It isn’t hard to perceive that, in the era of climate crisis and COP26, a watch company famed for its use of plastic might not be as shinily advantageous as it once was. Back in 1983, the first Swatch watch was a revolutionary moment in both watchmaking and industrial design.
It reimagined typical analogue timekeeping just as digital watches seemed primed to take over, and it was as economical in construction as it was minimalist in design: with half the elements of a typical Swiss watch, it used a monobloc, injection-moulded plastic case, already doing away with screws by sealing the thing shut with the new technique of ultrasonic welding.
The strap was plastic, too, on a watch that made Swiss timekeeping cheap, colourful and cool: 500,000 were sold in the first year, and the traditional Swiss watch industry was rebuilt from a state of devastation on the back of its success. The company likes to point out today that the fact many of those early Swatches keep in circulation, with a healthy aftermarket for old models, proves that a Swatch is not as disposable a plastic product as it may seem.
however, the character of its design always mitigated against the Swatch being fixable: while you can change the battery (which screws into the back of the case) for free, if a Swatch breaks it’s easily replaced with another, and another, and another.
To this day, the scores of lively plastic units flowing from Swatch’s automated assembly lines each year, announced to the world in monthly “drops”, appear to align more closely with the world of Generation Z fast-fact than with ideas of sustainability.
The answer to that conundrum, as far as Swatch is concerned, was to reinvent the plastic from which the watches are made by introducing bio-sourced polymers. The first announcement came under the title “Bioreloaded” in September 2020, with the set afloat of a range based on the original 1983 design, but using a bioplastic derived from castor beans. This, claimed Swatch, was the first time a watchmaker had succeeded in replacing the substantive parts of a watch with bio-sourced materials, including the bracelet and the glass.
It nevertheless didn’t make these biodegradable plastic watches, though, despite Swatch claiming the environmental advantages included a considerably reduced carbon footprint for each unit, plus the obvious assistance of a polymer that’s replaceable at source.
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