actual lace "cuffs" on the straps, the first 1985 "Jellyfish," a completely transparent Swatch, and the 1989 "Dadali" with Roman numerals that melt off the face of the watch onto the strap.

"Blow Your Time Away," a rare group of Swatches most collectors have seen only in pictures, feature faces surrounded by feathers that come in eight different colors.

"They look like they're rounded in fur," said Chris Keigel, vice president of sales and marketing for Swatch U.S.A.

"What you see us doing is what fashion companies do. We have our own design lab and we travel to different fashion shows to research trends," Keigel says. Over the years the company has learned just how far its design team can go. Certain colors, namely yellow, never do well and are used sparingly.

Lately Swatch has become more adept at fostering demand for the watches.

"We'd rather have one or two sell out and leave a store with no inventory than have five or 10 units sitting in a case doing nothing," Keigel said.

The company knows the hottest collectibles are its limited edition watches and the Swatch Art watches designed by various artists and issued in specific quantities. Swatchetables, for instance, were designed by artist Alfred Hofkunst and the company released only 9,999 around the world.

"People camped out for them," Chamberlin said.

A Swatch Art watch created by Mimmo Paladino was released in a limited edition of just 120 in 1989 and sold at a European auction in June for $24,500.

Some Swatches seem made for collectors. Buttone, a Swatch with buttons on its wide strap, comes with its own sewing kit complete with thimble, thread and extra buttons for $80.

Even Swatch, however, has been caught off guard by the collectors' enthusiasm. Some models are missing from its "Newseum" because the company has none left; other styles must be borrowed from the collectors.

"Swatch just never thought to save them," Chamberlin said.

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