Sistem51

Swatch comes full circle with their revolutionary automatic

On its 30th year back in 2013, Swatch announced their Sistem51 line at the Baselworld show in Switzerland. It caused a major stir, was even tagged a game-changer, but only among aficionados, those in the know.

Their fault really. Sistem51 is revolutionary, sure, but subtle. Though big with a 42mm diameter case, it blends in with all those Swatches and Swatch wannabees that came before. You’d need some Swiss watchmaking history to clue in on the significance of Sistem51, to simply flip it over, look through its clear caseback, and be astounded by what you’d find.

After quartzes put the watchmaking world on its head, pushing the Swiss into a corner from which they shot back with the now iconic Swatch, this Swatch, this Swiss watch, is again mechanical, and with a vengeance.

History

Before World War Two, Swiss watches were not the final word in timepiece accuracy. American watchmakers had gained the top position, turning out assembly line timepieces with hair-breadth consistency and predictable accuracy. Only timepieces engineered and assembled in industrial giants like the U S of A were deemed cutting-edge enough to be railroad timepieces. To be the conductor’s indispensable tool for making sure trains rolled on a fixed, universal schedule that kept passengers happy and track systems free of messy collisions.

But when WWII engulfed the globe, Allied and Axis watchmakers all had their production floors co-opted into war production. Hamilton and Eglin, at the top of their game in the U.S. back then, re-tasked assembly lines into G.I. factories, cranking out standard-issue wristwatches for boys in uniform, timing assemblies for war shot fuses, chronometers for navigation and target solutions. On the other side, Luftwaffe pilots and blitzkrieg ground-pounders also enjoyed first dibs on the best that Europe could offer. Timepieces for civilians virtually disappeared with war rationing.

Enter the neutral Swiss. Old world, hand-crafted, artisan watchmaking re-surged. Individual nation imports of rediscovered Swiss pieces grew astronomically as Switzerland’s exports exploded. With prime markets having again accepted Swiss timepieces, the country again a source as reliable as clockwork so to speak, it was tantamount to a stimulus package for upgrading the whole industry into modern-day assembly lines. Now they had the deep war chest to modernize while still indulging in high-art watch-making.

Upheaval

Switzerland’s dominance lasted just a few decades though. By the 1970s, Swiss watch-making was again being challenged by precisely engineered, assembly-line pieces from elsewhere, from the U.S., Japan and yes, even back then, from China. Inevitably, by the 1980s, the Swiss were on the ropes and wheezing.

It was known as the quartz upheaval. Far cheaper, more accurate wristwatches were being mainstreamed into everyday gear, into every man’s wear, everywhere. The catalyst: the lowly quartz, the second most common mineral on Earth, next only to feldspar. Run current through quartz and it’ll do 32,768 vibrations a second, always and every time. Pair this with an oscillation counter to mark off each second by those unseemly number of vibrations and you’ve got yourself a timepiece that’d be accurate to within one second each day. Compare this to the five seconds that a fine mechanical watch could either gain or lose each day, and to the steep price of what now looked like mechanical novelties.

So, quartz watches nearly won the day. By the early 80’s, more than two-thirds of Switzerland’s watch companies had closed shop and nearly that large a fraction of the workforce had left the trade.

Resurgence

Then 1983 happened. Swatch—what started out as the side-project of that legendary captain of industry, Nicholas Hayek—came on scene, invaded pop culture, and kept Switzerland’s place in history, intact.

The Swiss had come late to the quartz party, that’s why they almost lost everything. But, with the Swatch, they turned the opposition’s short game into a long one. At the time when typical quartz movements had at least 90 parts, Swatch used a signature 51-part mechanism assembled entirely by machinery. They made cheap even cheaper, and did it with typical Swiss panache and precision.

And yet, even this innovation which let them hit bargain-basement prices was upstaged by the mere fact that the cheap new quartzes were Swiss-made. They assumed that their history, their nation as a brand, would portray the Swatch as superior, even with pop pieces that seemed to push a fad. Turns out, they were right. The Swiss had whispered like giants, and the world listened.

Magic

And yet, the original Swatch line was really a compromise. Back then and until now, Swiss watchmaking has always been equated with masterfully crafted mechanicals, be these self-winding or hand-wound, CERN and atomic clocks notwithstanding.

The allure of Swiss timepieces has been stuck in the middle-ages, back when man ruled the world with machines crafted by and having affinity with man. Using quartz to measure seconds in mil-scale micro-vibrations, well, it simply wasn’t the same craft that went into mechanicals. Compared to the master-craft of mechanicals, delegating timekeeping to black-box quartz electronics was like black magic—witchcraft, not art.

So now, with Sistem51, Swatch finally did it. They’re back home with beloved mechanicals, and with the same revolutionary engineering they brought to their original quartz line.

Poetry

Sistem51 isn’t the first automatic from Swatch. But when they had first tried mechanicals with their Big Automatic and Irony Automatic Chrono lines, the movements were too complex. Even with just around 180 parts, just a fifth of the 900 parts of typical mechanicals, those earlier movements were sourced off-the-shelf from sister company ETA and were otherwise too complex to put on in-house, fully automated assembly lines.

With Sistem51, they finally got things down to 51 parts, that number steeped in symbolism. It had to be 51, the same number of parts they had in the classic quartz Swatches that started it all.

The movement has an exceptional 90-hour power reserve, can be manually wound through its single crown, or self-wound through natural wrist movement. Assembly is grouped into just three layers: deepest in is the main plate with gear-train, topped by the layer with both escapement and auto-winding modules, and capped with the oscillating ring weight. The movement is held together by a single screw that can be observed through the transparent caseback that seals everything in. All components are of ARCAP, a copper-nickel-zinc alloy specified for its anti-magnetic properties. The escapement has no regulator, with rate of movement being set by laser on roll-out from the fully-automated assembly line. Sealed into the case, the movement does not require or allow adjustment during its service lifespan.

The development of Sistem51 took just two years. But, in another nod to Swatch’s past, the completion of those years had really taken all those decades since 1983. Developing Sistem51 required collaboration from all the affiliates in the Swatch Group, the conglomerate of 18 top Swiss watch brands that Swatch had grown into decades after they had first pitched those cheap-but-Swiss timepieces.

So, no, it’s not much of a stretch to see something poetic in how Sistem51 depicts, and completes, the Swatch story. Though it’s been popularly read as a shortening of “Swiss Watch”, Swatch was really coined to mean “Second Watch”, a symbol of Swiss watchmaking’s reincarnation. Now, with Sistem51, we see Swatch finally coming full circle, a revolutionary mechanical showing them to be all grown-up for their second coming.

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