Sistem51 - watch evolution, or revolution? Featured

At last the new Sistem51 watch by Swatch is available, although only in boutiques in Switzerland at the moment. After two years of development, Sistem51 looks like being a ground-breaking watch, just like the Swatch was when it first appeared in 1983.

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18 December 2013

Priced at just €120, Sistem51 is an automatic mechanical watch whose movement has just 51 components. It is machine-made on a 20-metre production line, and it is entirely manufactured in Switzerland. With its low price and colourful design, it looks perfect as a means of getting a new generation of people interested in mechanical watches, by means of a dramatic reduction in entry-level price.

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We haven't seen it yet, and of course we haven't disassembled one. Why 51 components? Swatch group say that "it is the magic number, and Swatch''s lucky number." Fifty-one was the number of components of the original quartz Swatch, which in 1983 was already a notable advance because up until then, quartz movements had about 91 components. Sistem51 has a movement that is based around a single pin (instead of the classic gear train based on different wheels, all with their own pins), with a high-tech escapement with components in high-density plastic, and no regulator. It is adjusted by laser in the factory and so has no need for manual rate adjustments. Metal parts of the movement are in ARCAP, an anti-magnetic alloy of copper, nickel and zinc. The movement is hermetically sealed inside the factory, and so there is no chance of any moisture or dust entering to create problems. Swatch promises a 90-hour power reserve and a 10-20 year lifespan.

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The plastic case has a lot in common with the classic Swatch appearance. On the back, you can see the oscillating mass, which in this case is a transparent disc that rotates in both directions around the central pin. Through this disc you can glimpse the movement, which has a printable surface. You can wind the watch manually if required using the crown, also used to set the watch. There is a date window at 3 o'clock. The central seconds hand cannot be stopped. You can hear the watch ticking – it is a 3 Hz movement. Swatch say that accuracy is +/- 7 seconds per day.

The strap is in plastic. The stage is set for a whole series of editions, each with its own graphic design, the feature that gave Swatch its worldwide success. The versions currently available are Sistem Red (ref. SUTR400), Sistem Blue (ref. SUTS401), Sistem Black (ref. SUTB400), and Sistem White (ref. SUTW400). The latter has a white dial with colourful dots, and a colourful caseback, and it could be more appealing for women. Like a Swatch, it is light, and it sits easily on the wrist with a 42 millimetre diameter case.

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The first three of these four models have a dial featuring what looks like a constellation, but it could be that the white dots of the constellation are actually related to the principal features of the movement. In any case, white dots also neatly indicate the hours.

So, why is Sistem51 a revolution? Principally because of the number of components. Fifty-one parts for a mechanical movement is incredibly low, and it must have been achieved by means of new design systems that could spark a whole new approach to watch design even in high-end sectors of the market. With this timepiece, Swatch has applied for 17 patents. The other innovative feature is the idea of making a watch so perfect and reliable that no form of after-sales service is necessary. Once wear and tear has caused the watch to stop, that's it: its useful life ends there.

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Will it appeal? Perhaps it's not the sort of mechanical watch that you'll leave to your children. But then, let's think again: there are some early Swatches dating to 1983 and 1984 that sell for thousands of dollars... personally I think that a fair number of people are going to head out to buy one of the first Sistem51's, with good reason.

One last thing: why 'Sistem'? I can't work it out...

Click here to read more about Sistem51