One of the biggest announcements of Baselworld 2013 came from an unlikely entity: Swatch. The plastic watch-fueled behemoth debuted the Sistem51, a $150 watch made in Switzerland with a 51-component movement made entirely by machines, mostly out of plastic. It was an instant hit with high-end collectors and new watch lovers alike. And now it’s available in steel.
The core of the Sistem51 is the movement. It’s comprised of just 51 parts, grouped in five modules, all anchored by a single central screw. It’s truly Swiss-made and everything is shaped, finished, assembled, and regulated entirely by machines. This is the first automatic caliber in the history of timekeeping that isn’t touched by a single human hand during creation. It’s sealed in the watch and can’t be serviced, so long term it’s essentially disposable.
Not to brag, but we were the very first publication in the world to gohands-on with the Sistem51, getting a prototype off a Swatch executive’s wrist at Baselworld 2013. Ok, totally bragging. But it’s a little hard to overstate just how exciting it was back then to see a giant company like Swatch invest seriously in mechanical watchmaking and the proposition that mechanical watches could be a mass-market business. The watches themselves are fun (I own one and still wear it regularly), but it was what the Sistem51 said about the state and future of the watch industry that really mattered.
Since then, Swatch has introduced new seasonal colors, expanding on the original four watch collection. Because the dials and movements both feature printable surfaces, Swatch can easily create new designs. Other than cosmetic changes though, a Sistem51 you’d buy today is exactly the same watch as what I first strapped on three and a half years ago. Today’s announcement of the Sistem51 Irony collection is the line’s first serious update.
The most important change is the case material: instead of the molded, sometimes translucent plastic, the Irony watches have stainless steel cases. The original Sistem51s were clearly novelty or weekend watches, while these new additions are a clear play at getting customers to consider these as everyday, office-appropriate options.
Other than the steel cases (including one two-tone option with some rose gold–colored accents), there are also a bunch of new dial options that more closely resemble traditional watch designs. Most of them are pretty handsome too, save the strange Illuminati-looking number with criss-crossing lines and an excess of numerals. In particular, the two-tone silver dial and the traditional pilot’s dial caught my eye immediately. If you’re a vintage lover looking for a new beater, these might do the trick.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the idea of a steel Sistem51. Sure, there are times you don’t want a plastic ticker strapped to your wrist, but there was something about the simple, no-frills construction that grounded the Sistem51 for me. It’s also a bummer that the Sistem51 Irony watches all use Swatch’s proprietary lug system (four lugs on the watch, three tangs on the strap), meaning you can’t use any third-party straps. Considering the leather options on these watches don’t look great, that could be a deal-breaker. Sure, there’s the steel bracelet, but that’s pretty limiting.
My instinct is that part of the Sistem51’s charm will be a little lost when dressed up in a metal case, but I’ll hold the final verdict until I can see one in the metal (it does feel nice not to say “in the plastic” here). At the very least, I’m excited to see Swatch growing and evolving the Sistem51 platform and I’m looking forward to seeing more iterations over the years. We’ll have more for you on this soon.
The Sistem51 Irony collection will go on sale in the United States on September 9, with prices ranging from $195 for the watches on straps to $235 for the two-tone model with a bracelet. For more information, visit Swatch online.