SET IT AND FORGET IT
Testing the Swatch Sistem51, a Horological Landmark
Thirty years ago Nicholas Hayek, a Swiss entrepreneur of Lebanese-American descent, created a then-revolutionary new brand. He named it Swatch, a contraction of Second WATCH, and essentially used it to bankroll the salvation of the Swiss mechanical watch industry. The Sistem51 (~$171) is a celebration of Swatch’s anniversary. It’s also a poster child for what can be done when modern manufacturing and materials technologies are applied to the venerable mechanical timepiece.
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Back in 1983, the first Swatch quartz watch had 51 components. For the 30th anniversary celebratory piece, Swatch took up the challenge to make a mechanical watch with the same number of parts. Development to accomplish this watchmaking and mechanical engineering benchmark took only two years, including developing the manufacturing machinery — an engineering marvel in its own right. You see, human hands don’t touch the Sistem51 until it gets spit out into the collection bin at the end of the 65-foot assembly line.
Calibre: Swatch Automatic
Power reserve: 90 hours
Hours, minutes, seconds, date
Material: Molded translucent plastic, hermetically sealed
Diameter: 42 millimeters
Crystal: Plastic, integrated into case
Matte black with printed graphics representing the Copernican revolution
Silicone with plastic buckle
All 51 parts are held together with a single screw (and apparently a few welds). The case back is clear, making it easy to study the results of the problem-solving done by the Swatch engineers. Yes, exhibition case backs are common as grains of sand on a beach, and let’s be clear: the Sistem51’s movement is not high horological art. But it is unique, and it’s extremely cool to peer through the back window and study that uniqueness. In this way the Sistem51 is a definite conversation piece for watch nerds and engineer wannabes everywhere.
The prominent dots and tracks of the dial design are a nod to the Copernican revolution. (In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus put forth that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. Revolutionary, indeed.) Swatch has chosen this as a metaphor for the revolution in watchmaking represented by the Sistem51. The backstory is definitely cool, especially to science nerds — but only once they realize Swatch is using a metaphor. To the uninitiated, the dial looks like pop art. The visual is distracting; the slight difference found on the dials of the black and white versions (dots but no connecting lines) is less busy and therefore more appealing.
With a case made of plastic, the Sistem51 is light and comfy on the wrist — so much so that we sometimes forgot we were wearing it. At 42 millimeters it’s also plenty big enough to read quickly. The plastic buckle is strong and secure, and the eased corners and contoured surfaces enable it to slip smoothly under the cuff of a shirt. The hermetically sealed case means no trips to the service center (for better or worse), and the only time you’ll need to mess with the crown is at the end of months with less than 31 days, or when you go on that four-day bender and the 90-hour power reserve runs out.
The price? CHF 150 ($171), plus round trip airfare to Zurich, for now. Sure, for that price you could get a Seiko 5 with an in-house mechanical movement in a steel case and arguably better build quality. But the real story with the Sistem51 isn’t the price. It’s the re-imagining of how watches can be built, separating Swiss watchmaking from its precious hand-crafted traditions and revolutionizing the way buyers think about mechanical watches. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the entire industry was on life support. With a new threat (smart watches) on the horizon, any attempts to reposition mechanical timepieces are significant. And if a few mall-trolling, impulse-purchasing plastic Swatch buyers flip over their new Sistem51s and wonder at all those tiny gears and springs, well, the world can always use one more watch nerd.