Swatch Sistem51 – REVIEW

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Brice Goulard | ic_query_builder_black_24px 8 minute read |

The Swatch Sistem51 is certainly the cheapest watch we’ve ever featured on Monochrome-Watches and we are doing it without any shame or regrets. Why? The Sistem51 is clearly one of the most important novelties presented during the last 10 years. As the first Swatch did in 1983, this new automatic watch is a major industrial milestone that COULD (I have to insist on the ‘could’ because, for the moment, we are not sure of possible future developments) change the face of the Swatch Group and of the whole industry.

History of Swatch

Swatch (which stands for ‘second watch’, because of its affordable price and casual look) was born in the early 1980s, just in the middle of the ‘Quartz Crisis’. At that time, the actors of the watchmaking industry in Switzerland were all intensely affected by the arrival of cheap Japanese quartz watches and production numbers became lower than at any time before. However, a very simple but clever idea saved the industry. If we can nowadays enjoy Haute Horlogerie, luxury watches and independent watchmaking, it’s only because of a simple and cheap quartz watch that made its debut in 1983: THE SWATCH!

Swatch was born under the leadership of ETA’s CEO, Ernst Thomke, helped by a small team of engineers. Using the concept of the Concord Delirium (the thinnest watch in the world), Thomke designed a watch with a caseback used as the main plate of the movement. The Swatch was devised as a Swiss-made plastic watch with a fully integrated and in-house built movement. Compared to mechanical watches, a Swatch was 80% cheaper to produce due to fully automating its assembly and reducing the number of parts to only 51 components.

The first collection was introduced in March 1983 at an initial price ranged from CHF39.90 to CHF49.90, a price similar to Seiko or Citizen collections, but now available for a watch developed and manufactured in Switzerland. Helped by an aggressive marketing campaign, sales were huge and overcame the targets of one million pieces for 1983 and 2.5 million the next year. Nicolas G. Hayek, with a group of Swiss investors, bought Swatch in 1985 and founded the base of what is known now as the Swatch Group.

Because of the Swatch’s success, the whole Swiss industry took advantage of this creation. The renewal of many brands and the birth of our favourite independent watchmakers are partially due to the Swatch. It may be a simple and cheap plastic timepiece but it is an important one.

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Overall appearance

The Swatch Sistem51 brings back the idea of the 1983 Swatch with ONE single difference, its movement. You’ll find the concept of a plastic watch, Swiss-Made, developed in-house, with a 51-part movement fully industrialized and for a very low price. Everything that identifies a Swatch, except for its automatic movement. It is not the first automatic Swatch, as some of them used to come with ETA movements. But this one adds something more.

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When presented in Baselworld 2013, the Swatch Sistem51 created a real earthquake in the watchmaking industry, a mixed feeling of astonishment and fear. How was it possible that a Swiss-Made watch with a manufacture movement (and not the worst one we’ve ever seen, either) could be sold for a fraction of the price of an ETA-powered Tissot? It was accomplished by using synergies inside the Swatch Group and applying the same magic trick that the 1983 Swatch used. Under its fun and inexpensive appearance, the Sistem51 is a real industrial achievement and shows an amazing intelligence in its conception. In order to keep a low retail price, the movement is fully made by machine, without any human intervention, even to adjust the accuracy of the balance wheel and the escapement.

Movement

The movement of the Swatch Sistem51 is a real engineering feat, far from what passionate watchmakers are used to producing and neither at all the traditional way to conceive a movement. It may be cheap but it is a really interesting engine that boasts more technology than any other ETA, Soprod or Sellita. To build this movement, ETA, Swatch R&D, Nivarox and Comadur (all part of the Swatch Group) joined forces working over a period of 2 years to create, from scratch, a highly complex manufacturing process that led to an incredibly simple movement.

