Swatch's genius was to mass-produce wristwatches that ticked and, until you turned them over, looked as if they ran by clockwork. It was a clever conceit; a plastic electronic watch that nodded in the direction of traditional wristwatches with their winders and wheels.
The latest masterstroke has been to take this concept one giant leap farther backwards into an era of mechanical simplicity, back to the escape spring and flywheel, but without forsaking plastic straps and cases. The clockwork Swatch is a small masterpiece of what you might call Retrotech, an engineering-led approach to design that is making waves beyond the world of wristwatches. Retrotech and its counterpart, Ultratech, are dividing the market for goods as diverse as watches, toys, hi-fi systems and cars into elite and mass segments respectively.
The original Swatch watch was the beginning of a reaction to Ultratech - the brazen display of leading-edge electronic wizardry. It was a cleverly engineered and marketed response to what had appeared to be an unstoppable wave of cheap Japanese electronic watches sweeping through high street jewellers and petrol stations in the Seventies. Such watches featured hard-to-read digital displays and a plethora of all-but-redundant gadgets. The matt-black digital watch might tell you the time in Tokyo and bleep loudly in cinemas and theatres, but it was brutally ugly. By the mid-Eighties, these low-grade, hi-tech timepieces were so cheap to make that they were given away free in packets of breakfast cereal.
Swatch did the seemingly impossible and turned back the tide of Japanese technocracy by marrying an analogue-face (a clockface with hands that go round and round) with low-cost electronics. In so doing it came up with the most fashionable watch of all time for sale at less than pounds 20.
Purists, however, have never been too sure of the Swatch. In design terms it is a compromise; even, as Calvinists might say, a lie. It lies when it pretends to be clockwork. Even a transparent model (already a collector's item), all too ready to reveal its electronic guts, is a compromise. Enter Swatch's Retrotech, a plastic-cased, self-winding clockwork watch, free from electronic deceit. It sells for about pounds 35 and is a delightful piece of precision Swiss engineering aimed at those for whom a clockwork watch will always be superior to its digital counterpart.
The two approaches to design are equally evident in other consumer goods. A walk down any major high street reveals shop windows piled high with cheap Ultratech goodies. Here are amplifiers for pounds 30 that look as if they might control a mission to the moon, and clocks for little more than a tenner that double up as radios and look as if they have been culled from the flight deck of an RAF Tornado.
Here is an 'electronic toaster' promising myriad ways of delivering computer-grilled bread. Here is a noisy 'computerised' toy police car that makes more noises than any tolerably sane adult can endure. Clock, toaster and toy, with their 'state-of-the-art' electronics, are all destined for the dustbin and design ignominy. And yet, although these objects are as nasty as they are disposable, each one is the remarkable by-product of immensely sophisticated research.
The top end of the market only ever flirted with flashy electronic goods. The digital watch was, in design terms (and Andy Warhol's phrase), famous for 15 minutes. What design-conscious consumers wanted was Retrotech: clockwork watches of our own age, amplifiers that did their job without flashing and toasters that toasted without the aid of a HAL 9000 computer.
This was partly an exercise in discretion, partly in sophistication and more than a little in nostalgia. What - in the world of man-made objects - is more satisfying (not necessarily easier) to use than a clockwork watch or a mechanical camera? Yet is this really no more than a glimpse over the shoulder back to an age of steam locomotives, turbo-prop planes and Movietone news? Yes, if what we want is simply a reproduction of what went before, a refusal to acknowledge the benefits of new technology. No, if you like the idea of household gadgets and everyday objects that combine the aesthetic and mechanical virtues of the past with the sophistication of contemporary technology.
The clockwork Swatch is a good example of considered Retrotech. It has all the virtues of a Swiss clockwork mechanism, yet this is housed in the kind of plastic shell reserved, until recently, for its Ultratech rivals. A lovingly hand-crafted Swiss watch might ultimately be a more compelling proposition, but it costs the earth. What Swatch has done with its pounds 35 clockwork watch is to deliver sophisticated Retrotech to a mass market. The bad news is that it is unlikely to find its way out of a cereal packet and into your breakfast bowl.
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