It’s not uncommon for there to be great anticipation when a new product is announced, and then we anxiously wait for it to actually hit the market. The watch industry is certainly not immune to this effect, and there’s been one mechanical watch that has been generating a lot of buzz over the past months – the Swatch Sistem51. The day has finally arrived, and Sistem51 is here on our shores. On July 1 it was unveiled at the flagship store for Swatch in Times Square, and on July 8 a pop-up store hits San Francisco (101 Grant St) for the watch.
Now, if somehow you haven’t heard about the Sistem51, you might be wondering why in the world a new Swatch release has garnered so much attention, and for so long. Well, this is breaking a lot of new ground for the brand. While the Swatch Group itself has quite the stable of automatic mechanicals, the Swatch brand itself is really known for it’s colorful and affordable quartz timepieces.
With the Sistem51, we’ve got a bit of a shift for the brand, with the movement taking center stage. While we often will focus on the high piece counts in a movement, here, things head in another direction. The 3 Hz movement is comprised of only 51 components, all mounted off of the single central screw visible through the caseback. There’s more to the story than just the parts and the 90 hour power reserve (yes, 90) – it’s also how the watch is built.
Swatch has developed a way to build these movements, and then house them in the watch, in a fully automated manner. Past that, even the regulation is done by machine. Once the components are mated together, the case is hermetically sealed, creating what Swatch calls a truly maintenance-free mechanical watch (in that, you know, you actually can’t service it).
In practice, this means we’ve very likely reached the point where we’ve got what amounts to watch that’s going to simply be replaced, rather than repaired, when it reaches the end of it’s useful, accurate life (most mechanical watches need service every three to five years). In light of that, is this a watch you’ll want to put on?
I got to spend some time with the Sistem51 recently, and I’ll do my best to answer that question for you. When you first get your hands on the watch, it’s not that obviously different from many other Swatch models – you’ve got a colorful case with the stepped lug configuration, and a wilder design on the dial. Flip the watch over, however, and you see the difference.
The best way I can describe what you see here is a sort of zebra pattern (this is what the black variant we spent with has; other colors have different patterns). This highlights the edge of the rotor, which you quickly realize is actually a full disc (it’s mostly clear), rather than the 1/3 style we’re used to seeing. For what parts aren’t transparent, you have a sort of hypnotic thumbprint pattern that shows up on other parts of the movement as well. It’s a pretty clever way to get around what would be an otherwise undecorated movement, and apropos for the pricepoint. Oh, and of course, you can still see the balance wheel at work.
So, what’s it like to wear the watch? For starters, this is probably the lightest automatic you’ve ever run across, coming in at 38g. The leather strap has a soft touch feel, and its pretty flexible, further increasing the comfort. Of note with the strap, they’ve gone with a two-sided buckle of sorts, which eliminates the need for a fixed keeper at the buckle (you do still have the floating keeper).
For being a 42mm case, it actually is a fairly tall (in terms of lug-to-lug) watch. While it fit on my 7.25″ wrist fine, it was just about at the limits of what I consider to be appropriate for my wrist size. So, if you’ve got smaller wrists, you may actually end up with the lugs overhanging. Even with that, though, how the strap is formed works pretty well. As it rotates around to fit to your wrist, there’s a curvature in the lug end of the strap that gives a smooth, rounded look. The leather strap itself was nice enough, but I think it’s one that will (hopefully) get better with time, and conform to the wearers wrist a bit better.
On the wrist, it’s a fairly unassuming watch. To those who wouldn’t know any better (or aren’t noticing the word automatic on the dial), this is just another plastic Swatch. For those who are paying attention, though, that dial pattern is of course a dead giveaway. I like how they resisted the temptation to show the balance wheel from the dial, and instead are letting the dial do the trumpeting of what’s inside. In other words, totally subtle, and allows the watch to fly under the radar, if you so choose.
Then again, this movement (which, I must note, you can definitely hear, courtesy of the plastic case) is one that’s gaining a lot of attention, and rightfully so. I’ll be intrigued to see how this process goes, and if Swatch expands the Sistem51 into other looks (my money is on yes) or other variations on the movement itself (complications past the date, for instance). all told, this is a great automatic watch option coming in at $150. swatch.com
- Brand & Model: Swatch Sistem51 (ref. SUTB400)
- Price: $150
- Who’s it for?: This is for someone (guy or gal) looking to get their first automatic, as well as for the collector who appreciates the unique way the movement (and watch) are built
- Would I wear it?: Yes, but I might personally opt for the blue case variant, just for the whole “bold Swatch” experience
- What I’d change: As this one stands right now, not much. If anything, I’d prefer they drop the case to 40mm, but that might cause some issues with movement fitment
- The best thing about it: Just how under-the-radar this Swatch is, especially given how unique the movement inside is