Swatch Takes on Apple Watch, Smartwatch Industry With ‘Affordable’ Sistem51 Automatic Timepiece

( [email protected] ) Aug 03, 2015 09:55 PM EDT

In an effort to stay competitive in a field challenged by Apple Watch and other smartwatches and digital wearables, Swiss watchmaking giant Swatch has responded by making new models of its Sistem51 automatic watch. The development could set off a "quiet revolution" within Switzerland's watch industry.

According to Jay Deshpande of Slate, legendary Apple designer Jony Ive contended with colorful language that the Apple Watch would make Switzerland's watch industry go out of business. However, Deshpande noted that Swatch, which is best known for making affordable quartz watches, could set off a "quiet revolution" that could help traditional watchmakers compete in the digital era.

"The Sistem51 is mechanical: Rather than using a battery, as in a quartz watch, it stores energy by using the motion of your wrist to wind it," Deshpande wrote. "Unlike any other Swiss mechanical, the Sistem51 is built entirely on a 65-foot-long automated assembly line, without any human intervention."

Robin Swithinbank of the Financial Times elaborated on the company's manufacturing capacity behind the Sistem51 watch. The move by Swatch could increase production to 2 million units a year.

"The plant will mirror the existing Boncourt factory, a 17,500 sq ft eco-facility with 15,000 sq ft of manufacturing space," Swithinbank wrote. "A percentage of the floor space is given over to other watchmaking activities run by ETA, the Swatch Group-owned specialist movement manufacturing division that helped Swatch develop Sistem51's innovative calibre."

Based on the current factory layout, Swithinbank reported that 400 machines, which are in operation 24 hours a day for five or six days, produce 4,000 watches a day.

"Swatch says that the theoretical time it takes to manufacture, assemble and decorate a single movement is 28.5 seconds, a counter-cultural admission in an industry that places great value on the time involved in creating its product," Swithinbank wrote.

Deshpande pointed out that compared to other 100 percent Swiss made watches, the Sistem51 only costs $150.

"A decent Swiss mechanical with a reliable timekeeping mechanism inside it starts north of $500 (usually closer to $1,000), and prices quickly rise from there," Deshpande wrote. "An automatic TAG Heuer will run you over $2,000, a Rolex starts at about $5,000, and the high luxury watches-the likes of Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, or Vacheron Constantin-run up into five and six digits."

According to Deshpande, Swatch described its latest mechanical watch as "a provocation" to the industry at large. He noted that the company added eight new models to the original four designs.

"The company seems to want this watch to reach well beyond the normal Swatch buyers," Deshpande wrote. "It intends to make the Sistem51 not just a statement, but a staple."

In a blog post published by WatchTime, Brice Goulard explained how the Sistem51's automatic movement worked. He pointed out that it took about two years to create "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 five modules and linked to one another by only one central screw," Goulard wrote. "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."

Deshpande compared the Sistem51 to other mechanical watches. He found that Swatch's automatic had 51 components, while the typical mechanical watch had more than 100 parts.

"It's manufactured using clean-room conditions, so nothing can disturb its inner workings (known as the 'movement')," Deshpande wrote. "While a normal mechanical watch requires a complicated process of fine adjustment by hand to make sure its timekeeping element (called the 'escapement') oscillates evenly, that's all automated on the Sistem51: a laser regulates the escapement just once and then the watch gets closed up. It's then hermetically sealed."

Swatch's Sistem51

Even though the Sistem51 cannot be opened up for after-sales repairs, Swatch told Deshpande that it is expected to have a lifespan of "several years" thanks to the innovative movement construction.

"The Sistem51 uses a sectional design, with five modules that contain the main working parts of the movement all held together by a single screw," Deshpande wrote. "The one-screw structure means less friction between moving parts and less lubrication-two things that significantly affect the lifespan of a mechanical watch."

Deshpande also found that the Sistem51 can run for 90 hours on a single winding; most mechanical watches have a power reserve lasting 40 hours. Goulard looked at what made the watch's power reserve "an impressive achievement."

"A bidirectional transparent rotor (which will never hide the view of the technical elements, as the counterweight is located around the rotor) winds the single barrel. Once again, such a detail is usually only found in fine, expensive watches," Goulard wrote. "Last but not least, Swatch states it has an accuracy of +/- 7 seconds per a day, a rate that is actually very close to COSC chronometer requirements (-4/+6 seconds per a day)."

Deshpande argued that the Sistem51 could be "transformative" to the watch industry now. He cited that Swatch helped save Switzerland's watch industry back in the 1980s, during a time when quartz wristwatches from Japanese watch companies like Seiko disrupted mechanical technology.

"The success of Swatch showed that the Swiss could do something new and get everyone talking," Deshpande wrote. "Swatch also brought a broad new range of consumers into the fold, educating them about the 'Swiss Made' label-which requires that a specific portion of a watch's production be carried out in Switzerland-and providing an entry point into the market."

Based on that sentiment, Deshpande contended that the Sistem51 "is the kind of innovation that combines the allure of the new with comforting echoes of the past."

"Like the originals, this Swatch arrives at a moment when the Swiss industry is under assault by new technology and foreign competition," Deshpande wrote.

Although he did not consider it "haute horlogerie," Goulard thought the Sistem51 "may herald the future of mainstream watches."

"It is an astonishing industrial achievement, the first mechanical watch built without any human hands," Goulard wrote. "Moreover, it ushers in more innovations, technology and content than any other inexpensive mechanical watch. It is clearly the new trend-setter for the entire watchmaking industry."

The Sistem51 is available online and in Swatch stores across the United States.

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