It was just like old times last weekend, when thousands of people lined up around the world to buy a MoonSwatch. Not since the 1980s and 1990s has the launch of a new Swatch watch created such buzz.
The £207 timepiece they all wanted was Swatch’s tribute to the Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional, as worn by American astronauts including Buzz Aldrin when he walked on the moon in 1969. The MoonSwatch, which comes in 11 colours, is a playful pastiche of a clockwork icon that retails for £4,200 or more.
You need luck to secure a MoonSwatch. The Swatch Group, which owns Swatch and Omega, wants to sell as many as possible and has not made it a limited edition. But it managed the first drops at 110 Swatch stores so tightly that it caused a sensation in London and New York, while police were called to control the crowd in Melbourne.
One-off collaborations between luxury and mass brands are two a penny. Since Isaac Mizrahi’s fashion collection for Target in 2003 and Karl Lagerfeld’s for Hennes & Mauritz in 2004, the playbook has become familiar. This year’s crop includes Yeezy Gap engineered by Balenciaga, Adidas x Prada Re-Nylon and Supreme x Burberry: brands now look lonely by themselves.
The obvious way to view the MoonSwatch, and one that Omega has gently encouraged, is that it has done Swatch a favour by co-operating with the stunt. Luxury watchmakers are better known for trying to eliminate knock-offs than for encouraging imitations, but Swatch could do with a new friend.
“Sad to say, Swatch is an ageing brand that has lost traction among young people,” says Oliver Müller, founder of the Swiss advisory firm LuxeConsult. Swatch used to have a magical ability to conjure attraction to its limited edition plastic watches. The first Swatches were released in Zurich in 1983 and queues outside boutiques were soon common.
Swatches were affordable enough to collect and to match various designs with different outfits. Its collaborations with artists such as Keith Haring and Alfred Hofkunst turned into collectibles: one of a limited edition of 121 Kiki Picasso Swatches sold for $28,000 at Christie’s in 1992.
Swatch also had a deeper purpose. Nicholas Hayek, Swatch’s co-founder, rescued the Swiss industry from the “quartz crisis” of the 1970s, when Japanese quartz watches overtook cheap mechanical devices. The Swatch Group not only turned Swatch into its fashion alternative, but consolidated manufacturing of smaller brands that were facing extinction.
Fashion and technologies change, and today’s threat to Swiss watches that sell for $500 or less is the smartwatch, particularly Apple Watch. If you can change the face of an Apple Watch by swiping, swap the wristband to a different colour and track any exercise digitally, who needs quartz?
Swatch still sells about 3mn watches a year, but they are so cheap that the brand means less to the Swiss company that bears its name. Swatch contributed only 3.5 per cent of Swatch Group’s revenues last year, according to Morgan Stanley, with most coming from its Omega, Longines and Tissot brands. It really ought to be called the Omega Group.
This is the story of Swiss watches since the quartz crisis. Swatch did its job so well that it financed the industry’s move to making luxury mechanical watches: Omega sold an estimated 570,000 watches last year, but its turnover was more than 10 times that of the Swatch brand. The Swiss export half the number of watches they did two decades ago, while earning more.
But Omega has its own problem, which is where the MoonSwatch comes in. The ultimate status symbol for a modern luxury brand is being unobtainable because there are not enough to meet demand. The most salient recent development in Swiss watches is the Rolex shortage: the fact that it has become extremely hard to walk into a Rolex shop and buy one.
Omega and Rolex are old rivals with historic portfolios, from Omega’s Speedmaster and Seamaster to Rolex’s Oyster Perpetuals and Submariners. The awkward fact is that Omegas are now much easier to obtain than Rolexes, although Rolex sells an estimated 1m watches a year, at an average retail price of about $12,500. The MoonSwatch may be sold out but the Moonwatch is not.
Rolex insists that it has not tried to engineer scarcity: it is working as hard as it can to hand make more. But there is nothing like an edition that really is limited to whet the appetite. Omega could achieve the same by reducing production, but what it really needs is to attract a new generation of luxury consumers to its boomer heritage.
What could be better than thousands of people who might aspire to Rolex instead walking around with colourful imitations of Moonwatches on their wrists? Swatch Group is more heavily invested in increasing demand for Omegas than for Swatches and this guerrilla marketing campaign pays for itself.
So, the MoonSwatch has something for everyone. Swatch relives its playful and collectible past; Omega gains a line around the block.