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HIGH STYLE : Swatch Swath

March 20, 1988|DAVID LASKER

EVER SINCE THE cuckoo clock, the Swiss have had the last word on timepieces. Yet recently, Japanese digital watches had almost driven their Alpine competitors out of the low end of the market. Then Biel-based Swatch Watch counterattacked. Swiss designer Jacques Mueller got the idea for the economical, battery-powered waterproof watch at the beach, when he noticed that swimmers were shoving their good watches into their sneakers. He decreased the number of watch parts from 120 to 51 and laser-sealed the case.

Snazzy designs (including a transparent case exposing the watch works) and scratch-resistant crystal (it can be buffed on a jeweler's wheel) have made the $35 Swatch a hit. About two dozen new models are introduced twice yearly, offering something for everyone: sports watches (divers' watches or aircraft-instrument look-alikes with perforated bands), classic watches (a simple face with numbers) and fashion watches (the cutting edge of novelty, with trendy colors). Interchangeable bands come in a host of primary and neutral shades such as charcoal and anthracite and in opaque as well as transparent versions. Fitted with a black band, the Swatch face with black hands, logo and (virtually illegible) numbers makes the ultimate minimalist, black-on-black design statement.

More pricey are limited-edition pieces, such as the Christmas special bergstruessli ("a bunch of mountain flowers") with tie-tack-like, gold- and silver-plated edelweiss adorning the band, the Lime Light (spangled with real if tiny diamonds) and a funky foursome by Keith Haring, the erstwhile subway graffiti sprayer turned fashionable New York artist.

Cynics may scoff at the throwaway trendiness of the various Swatch editions, but the watches' ephemeral life span is catnip to collectors. And that variety is the best revenge on digital watches--one digital display, after all, looks pretty much like another. In fact, the Swatch's old-fashioned analog dial is actually more "user-friendly" than a high-tech LCD (liquid crystal display). A digital readout of 11:56, say, is so much raw data requiring interpretation; a glance at the corresponding position of hour and minute hand warns of noon's imminent arrival with less mental effort.

Swatch watches are widely available at major department stores and specialty shops in the Southern California area.

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