The genius of the Sistem51 is that it’s made of only 51 parts, spread around 5 modules and linked one to another by only one central screw. The assembling of the parts, including the 19 jewels and the regulating organ, is done by machine and uses only solders. The balance wheel’s assembly and adjustment are usually the most sensitive tasks when manufacturing a movement. It requires the skills of trained watchmakers to achieve a good chronometric rate. In the Sistem51, it is adjusted by a laser that removes enough material to find that good balance and therefore the perfect accuracy. And as the balance wheel and the escapement are made of a synthetic and anti-magnetic material, there is potentially no reason for it to deregulate.

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The Sistem51 comes with several other innovations, such as bridges and plates in ARCAP, a material used in very high-end watches, such as Urwerk. The main advantage of ARCAP is that it is anti-magnetic and non-sensitive to temperature changes.

The movement boasts 90 hours of power reserve, an impressive achievement compared to the 42 hours of an ETA or a Soprod. A bidirectional transparent rotor (which will never hide the view of the technical elements, as the counterweight is located around this rotor) winds the single barrel. Once again, such a detail is usually only found in expensive and fine watches. Last but not least, Swatch states it has an accuracy of +/- 7 seconds per a day, a rate that is actually very close to the COSC requirements (-4/+6 seconds per a day).

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The main question that remains is about the reliability. Far be it from us to worry that the movement won’t be solid or accurate, but what if a problem should arise? The balance wheel and escapement mechanism cannot be adjusted. Worst of all, the caseback cannot be removed. We are guessing that people will do the same as they did with the quartz Swatch: considering the price, replace it! It would be more expensive to repair it anyway. That’s clearly something we are not used to, especially because we love vintage watches and restoring our old beauties. But it may be the future.

Features

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The Sistem51 comes with the classical features of EUR1.000 timepieces. It has an impressive accuracy and power reserve, but also a quick date (that will change straight at midnight and that you can adjust on the second position of the crown, without changing time) and a hacking second mechanism (the second hand stops when pulling the crown, to finely adjust time). The last feature, which can sound unimportant, is that it can be wound by the crown. Just remember that some old and very cheap Seiko watches don’t have such a device.

In appearance, the Sistem51 is a simple 3 hands watch with date, but a more complicated one regarding its movement and features. It has everything an ETA-powered watch has and even more, but for a fraction of the price.

Design and daily wearing

The Swatch Sistem51 is visually a Swatch. No doubt about it. The translucent case is in every aspect similar to a quartz Swatch, but even though made of plastic, it looks quite solid and well finished with a fine-grained texture. It’s available in 4 versions: blue case with a black dial, red case with a black dial, a full black edition and a full white edition. The entire collection comes with a celestial pattern on the dial. The red dots represent 6 of the jewels and the white dots the weld points of the movement.

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On the wrist, the Sistem51 is slightly bigger than the other watches of the brand, at 42mm. What doesn’t change is the comfort, helped by a very light weight and the softness of the rubber strap. The Sistem51 looks cool and will be perfectly suitable for weekends.

Conclusion

The Swatch Sistem51 is cheap, it has a plastic case and it’s not bringing out any fancy complications on its dial. True that it’s not Haute Horlogerie. But it is an important watch that may herald the future of mainstream watches. First, it is an astonishing industrial achievement, the first mechanical watch built without any human hands. Moreover, it ushers in more innovations, technology and content than any other inexpensive mechanical watch. It is clearly the new trandsetter for the entire watchmaking industry. Most impressive of all: it is priced at only EUR130. Only the Swatch Group would be able to achieve that. You may love it or hate it, but no one can deny the great progress it represents.

One question does remain to be asked, though. We know that upscale brands will never use the whole movement, but what about the lower-end brands of the Swatch Group such as Tissot, Hamilton or even Longines. Would you accept such a movement in any other watch besides a Swatch?

If we keep it light, this is a fun affordable watch that people will love. Of course, non-watch addicts will like it because it is an affordable – possibly the most affordable – Swiss-made automatic watch. But watch enthusiasts like we (and, we suppose, you also) are will know that it has more to do with its movement: accuracy, innovative materials, innovative industrial processes and high-end features. Bravo!

