The first time that I was introduced to a Swatch Sistem51 was in a marketing email from Hodinkee announcing their collaboration with Swatch. The Swatch Sistem51 cost $150, which piqued my interest immediately. It was only a fraction of the cost of anything else that Hodinkee offered (besides a magazine). The typical watch-addict ad reaction of “ADD TO BAG” didn’t happen. I had more questions about the Sistem51 than I had answers.
The three questions that I couldn’t wrap my head around:
- Why would a high-horology enthusiast website / retailer be interested in a collaboration with a $150 watch?
- Why would the flagship namesake of an enormous watch conglomerate want to partner with a niche enthusiast website?
- Why don’t we see the $150 Sistem51 more often in our #twobrokewatchsnobs horological bubble?
I had to look closer at where the Sistem51 came from as well as physically get my hands on one to get the answers.
The Swatch watch brand was one of many Swiss ideas attempting to reclaim lost market share from Asian watch companies during the quartz crisis. These less expensive Swiss quartz watches began hitting the shelves in 1983.
With a simple case design and colorful designs, Swatches could easily be recognized from their conservative competition. Aggressive marketing campaigns aided in brand recognition. Swatch soon became an icon for new Swiss watchmaking.
The inexpensive Swatch watch enjoyed decades of success developing a cult following in its wake. It’s success would not last forever. The Swiss watch industry would soon face another crisis: smart watches.
The now juggernaut Swatch Group was ready to respond with the Swatch Sistem51. Released at the Baselworld 2013 watch fair, the mechanical Swatch Sistem51 was the anti-smart watch.
Can Swatch walk the thin line between fashion and function for an MSRP of $150? We are about to find out.
This is where it starts to get weird. The 42mm case is all plastic for the majority of models. There are a few stainless steel models as well. The cases are sealed together with a very strong adhesive… permanently. There is no case back to open, only a large exhibition window on the back. With a sealed case back, servicing is not an option. It malfunctions – you throw it away.
The crown is only 5.4mm wide. Proportionately, the crown is much too small for the case size. It also feels fragile moving between positions. I was afraid that it would snap it right off of the stem with one wrong move. This did not help build my confidence in the watch. The crown comes out from the locked position too easily. I wouldn’t swim in it.
The case is on the larger size. One of the first things that you notice is how high the watch sits on the wrist. The case is 13.6mm high. Not overwhelming, but I found it annoying to have it under a shirt cuff. This is partially because of the lug shape and width. The flat lugs are very square to the bottom of the case. The combination of the shape and a lug to lug width of 50mm means they don’t hug my 6.75” wrist at all. It sits like a coffee table – not a watch.
I compared the profile of the Sistem51 to the Tudor Black Bay to emphasize the height and length of the case. The Black Bay feels 10 times heavier in-hand and on the wrist. If you are used to a steel mechanical watch, the Sistem51 is so light that you’ll to forget that it is there.
The case finishing is about as good as one could expect for a $150 plastic watch. I was expecting seams from the molding process. However, the plastic was smooth and had a uniform texture.
The diversity of the all the different dials can be overwhelming. They all do share two features, the Swatch logo and 6 red dots representing movement components. I chose the “Incognito” (SUTT400), “Cream” (SUTM400), and “Grid” (SUTN401) versions to use in this article for variety.
That is where the similarities end. There are endless combinations of hands and dials. The date window is present on most models. To mix it up Swatch moves the date window from the six to three o’clock positions depending on the dial design. There are some no-date models as well.
If you can’t find a dial / hands / date combo that you like; keep looking. It’s out there.
The dial is large and easy to read with the exception of the busier designs. Don’t worry about the needs to choose a model with lumed hands. The lume takes a solar eclipse to charge and fades quickly (Editor’s Note: I believe the technical term is “Dying-Pixie-Lume”).
