Swatch watches of the 80s & 90s: Remember the colorful watch craze

Vintage Swatch The colorful watch craze of the 1980s and 1990s

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In the ’80s, the world’s youth was in search of fresh new ways to stand out. They already had their MTV, were wearing day-glo clothes and patterned leg warmers, and organized their school lives with the help of Trapper Keepers.

Those kids and teens were perfectly primed for a new way to wear their hearts on their sleeves. In a sea of neutral-colored watches, Swiss watchmaker Swatch revitalized that segment of the accessories industry when they came out with a bold and vibrant analog quartz marvel, sparking the colorful watch craze of the 1980s and 1990s.

This trend quickly became a hit, and the flashy designs were soon appearing — sometimes two, three, four at a time — on the wrists of people across the globe. Below, see dozens of 1980s OG Swatch designs, plus retro regular and Pop Swatch models of the 90s!

1980s Swatch Watch styles

Vintage 80s Swatch watches: Wristy Business (1984)

Article excerpted from New York magazine January 23, 1984

Swatch (short for “Swiss watch” [one commenter who used to sell it says it actually meant “second watch”]), an up-to-the-minute quartz marvel introduced last year with bold colors and zappy graphics, is gambling that clunkiness will become the byword in chic, or reverse chic, for the 1980s.

The price certainly fills the bill: While Rolex’s eighteen-karat-gold President goes for $7,950 and the Piaget Polo $12,900, Swatch’s first line of 25 models sells for $19.95 to $37.50, depending on whether you want, say, a second hand, a calendar, or whatever.

Each is made of durable plastic, is water- and shock-resistant, has a battery that lasts three years instead of the usual one, and is practically indestructible.

Swatches and swatch protectors 1985

Most quality watches — and Swatch is being presented as a low-cost quality watch — are sold primarily through jewelry stores. Swatch is there, too, alongside the Patek Philippes, Audemars Piguets, Vacheron & Constantins, and Piagets.

But because it is also being marketed as a fashion item, it is prominent in chic boutiques, the accessories departments of large stores, and sporting goods shops as well.

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“Swatch is not so much in the watch business [where the low end is somewhat saturated] as in the fashion-sports-and-accessories business,” says Max Imgruth, president of the Swiss Watch Distribution Center; Swatch Watch, U.S.A., Inc.

“We don’t think of it as a timepiece as much as a design piece. We think that soon, if not already, people won’t be saying ‘Gee, my watch isn’t functioning; I’ve got to get a new one,’ but rather ‘Gee, that color looks good; I’ll get it for sailing, playing tennis, or to go with an outfit.'”

Ad 1984 Swatch

YES, THEY ARE STILL AROUND: See the current models available now!

More wrists sport watches with black faces than any other color by far, but in Europe, gray, navy, and tan are also hot sellers, and in the States, red is popular. Swatch’s best seller last year was a $29.95 black model with white hands, a red second hand, an inner circle numbering the seconds, and a calendar.

No. 2 was a blank-faced black watch. The $19.95 model was its sixth-biggest seller and has been cut from the new spring-summer line.

Due out in March [1984] and priced at $25 to $35. the line will include 26 styles in five categories: Skipper, Waikiki Surf, Memphis, High-Tech, and Meet Me at the Carlyle.

Swatch: The popular & colorful new wave of wrist watches in the 1980s

Worldwide, some 310 million watches are sold annually, adding up to a $7 billion business. In this country, 75 percent cost under $75. Americans shelled out $2 billion for 65 million watches in 1982, and estimates are that they bought another 70 million in 1983.

More than half of all watches are purchased as gifts, and the four months from September through December account for 60 percent of sales. In fact, Imgruth calculates that on a per-capita basis, each American owns a wardrobe of two to three watches.

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Marketing naifs might assume from those figures that the US watch market is saturated. However, Italians own between four and five watches apiece, and the Swiss between three and four.

