by Walt Odets


The Swatch Automatic reminded me almost
immediately of an episode from the Columbo television series
of the early 1970’s, and of a scene that only a watch idiot
savant would remember. Peter Falk, playing the habitually disheveled,
cigar-smoking police Lieutenant Colombo, went to interview a
murder suspect at the Van Cleef & Arpels shop in Beverly
Hills. Waiting for his suspect and examining some diamond tiaras
in a showcase, Columbo is approached by a haughty saleswoman
uncomfortable with his appearance.

“May I help you, sir?” she asked.

“No, I’m waiting for Mr. Miller .
. . But come to think of it, do you sell watch straps? I’ve got
a watch here that I’ve been carrying around for weeks.”
Pulling a watch from his rumpled coat and handing it to the saleswoman,
he continued, “It’s a good watch – waterproof and shockproof
and all that.”

“They begin at $25,” she said
as Columbo handed her the watch. “Hmm . . . seven jewels.”

“Twenty-five dollars?”, asked
Columbo. “No, I don’t want to replace the whole thing, just
the strap.”

“Yes sir, that’s beginning at
$25 for the strap.”

Columbo declined.

Had Columbo
waited 25 years, he might have had an entire 23-jewel, Swiss
automatic for about $25.00 (in early 1970’s dollars). I
did exactly that at San Francisco Macy’s a few months ago
while buying three pairs of new khakis, only one of which would
have almost paid for the watch. If the crocodile strap supplied
with the $85 Swatch were real, it alone would probably have cost
me at least two of the khakis.

Despite the bargain, I had trouble with
the croc strap on the Swatch. I went for a free option: a perforated,
clear plastic strap with a semi-translucent, swimming-pool blue
plastic buckle in place of the black croc. It’s as elegant, in
its own casual way, as a real black croc strap. And it feels
like it belongs on a watch that I can see the hair on my arm
through. The whole effect is, in fact, very hairy. There’s hair
in the balance wheel, hair in the escape lever, and lots of hair
coming out of the holes in the strap. It’s very casual in a special
sort of way. And I like the watch. Eighty-five dollars
is extraordinarily cheap these
days for anything that actually works, much less an automatic
from Switzerland, if not from Geneva itself. If you doubt that
this watch is a bargain, consider this: one usually has to pay
thousands for the hairy effect in the form of elaborately chased
skeletons from, at the very least, IWC. You couldn’t get a steel
buckle from IWC for $85.00, much less the gold buckle that goes
with the $19,995 skeleton. Let’s not even talk Audemars or Patek.


The case is – well, plastic, and you can
see through it in any direction you look. It is also a fashionably
over-sized 37mm, two piece case, with a snap-on back and rounded
bezel integral with the crystal and band (side of the
case). Parts count clearly matters when you’re trying to retail
an $85.00 watch, and I imagine that the engineer who came up
with the integrated crystal got an extra beer for lunch. The
minute track and Arabics are screened on the inside the of the
crystal, with an additional seconds track screened on a brushed
metal ring just inside the bezel. The case band in reinforced
with a 1.5 mm metal ring, as is the case back flange. Water resistance
is provided by a plastic to metal seal, with no O-ring, but with
an extremely high-pressure fit. Installation of the back required
very high pressure in a case vice, a bit unnerving with a plastic watch. (There was no
cracking.) The movement is held in the case by a bayonet (clear) plastic


The automatic
movement is the surprise in the Swatch, if only because it actually
works. An ETA 21,600 beat per hour caliber 2842, it sports
23 jewels, characteristic ETA-Eterna double click-wheel bidirectional
winding (described more fully below), and a rather light base
metal rotor. Peculiarly, the words water resistant are
stamped on the movement (rather than on the case, which is the
water resistant component). The finish of the movement, of course,
is absolutely basic. With the exception of the wheels, pinions,
arbors, and jewels, there is not
even a hint of polishing on even the most critical parts such
as the balance or escape lever.
All parts are in the most basic,
functional form. The hairspring regulator (shown left)
is one of many examples. As illustrated at right with the automatic winding
rotor removed, the major components of the movement are: the mainspring
barrel (1); transmission
(between crown and ratchet wheel on the barrel)
(2); twin click wheels for bidirectional automatic
winding (3);
and the balance (4). The 23 jewel movement uses
17 jewels in the basic movement, with another six for the automatic
winding system (5). With a top and bottom jewel each,
these are (right to left) the two click wheels and the first
(of two) reduction wheels between the click wheels and
mainspring barrel. The second reduction wheel bearing
(6) is simply a hole in the bridge (and a bottom bearing
hole in the plate). This wheel, of course, turns more slowly
than the first reduction wheel because of reduction by the first
wheel. The second reduction wheel, itself, can be seen at (7).


the construction and finish of this movement, its performance
is nearly a miracle. Unadjusted for positions, the movement is
never-the-less within 19 seconds a day from its fastest position
(dial down) to its slowest (crown left). Beat error is 0.4 milliseconds
or less (0.6 is usually considered an upper limit for fine
movements). Dial-up amplitude (260 degrees) is at the lower limit
of what would be expected in a freshly- serviced movement (270
to 315 degrees, dial up). In disassembling the movement for photography,
there appeared to be very little lubrication. Rate and beat adjustments
appear to have been done at the factory in the dial-up position
(by a non-human timer I would think, given the cost of the watch).

