The Swatch king is dead

June 29, 2010, 7 Comments

For many people, Switzerland means watches and Swiss watches mean Swatch (the name itself supposedly a contraction of ‘Swiss watch’). And if we’re talking Swatch, we’re really talking about one man, the man who died yesterday while working at Swatch HQ in Biel. Nicolas Hayek. You might think he was the most famous Swiss man around, given that he almost single-handedly saved Switzerland’s watch industry, not least by always wearing two watches on each wrist. But outside Switzerland, he wasn’t exactly a household name. And he wasn’t even Swiss by birth. In 1949 he arrived from Lebanon, via France, aged 21 and became Swiss 15 years later. But it was a little plastic watch that made him famous. And very rich.

Back in 1983 we sang along to Bille Jean, Karma Chameleon and Islands in the Stream (at least I did), we said goodbye to Karen Carpenter, David Niven and MASH, we watched Flashdance, Return of the Jedi and Educating Rita. And we said hello to Chicken McNuggets, Amy Winehouse and Swatch, all of which are still with us for better or worse. Swatch was an instant worldwide hit (Amy had to wait a while longer for hers) and saved the Swiss watch industry, at that time failing against an Asian-led quartz revolution. The secret of the Swatch success was to reduce the number of parts to just 51, half as many as a normal watch, so cutting costs, and prices. It helped that the looked slightly more modern and trendy than the average Swiss watch. Something for 18-year olds rather than 80. Just think, without Mr Hayek there would have been no Swatch, and Swiss watches would have remained luxury trinkets for the old and rich. Instead, we can all wear of piece of Swiss engineering on our wrists, while Swatch has gone on to become a company worth almost $5 billion and own brands such as Omega and Tissot.

Of course there’s more to the Swiss watch industry than Swatch. The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry lists official websites for 206 brands, many of which I suspect most Swiss people never heard of. For example, Juvenia, Glycine, and Vulcain have been around for decades but I’m betting none of you recognise them as watches; they sound more like face creams of sci-fi characters. The Swiss themselves love watches, or at least watch shops. Almost every town has one, though perhaps they’re only there for the tourists? The shops certainly cover the whole price range, from 40 to 40,000 francs, as if it were quite normal for a high-street shop to sell something that costs half a year’s salary. What makes it more bizarre is that, except for Zurich, Swiss cities aren’t big enough to have a posh shopping district. In Bern, the über-posh Gübelin shop is next-door to Tchibo.

My favourite watch shop in Switzerland is Christ, which is far more affordable than most, and far less intimidating to go into. Its prices are almost sane, with many under 1000 francs, so that you don’t feel like you have to flash a platinum card to get through the door. Prices aside, I like Christ purely for its name, which in German has a short i, as in mist. There are 13 Christs in the Bern phonebook, not including the four branches of the watch shop or Christ International Furniture Transporters (how apt) but what makes me smile is that the shop fascia has three words on it: Schmuck Christ Uhren. This merely means that the shop sells jewellery, Schmuck in German, and watches, or Uhren. To a Swiss eye, having schmuck and Christ together is normal but heaven knows what an American visitor from the Bible Belt thinks about having the Son of God next to a slang word for an idiot. To make things worse, according to my dictionary, schmuck is derived from shmok, a Yiddish insult meaning penis. So now he’s an ass and a prick. Of course, for a German speaker the two versions of schmuck are worlds apart thanks to a subtle vowel change. The American schmuck rhymes with ‘luck’, whereas the German Schmuck is closer to ‘look’. Tomayto, tomahto, you might think, but vowels are very important in German.

Enough of watches. Time to move on, though before you ask, I do own a Swiss watch. Two, actually, though I never wear them at the same time – and one is a Swatch. So thank you, Nicolas Hayek, for keeping me on time over the last 27 years.

7 Comments on "The Swatch king is dead"

  1. Janie Wednesday June 30th, 2010 at 01:37 AM · Reply

    Your right that store name would be something strange to American minds. I think it is funny. I am glad you explained it though. If ever I get to Switzerland I will be informed.
    Thank you,

  2. SwissGuy Wednesday June 30th, 2010 at 09:21 AM · Reply

    You forgot the most interesting tidbit about the Swatch/Hayek saga; Hayek was originally brought in by the big Swiss banks who owned the highly endebted company (being the main creditors) as a trouble shooter in order to lead a controlled bankruptcy proceeding. Nobody then thought the Swiss watch industry would survive the onslaught of the Japanese quarz revolution. Hayek had something else in mind. The rest is history.

  3. Lea Friday July 2nd, 2010 at 11:44 PM · Reply

    Hayek was fought against by the traditional swiss watch companies. both publicly and in court. the bankrupcy court was ready to sell the company he edned up buying out to a japanese conglomerate. Hayek, as other visionaries of Switzerland such as Alfred Escher and Gottlieb Duttweiler were always outcast by the then established circles. Since their times, the political landscape has changed considerably – to the disadvantage of visionaries.

    it is visionaries such as him this country needs now more than ever.

    as to price range: 40’000 is mid-range for swiss watches…. look at some IWC and Audemars Piaget products. 250’000 and up. hand made. IWC gives a life-time warranty.

    The chain called Christ… I thought that was a German company, founded 1863 in Frankfurt am Main

    as such, it is utter heresy for swiss people to buy there. but that is just a little Kantoenligeist towards the big Kanton. 🙂

    Swatch somewhat has disappeared from the malls in north America. you can find the occasional concession both type store in Century City and places around Manhattan. But that is about it. Forget the fly-over zone (midwest) and the affluent new south (FLA, AZ).

    one of the best values for the money, longines gives you puzzled looks from the store clerk.
    when do swiss companies ever learn marketing and pr? excellent products at sometimes really competitive prices but marketing? naaaah. then they wonder nobody buys.

    • swisswatching Saturday July 3rd, 2010 at 07:07 AM · Reply

      Christ was indeed German – and I mean the founder of the watch shop not the son of God. But being new to these parts, Switzerland was the first place I came across the shops; now of course I’ve seen them all over Germany too. No wonder it’s only tourists who shop there in Switzerland 🙂

  4. El Presidente Monday August 30th, 2010 at 06:41 PM · Reply

    Another brilliant blog… “schmuck” ain’t that a great word in any language?

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