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Nov 052014

Thoughts on my Swatch Sistem 51, manufacturing processes of my favorite things, and the future.

“As if sprung fully formed from Zeus’s head”. That’s what I thought when I first saw the watch and shoes in the photo below.


I’ve always had a weakness for shoes, but I’ve curbed that fetish for a while. Addiction to shopping, no matter how reasonably priced the item, is fragilizing. I developed a thing for watches over the past two years, but I vowed to stop hoarding them too. This watch is one of the last pieces I bought, for the same reason I bought the shoes. Can you see what made me break my “no shopping for unnecessary clothing” rule?

No, not the fact that they’re both reddish-hued. To borrow one of Apple’s neologisms, it’s because of their “unibody” constructions. This watch is a solar watch, no need to open it to insert a battery. Flipping the case over, you’ll see it’s sealed, there are no screws or backplate. It’s like a round disc carved from a single piece of plastic. Near seamless, with only a thin line demarcating the top from the bottom of the case.

I love boat shoes. I have three others- both leather and canvas. Traditionally manufactured boat shoes have a lot of pieced together parts, laces, flap, tassels. If not designed well, the shoe ends up looking too “busy”.

What drew me to this pair is its clean one-piece look. The shoe upper is made of a single piece of injection molded PVC. I’m most charmed by the plastic-molded simulated lace-threading-through-eyelets detail. There’s something futuristic and otherworldly about them, like they were created in a vacuum bubble by a magical 3D printer.


Last year, at Baselworld 2013, Swatch announced a revolutionary automatic watch. (It was mass-released this 2014.)It will have:

1. Only 51 parts in a hermetically sealed case. (most watches, especially automatic ones, are composed of much more than 51 little components).

That’s what drew me to the Sistem 51, like the sealed solar watch and PVC shoes I mentioned above. I like the way they seem born fully formed, not assembled by bits and pieces like patchwork.


2. A 90 hour power reserve (Unlike quartz timepieces, automatic watches don’t run on batteries. Most stop 24 hours after not being worn, and you have to wind them the next day.)

3. A low price of US$150 (very cheap for a good quality 100% Swiss made automatic watch. A lot of “Swiss made” watches you see are actually made elsewhere, but feature Swiss movements. Nothing wrong with their build quality, but misleading wording allow them to charge premium prices.)

The first point is impressive enough for a fully-mechanical watch with no electronics or quartz heartbeat or battery in it. But the proclamation that shocked everybody is that the watch will be manufactured, from start to finish, untouched by human hands.

Why do people still buy automatic watches in 2014? Many people nowadays use their mobiles to tell time. Quartz watches are much cheaper and accurate and you don’t need to wind if you stop wearing them for a day. I don’t know other people’s reasons, but one of mine is to feel a link to history.

Wearing a mechanical watch that I need to wind every now and then reminds me that while we’ve come a long way from the days of Gutenberg’s manual printing press and the Geocentric model of the universe, I’m wearing a sophisticated marvel engineered and crafted in almost the same manner as it was centuries ago. It reminds me of one of man’s earliest successful attempt at using technology to tame and understand something abstract and nebulous.

I find it amazing that in a way this type of watch is nearly immortal. It doesn’t need a battery, it has no electronics, it’s going to work forever, just wind it when it stops. Yes, there’s mechanical wear and tear, but that’s minimal compared to modern battery powered ones. When you leave the battery in for years, it will melt and mess up the gears inside.

I’m also charmed by the way the seconds hand in automatic watches sweeps instead of the typical jerky tick-tock forward inching of quartz watches. It reminds you of time’s passing, but in a smoother, gentler manner. It sweeps that way because of the way the gears inside move. Theintricacy of the gears in mechanical watches make it necessary for the fine horological artisans of Switzerland and Japan to manually assemblemany of the internal parts.

That’s what makes the manufacturing process of the Sistem 51 watch so revolutionary. It bridges centuries together. Centuries-old mechanical design with futuristic high-tech assembly. Something that has never been done before.

That this watch exists is contradictory and thought provoking. What does it mean for our future if something previously thought as “can only be built by humans” could actually be made well and cheaply by machines?

The future is here, and it’s sitting on my wrist.

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