How to get one?

Because of the very complicated industrial process and of the high demand, the Sistem51 is available only in the official Swatch Stores of Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain and Germany for the EU, but also in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Moscow. It is now available in the US (from the 1st of July 2014). It is not for sale yet on the official web-shop. The price, depending on the countries, is CHF130, EUR130 or USD150.

11 responses

  1. This article brought back a deluge of memories. I remember having tackle boxes full of Swatch watch parts and bits to change and customize and of course the ubiquitous over-sized Swatch watch that hung on your wall in your bedroom.

  2. I don’t understand this “earthquake”. Cheaper, automatic watches were avaiable before.
    “If we can nowadays enjoy Haute Horlogerie, luxury watches and independent watchmaking, it’s only because of a simple and cheap quartz watch that made its debut in 1983: THE SWATCH!”

    Bullshit! There were always space for Haute Horlogerie. Swatch may have helped, but that’s all.

  3. COSC is a little bit different than -4/+6 seconds a day, I wonder how it performs at different states of wind (temperature change) etc. I wouldn’t mention that it is anywhere near close to COSC.
    Sadly these watches are sold incorrectly, customers aren’t told that in a year or two, when timing starts to change, that they cannot be regulated or serviced. (If they last that long). In my opinion USD150 is far to much to fork out for a piece of rubbish.

  4. The last chinese “hommage” watch I bought had an accuracy of 1-2 seconds per day and cost $85. Wake me when you catch up. Also that Swatch dial is horrible. This movement might have some potential in a more solid looking case. Maybe it could be used in military watches.

  5. Swatch has made its mark in most markets especially in the Philippines. Its part of the youth in average Filipinos. Its more than a timepiece, as its historical in some ways. Im glad they kept up with changing markets and developed sistem 51. I hope there would be improvements from there on.

  6. I am tempted! But I had a bad experience with a self-winding Swatch a few years ago. It had a quality, very accurate 21-jewel ETA movement, and a skeleton case. Drew compliments all time (no pun intended). Then, when I was setting it one day, the crown popped off. Unrepairable, except by Swatch, at a price I could have bought another watch for. $120 down the drain. So I am leery of a $150 Swatch, even if it is a state-of-the-mechanical art movement.

  7. Wow … it amazes me that some people can’t recognize true watchmaking progress just because it comes from Swatch. Kudos to Monochrome for being more open-minded and objective than some of its readers. I own many, many Swatches (a great many) from the years before 2000. Only one has ever failed. I very rarely buy Swatches made after 2000 (every collection needs boundaries), but I’ve bought all of the early Sistem51 watches because I’m convinced they’re as significant a milestone as the early ones were in 1983. Just as early Swatches were ridiculed because they were “flimsy” and “cheap”, the Sistem51 devices are derided now. Mark my words, though: these watches are historically significant. Like them or not, you ought to invest now … these will be cherished in the future.

  8. Please allow me to resurrect an old article. Last night I decided to check out Swatch. For the last while I have been contemplating a (for me ) major purchase and to be honest I just wanted at least one piece in my collection which was just “a watch”. So I bought a 60 quid quartz Swatch Irony and was amazed to discover that the dial is printed more clearly than that of my Khaki Field Mechanical, the hands are made of solid brass and are better finished than on watches I have looked at costing at least ten times more and the second hand lines-up with 59 of 60 markers, in marked contrast to the Tag Heuer I was once shocked to see drunkenly slop across the dial like it had downed half a bottle of vodka. Whether Swatch have recently upgraded their manufacturing or I have only just noticed, I do not know.
    Of course, the disposable nature of these watches inevitably produces a backlash for The WIS community, but I must say I am very surprised at my findings.

  9. There’s one good thing about a fully automatic production line… it removes human error. So yes, hands are perfectly aligned.

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