The actual trace (and rough, hollow sound) of the movement on the
timing machining reveal something about its construction not
revealed by the figures alone. As can be seen on the tape (at
right), the trace shows many minute variations in rate
(instability) in the jaggedness of the line.
The general upward slant of the line reflects the rate of plus 7 seconds
(when the line runs off-scale, it resumes at the bottom, as seen
in the right hand segment); the distance between the two line
pairs (not segments) shows the 0.2 millisecond beat error
(each line of the pair represents one of the pallets).
On extended measurement, the movement actually averaged a
beat error of zero and showed a maximum error of 0.3. A 0.3 millisecond
variation in beat (in one position) would not be seen in a good
movement and suggests irregularity in the balance swings due
to manufacturing tolerances in the escapement (escape wheel,
pallets, lever, or balance).

For comparison, the trace on a relatively
new IWC Ingeneiur (retailing for 65 times the price of
the Swatch) is shown. The fully (vertically)
line (+1 second/day) is very smooth (constant rate) and shows
only short bursts of a 0.1 millisecond beat error, though there
was essentially no beat error on average. This is a nearly flawless
trace. On an automatic winder (a Cyclomatic with a 45 degree
inclination), this watch shows almost uncanny accuracy, accumulating
no visible error over a month. In use, the watch shows a gain
of one or two seconds per day. Clearly the Swatch would not be
able to approach such performance because of the lack of positional
adjustment and irregularity of running. The comparison of these
two watches suggests that money can buy perfection, but on a
very steep curve of diminishing returns.


ETA rotor and gearBecause the automatic winding system of the
Swatch automatic is characteristic of all ETA automatics, and
because it has been widely imitated (with slight variations to
circumvent patent rights), it is worth describing in more detail.
The winding rotor, in this case a base metal piece, carries a
drive gear that directly engages the two click wheels.
As illustrated at right, the rotor mount uses ball bearings,
a now common practice, but a design first developed by Eterna
and adopted by ETA. The two click wheels (illustrated
left) are responsible for the bidirectional winding,
transforming either direction
of rotor movement into counter-clockwise winding of the mainspring.
Each click wheel is comprised of a pair of wheels, one on top
of the other. Each pair is connected by a unidirectional click
that lies between the two wheels. These directional clicks
are the heart of the bidirectional winding. Both top wheels rotate
continuously with the rotor drive. Because of the unidirectional
click between each pair of stacked wheels, the lower wheel will
rotate only if the upper wheel is moving counterclockwise (for
the right click as illustrated left) or clockwise (for the left
click). The two lower wheels are always engaged with each other
and it is the lower wheel of the left hand click wheel
(as illustrated above left) that engages the first of the
two reduction wheels that eventually leads to the mainspring

Winding gear trainWith reference to the illustration of the
top plate at right, (5) indicates the click wheels;
(7) the first reduction wheel; (6) the second
reduction wheel; (3) the mainspring barrel ratchet
; (4) the mainspring barrel; (2)
the transmission wheel that transfers power to the barrel
during hand winding (from the crown gear on the winding
stem); (1) the stem; and (8) the sprung
button that releases the winding stem push piece to remove the
stem from the movement. With corresponding numbers, the parts
still attached to the automatic winding bridge (inverted) may be
seen in the illustration at left. The three lower jeweled
pivots on the click wheels and first reduction wheel are visible
Automatic winding bridgeNote that there is no disengagement of the automatic winding
during hand winding in this movement and that all automatic parts
rotate during rotation of the crown, all the way back to the
two click wheels. Additionally, on this movement the ratchet
(to prevent unwinding of the mainspring) is actually provided
on the transmission wheel rather than on the “ratchet”
wheel of the barrel (visible to the left of the transmission
wheel {2} in the illustration above right).

I have prepared a pair of schematic drawings
that clearly illustrate the two paths that automatic winding
takes with clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation of the rotor.
Please click here to
view these schematics and an explanation of the operation.


The Swatch automatic is not a wonderful
piece of craftsmanship, but it is certainly a wonderful piece
of engineering. That a functional automatic, mechanical wrist
watch can be produced for (an estimated) $22.00 is a product
of very sophisticated manufacturing technology. I can’t imagine
not including it in any collection of mechanical wristwatches.
If it doesn’t feel fancy enough, you can always dress it up with
a gold buckle. But the buckle is going to cost a lot more than
the watch – unless, of course, you’re happy with a virtual
buckle. Come to think of it, the whole Swatch with its machine-made
movement, transparent case, one-piece bezel and crystal, and
swimming-pool strap feels a lot like a virtual watch.
I guess that’s what I like about it. Like virtual cats and dogs,
it’s easy to live with. In fact, it’s virtually irresistible.

Swatch with gold buckle