Own a Piece of Watch History for Under $200: The Swatch Sistem51
by Raman Kalra
Raman Kalra is the founder of The Watch Muse blog and has kindly agreed to share some of his articles with us here on Quill & Pad.
Despite all the criticisms the Swatch Sistem51 receives, it is still a part of watch history. And the best part is that you can buy one under $250.
The Swatch Sistem51 has been around since Baselworld 2013, and since then has received a lot of positive and negative coverage. However, removing the noise, the Sistem51 remains a great technical achievement and will go down as a defining historical model. It’s not perfect, but for any watch lover, it is still worth considering.
Swatch was founded in 1983 in response to the Quartz crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. This was a time when quartz watches became readily available, offering consumers an inexpensive and accurate timepiece, creating competition for the Swiss watchmakers like never before.
Swatch focused on simple, colorful designs that contrasted with the more conservative watches for sale otherwise available at the time. This meant that Swatches became instantly recognizable. It was the first time where you could buy a watch as a genuine fashion accessory and this created a strong following for Swatch.
Today it is common to see lots of hype around a launch of a product, whether it be watches, sneakers, cars etc., commanding queues and excitement. Just look at what happened with the MoonSwatch! However, it was Swatch that was the first brand to achieve this level of hype back in the 1980s.
Swatch realized a lot could be gained by keeping quantities low and collaborations with well-known artists such as Keith Haring and Kiki Picasso would provide great marketing and designs. This was unique and forward-thinking for the time, leading to Swatch cementing its place as one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
Fast-forward to 2013 – the 30th anniversary of Swatch. Where the brand was created to fight back against the declining Swiss watch sales in favor of Japanese quartz, 30 years later another threat to wristwatches came from technology and smartwatches.
Swatch needed to create something that was fresh and capable of generating a buzz. They succeeded by launching the Sistem51. The original Swatch was created using 51 components (which is why it was so cheap), and Swatch decided to honor this with the creation of the Sistem51. This time, a fully automatic offering with a movement constructed using only 51 components.
Why the Sistem51 is Different
The Sistem51 is an affordable, automatic Swiss watch; however, it has multiple distinctive characteristics making it unlike anything else on offer. Usually, when discussing a watch, the dial and case design takes precedence, but with the Sistem51 it is the movement that makes this watch so special.
Swatch created a revolutionary production line, managing to make a fully automatic movement assembled only by robots. No hand-finishing here. To achieve this, Swatch needed to simplify the movement as much as possible and ultimately managed, securing many patents along the way. Swatch ended up with a movement made of 51 pieces, in 5 modular sections, all revolving around a central screw.
Take a step back and this is crazy to think about. Most mechanical watch movements require double the number of components and in some cases, complex movements are built with many hundreds of parts. Each Sistem51 movement takes only 20 minutes to produce from start to finish in a clean-room environment. The oscillating system is set to 3Hz during the process and cannot be changed. It is constructed using a non-magnetic alloy called ARCAP (copper, nickel and zinc) meaning once it has been produced, little should affect its accuracy.
This all results in a movement that offers +7/-7 seconds a day with a 90h power reserve!
The best part though is that Swatch made the movement visible through a clear plastic case back. Given the non-magnetic alloy and production setup, Swatch hermetically seals the case and guarantees a “long life span” of 10-20 years.
Sealing the case protects it from dust and moisture. I suspect it also was a method to prevent human intervention and safeguard its innovation. However, this removes any ability to have the watch serviced. You either get it replaced under warranty or simply buy a new one if something goes wrong. Swatch took a disposable view, something that was historically associated with quartz watches, but never mechanical.
Moving from the movement to the rest of the watch, the original theme was built upon the central screw holding the movement together. The screw acts as if it were a celestial object with the rotor orbiting it, and this astronomical idea made its way to the dial of the original releases.
Over the years there have been a number of new styles in case the astronomical concept is not for you. It is not just the dial colors that change with each style, but the actual case color as well as the strap. Swatch also moves the date from 3 o’clock to the 6 o’clock and even removes it completely in some cases.
Then there is the case back, which Swatch seems to give as much attention to as the dial. They create abstract, playful patterns for the movement, and by doing so, they draw attention to the movement – rightfully so.
To summarize: there is a model out there for you. The case, however, has remained constant coming in a plastic or steel 42mm diameter.
What’s a Sistem51 like to own?
I have owned a Sistem51 for a few years now so can speak from experience. The first thing to say is that it is a unmistakably a Swatch. It is the same thing when it comes to the MoonSwatch, so please don’t expect anything more. Putting the watch on your wrist, at 13.6 mm high it is thicker than expected, but still manages to fit under a cuff.
The dial is large and easy to read. It is also very light and combined with the silicon strap on my model, it is very comfortable, and you can easily forget that you are wearing it. There are some leather strap variants out there, but it is worth noting that you can only change the strap to other Swatch straps, so keep that in mind.
In terms of actual timekeeping, I have never noticed the movement to not be accurate, although I am the not type of person to be actively measuring this. The whole experience boils down to a fun, casual watch that keeps the ethos of what Swatch is all about.
There are some areas where you are reminded that it is Swatch. The lug shape is very square, and with a large lug-to-lug measurement of 51 mm, so it sits quite tall on the wrist. When you wind the watch, the feeling is quite rough and noisy, and even when wearing the watch you sometimes can hear the rotor spinning.
It is a relatively loud movement when ticking (although I don’t mind this) and I have not noticed the 90-hour power reserve. This could be my own fault for not keeping track, but I do feel as though the power reserve is less in real-world usage.
Then this whole idea of it being disposable. It is not a hugely expensive watch, but also I don’t view it as cheap enough to be disposable. If it were $50, then maybe, but at $200 it feels a bit too much. Not many things last 20 years and if it does, then I have no issues. I am happy to report that after 3 years of use, so far so good!
A Must-Have Watch?
It is easy to pick issues with the Sistem51and there are always going to be areas for improvements, but the it is still a watch that I find a must-have in my collection. Would I recommend it as a first watch? Maybe not – there are Seiko 5s out there that should last you a lifetime and probably provide a more refined experience.
However, as a watch to add to the wider collection, this is a definite. The Sistem51 has a firm place in the history of watchmaking. When looking back, a few key moments mark the development of watches – including the first waterproof wristwatch in 1926 (Rolex Oyster) and the first automatic chronograph in 1969 (Zenith El Primero).
Along this horological timeline, however, there will be the Sistem51. The first automatic watch built entirely by machines. An automatic movement simplified to only 5 modules and 51 pieces. A defining model from one of the largest Swiss watch manufacturers in the world. This is a true collector’s item.
And the best part is, you can go online and order one right now. Unlike other defining models, the Swatch Sistem51 does not have one distinct aesthetic because the movement is where the interest lies. You can find a model to match your style and make it yours, while knowing that you own a piece of history.
For more information, please visit www.swatch.com/en-us/sistem-51.html
You can read more articles by Raman Kalra at www.thewatchmuse.com.
Quick facts: Swatch Sistem51
Indications: hours, minutes, seconds, date
Dimensions: 42 mm diameter x 13.8 mm high
Case: bio-plastic or steel
Movement: automatic mechanical, 3 hz frequency
Strap: rubber or steel
Watcher resistance: 30 meters
Price: from $155