Getting Americans to crave another watch or two should be just a matter of technique. One approach, adopted by the Gübelin chain, is to pitch Swatch as one of the tough extra watches every owner of a handmade mechanical one needs to withstand the wear and tear of normal urban life.

Swatches - New wave in Swiss watches 1980s

Swatch’s advertising campaign, created by McCann-Erickson in Switzerland and adapted by the agency in New York, relies on the New Wave look to attract young trendsetters.

As punk rock plays, Swatch-sporting wrists are shown in a variety of situations-playing cards, flexing a bicycle brake, popping a champagne cork. Then a voice-over announces that Swatch has “come a long way since the cuckoo clock.”

But for all the hopes the Swiss watch industry has riding on Swatch, it has, so far, not exactly set this city on fire. In fact, just about the only person I was able to find who had heard about Swatch — other than company representatives — was the saleslady at Bloomingdale’s who sold me one.

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The new Swiss watch that knows life should be an adventure. (1983)

Designed with the latest and most accurate Swiss quartz technology to keep pace, no matter what you do.

Swatch is stylish. With 6 elegant fashion colors and 25 styles to match whatever outfit or mood you’re in. And Swatch is rugged, perfect for active lifestyles.

Using the latest technology in watch manufacturing, Swatch‘s unique construction unites the movement, crystal. case and bracelet into one durable sealed timepiece.

Your Swatch is shock-resistant, water-resistant to 100 feet. Lightweight and comfortable, So you can wear your Swatch while playing tennis, skiing, hunting or even swimming. Swatch is fully warrantied for one year and has a 3-year replaceable battery. From 19.95 to 37.50, it’s the best time your wrist will ever have.

The new Swatch - 1983

About Swatches 1983

Jell-O Pudding Pops & other cool treats from the '80s new wave of popsicles

TV commercial for Swatches from 1985

YouTube video

Vintage Swatches and other retro cool products (1985)

Products feature Swatch-branded sunglasses, hoodies, umbrellas, backpacks, and more.

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Swatch shields - chums - watches - guards - 80s

Retro swatch watch ad from 1985 (1)

Retro swatch watch ad from 1985 (2)

Retro swatch watch ad from 1985 (3)

Granita di Frutta: Scented swatches (1985)

The only watch that makes scents. Granite di Frutta. The new transparent-banded SWATCH watches that smell as good as they took.

Trendy timepieces in ice-cream colors: Pink Raspberry, cool blue Ice Mint and mellow Banana. Water and shock-resistant, precise Swiss quartz movement.

1985 Swatches scented watches

Swatch signature clothing line (1986)

Swatch signature collection of clothing and accessories is inspired by the great graphics and vibrant colors of the Swatch watches.

Vintage Swatch designs from 1986

Vintage Keith Haring designs for Swatch watches (1986)

Vintage Keith Haring for Swatch 1986

Swatch party time! (1988)

Swatch watch: Spirited gathering takes time to probe meaning of equinox.  Finding none, they party.

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Swatch party time

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Swatch Hardwear Steeltech (1989)

The Cold Hard Facts. Some people are really into metal. They insist on it — even in unusual places. Like on their t-shirt, around their neck, on a long playing record, in their golf “woods,” even on a watch.

That’s where our Hardwear comes in. It has a sleek metal cap and a great all-metal flex band. But under that tough exterior is the sensitive Swatch that you know and love.

Hardwear. The romance of metal. The smarts of plastic. Swatch gives you more than the time of day.

Swatch Steeltech (1989)

Vintage Swatch sports TV ad from 1986

YouTube video

Tick, tick, tick: Time for the Swatch Freestyle World Cup at Breckenridge ’88

1988 Swatch Freestyle watches 2

Year Five: Mountain Thunder, & here come the Russians!

Year Five of the Swatch Freestyle World Cup should exceed anything ever seen in Breckenridge. The quest for gold, which started here in 1859, begins again as the stage is set for this dramatic preview to the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta.

The event has matured in five years; much of the credit for growth is attributable to Swatch, the official sponsor of this event and the entire Freestyle World Cup Grand Prix.