All of the straps have the same dimensions. They start at 24mm and taper quickly to 20mm. The straps are silicone, rubber, leather, or stainless steel. I found the silicone straps extremely comfortable. I didn’t spend enough time with the leather to properly break it in. I’m not even sure if it would break in properly. The stiff plastic felt similar to the classic Swatch watches.
Silicone is a great choice for casual wear. It was the most comfortable as well.
The plastic double-framed tang buckle holds the tail snuggly and sends it on the correct path towards the loop. The buckle was the best part of the strap. I wish that more brands would use a double-frame on their buckles.
One thing that I didn’t like was their signature quadruple lugs. This means that the watch can only be used with other Swatch straps. The drilled lugs are pointless because you won’t be dipping into you strap collection with the Sistem51.
On paper the movement is an engineering marvel. The Sistem51 gets its name because the entire movement only has 51 pieces. It is held together by a single screw in the middle. The movement assembly is completely automated. It is done on a 65-foot-long production line housed in a clean room.
Inside the movement display window, it’s easy to get lost in the fully circular rotor. As the noisy rotor winds the watch, carefully designed patterns rotate. The noise is slightly dampened once on the wrist.
It’s fun to wind the watch as the rotor spins. Aesthetically, it’s the best part of the watch. Swatch agrees, and designed packaging to display the movement.
The power reserve is rated at a staggering 90 hours with a claimed -5/+5 seconds per day for accuracy. Unfortunately, none of the three watches that I tested came close to 90 hours after being fully wound. They all stopped around 50-60 hours. The accuracy varied by watch. The best one was -2/+4 and the worst one was -7/+0. Even though the watches performed below spec, a 50 hour power reserve and -7 accuracy and actual power reserve is still very good for a watch at this price point.
The answers to my three questions:
- Hodinkee needed an opportunity to attract new customers at a lower price point without devaluing their current position. Hodinkee understands the grey market very well. They knew that they would sell out quickly, fetch a premium on eBay, and create a buzz in the process.
- Swatch needed a respected partner within the horological community to help legitimize a struggling product.
- We don’t we see the Sistem51 more often in our #twobrokewatchsnobs bubble because they aren’t popular among enthusiasts.
How do you classify the Sistem51? If I wasn’t a watch person, I would assume that this watch would compete with a plastic Lacoste fashion watches – like the ones that you’d find at Macy’s. You know what I’m talking in about: brightly colored phantom dials where it’s always “alligator-o’clock.” That’s not how Swatch intended to position these, but that’s how they are perceived.
Another problem with the Swatch Sistem51 is that I can’t figure out what I would do with one. I wouldn’t give it any wrist time because I’d always pick something else to wear over. I would never consider the Sistem51 for a #watchfast in hopes of getting more attached to it.
I wouldn’t recommend the Sistem51 to anyone that wanted to spend $150 on a watch. There are too many better options out there. *Cough, cough… Seiko.
The limited edition Hodinkee Sistem51s sold out quickly. But that is only because they are the most inexpensive watches ever offered on that website. That ship has sailed. The flippers easily doubled-up and moved on. I can’t even make a few bucks off of it. So much for my latest get rich quick scheme.
The price point is right in the sweet spot for a gift. But, I wouldn’t gift one either. All the different designs are too vast and polarizing. How would you pick the right one? There’s a good chance that this watch would end up in the recipient’s bedside table drawer, never to see the light of day again.
So now what do I do with these three Sistem51’s? The answer is easy. I’ve already printed a return label and will be sending them all back.
Sorry Swatch – I may be broke, but I’m still a snob. This is a mall watch disguised as horology.
Please contact me on Instagram (watch_gb) for any additional questions or comments on the Sistem51.
Greg is a long-time watch lover based in upstate New York. Greg is a supply chain professional by day and private watch consultant by night. Greg brings his own style to the TBWS website as a contributor by blending bits of humor into technical assessments. You can follow his cycling and snowboarding adventures on Instagram as he pursues the perfect 3-watch collection.