In Review

Swatch Sistem51 Hodinkee Vintage 84: a proper mechanical watch for less than £120

A collaboration between the Swiss brand and one of the world's most respected watch websites

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For years, Swatch watches have been regarded as affordable timepieces for people who are more interested in good design than complex mechanics. 

More recently though, the Swiss brand has taken steps to change that view by building complicated mechanical watches of its own that are every bit as impressive as some of its luxury peers.

The difference is that Swatch’s offering is made entirely by automated assembly, rather than by hand like many other brands. The result is the Sistem51 range of watches, which was first shown at Baselworld in 2013 and has been growing in popularity and stature ever since.

This month, Sistem51 took another step in the direction of horological credibility when Swatch partnered with the respected watch website Hodinkee to produce a limited-edition collaboration called the Vintage 84. The initial stock sold out within three days, and a waiting list has been building ever since.

How we got here    

It is hard to believe that there was ever a time when the Swiss did not dominate the watch industry, but in fact, it is the Germans who are generally regarded as having pioneered clocks small enough that they could be carried on one's person.

Indeed, in the early days of watchmaking in the 1800s, it was the English who came to be regarded as the masters of horology. Right up until the 1850s, Switzerland’s contribution to the world of watches was to church out products at vast scale, but without much in the way of quality.

All that began to change towards the end of the 19th century, as the country's watchmakers got serious about their craft, and by the 20th Century, Swiss brands such as Longines, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin were bywords for quality.

This new Swiss dominance lasted until the 1970s when the very existence of mechanical watches came under threat as battery-powered quartz watches emerged from Japan. More accurate and infinitely cheaper, quartz watches sent prices plummeting and very nearly delivered a near knockout blow to the Swiss watch industry as a whole.

To avert total calamity, mechanical watches were repositioned as luxury products and the Swiss industry managed, narrowly, to right itself. But part of its survival was also directly attributable to the emergence of the Swatch group.

Swatch initially took on Japan at its own game, producing affordable quartz watches of its own that featured myriad designs from the minimal to the wildly avant garde. In 2013, after years of growth, the brand changed tack, however, introducing the Sistem51 – so named because the movement is made from just 51 pieces – a bid to finally make proper mechanical watches affordable again.

The Hodinkee collaboration

The Swatch Sistem51 Hodinkee Vintage 84 isn't the first collaboration mounted by Hodinkee – the influential watch website has undertaken several joint projects with big brands before, including Zenith and Laurent Ferrier. But the Vintage 84 will be the site's most affordable partnership to date, coming in at around £112. 

On the wrist

At first glance, the Vintage 84 looks like a regular Swatch, but on closer inspection you realise it is significantly more sophisticated.

The case is thicker than many Swatches, so stands up more proudly on the wrist. The face also bears the distinctive pattern of dots carried by almost all Sistem51s, which represent the precise placement of the six jewels that underpin the movement below. The dial also has a brushed aluminium effect that shifts and shimmers in the light as the watch moves. The indices are rather like a dive watch, marked with lume powerful enough to keep the time visible throughout the night.

Turning the watch over, the rotor is a hypnotic pattern of blurred geometric black and white lines. The watch is, of course, automatic, meaning that it is powered by the movement of your body. You can also power it by winding the crown.

When Sistem51 was first released there was some scepticism that the machine-made movements would be very durable, but four years later those doubts have subsided. Early versions of the watch are still going strong with few long-term problems reported by wearers.

The watch also offers a 90-hour power reserve, meaning you can take it off, leave it in a drawer, and it will still be ticking nearly four days later.

Despite bearing a retro name and design, the watch nevertheless looks to the future. “We wanted to embrace the essence of Swatch,” the Hodinkee editors wrote after the watch was released, “and find a way to channel the brand’s game-changing past into a watch that felt forward-looking rather than nostalgic.”

The bottom line

The Vintage 84 is an awful lot of watch for £112. The handsome timepiece offers a genuine opportunity for the horologically curious to get their hands on their first credible mechanical watch, without breaking the bank. And given its scarcity, the watch is likely to hold its value, which means it could be sold to upgrade to the next step… if you can ever bring yourself to part with it.

The Swatch Sistem51 Hodinkee Vintage 84, £112, join the waiting list at shop.hodinkee.com 

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