As the principal sponsor, Swatch not only provides financial support needed to survive, it also adds a certain flair and joie de vivre that represent the perfect blend of international style and Rocky Mountain tradition.

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If this year’s event seems somewhat bigger, it is because many national teams competing here will be at full strength in preparation for Calgary. If the event seems more festive, it is simply because Breckenridge has become the favorite stop on the tour for all of the World Cup teams.

One team that will intrigue the locals is the squad from the USSR, as they make their first appearance at an American World Cup event. The Soviet skiers will assuredly generate heavy press coverage: in fact event organizers expect a large turnout from both domestic and foreign media agencies for the entire event.

1988 Swatch Freestyle watches 1

Swatch: Freestyle personified 

Swatch Watch and Freestyle Skiing, a combination linked conceptually by technical superiority, rugged endurability and precise timing. For the fifth year, Swatch Watch will be the official sponsor of the Swatch Freestyle Grand Prix at Breckenridge. Colorado, starting January 21-23. This event will be the final in a series of scheduled events, the World Cup Grand Prix.

Consider that freestyle, for all its daredevil acrobatics and seeming wild abandon, is in fact one of the most precise and technically demanding of sports. Beneath the furious pounding of the mogul competition lie strong, carved tums and flawless technique. Behind the airy dance of the ballet are endless hours of muscle-straining, mind-numbing fatigue; before an aerialist files, he has crawled mentally through every single movement of his body a thousand times in succession.

In other words, substance, durability and precision underly the style, and that is precisely the concept of Swatch — watches and accessories that are fun, wild, superbly stylish — and they work perfectly.

Swatch’s involvement in freestyle is far-reaching; the company sponsors not only the Breckenridge event but the entire Grand Prix, the season-long international World Cup circuit. Additionally, they sponsor and support three of the sport’s brightest stars: Swiss ballet star Conny Kissling, the high-flying Canadian aerialist Lloyd Langlois, and reigning men’s ballet champ Hermann Reitberger of West Germany.

Freestyle Skiing is just one of the world’s emerging sports which look to Swatch for involvement. The company is actively involved in other unconventional sports such as Freestyle Skateboarding, Mountain Biking, Snowboarding and Windsurfing.

In all of these sports, there is a balance of sponsored world class athletes and championship events in an attempt to support growth and exposure of the sport. Swatch can also be found sponsoring avant-garde cultural events, music, humor and fashion.

When it’s time for fun, Swatch is there.

1988 Swatch Freestyle watches 3

Gaugin — POP Swatch collection (1990)

The art in Tahiti, is now spray-paint graffiti. And there’s nothing wrong with a dayglo sarong. The South Seas have gone hip, so here’s a tropical tip. Gaugin.

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POP swatch - Gaugin pattern (1990)

90s Pop Swatch – Haute Couture Limited Edition (1990)

90s Pop Swatch - Haute Couture Limited Edition (1990)

1990 Pop Swatch in black and white on red band

1990 Pop Swatch in black and white on red band

Retro 90s Pop Swatch watch (1991)

Retro 90s Pop Swatch watch (1991)

Plaid swatch from 1992

Plaid swatch from 1992

The Swatch Attraction line — Cappuccino and Dotchair (1993)

Vintage 1990s Swatch ad (1993)

Tyra Banks for Swatch Skin line (1997)


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Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. Swatch actually stands for Second Watch, not Swiss Watch, even though it’s a Swiss timepiece. The concept was to have a watch that was affordable enough to have multiples since most people at that time only owned one watch. The 80’s trend of wearing more than one on your wrist was actually from Swatch marketing it that way. I worked for the company as a store manager years ago and this information was part of our training. We also were required to wear 2 watches as part of our dress code.

    1. That’s fascinating — I remember how the Swatch ads all featured people wearing 2 and 3 watches on one arm. Swatches were indeed trendy in the mid ’80s, but not so much that people had whole collections of them… at least not among the people I knew. Was wearing multiple watches a genuine trend or just a gimmick to get people to buy more watches?

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