Watch aficionados are most infuriated by replicas, fashion timepieces and battery-powered movements. And yet, the $260 Swatch homage to the Omega Speedmaster that debuted a week ago and caused shopping pandemonium checks all three of those snob boxes, making the collaboration an even more remarkable hit.
From London to Berlin and Melbourne, queues of eager consumers extended for blocks to snag a timepiece that’s not even limited. The buzziest and arguably most successful Swiss watch release in decades borrowed marketing and promotional techniques that, while novel to the staid world of Swiss watches, are well worn in the sneaker and fashion sectors.
So-called hype collaboration drops are old-hat for brands including Nike, Adidas and Supreme that have teamed with high-end fashion houses ranging from Prada to Burberry to Balenciaga to drive consumer buzz and create long queues at stores or online traffic when they land. Both sides stand to gain: affordable brands receive a sprinkling of high-fashion stardust, while the expensive partners get to broaden and often rejuvenate their customer base.
“This was a massive watch release that in many ways taps into the same currents and the same release tactics as traditional street wear and sneakers,” said Jesse Einhorn, an economist at online auction and trading platform StockX, which brings together buyers and sellers of shoes, street wear and watches in the secondary market. “This is an intentional strategy by brands. With the Omega Swatch it’s rare that you see a watch release so thoroughly penetrate the discourse.”
High-fashion/fast-fashion collaboration has been perfected by a run of partnerships that Swedish discount retailer H&M initiated with designer names like Karl Lagerfeld, Versace and Stella McCartney. But the risk remains that the novelty factor wears off quickly, or that brands that usually fiercely protect their exclusivity and pricing power cheapen their image. Indeed, prices for the likes of Chanel and Hermes handbags have risen in recent months, helping preserve their cachet. The only scarcity factor of the so-called MoonSwatch is that it’s available at Swatch boutiques but not online, though the watchmaker promised to swiftly replenish its stock and migrate to the internet at some unspecified date. Both brands are owned by the same parent company, facilitating their partnership.
Models commanding huge premiums quickly debuted on resale sites. The MoonSwatch was the biggest ever watch release on the StockX platform in its first week by both trading volumes and premiums, the company said. Prices were averaging $843, more than three times the retail price. More than 2,200 of the brightly coloured watches that are available in 11 different models had been sold, according to StockX. Influential YouTube watch bloggers posted scores of videos giving their hot takes on a bioceramic plastic version of the Speedmaster Professional, best known for being the watch worn by US astronauts on the moon.
Waiting lists are common for sought-after timepieces, but queues outside shops have so far eluded the industry. Where there has been hype, it’s existed more around special or limited editions from stalwarts like Rolex or Patek Philippe that aren’t for the masses.
Rolex’s steel sportswatches are notoriously difficult to find at retail outlets and can sell for three or four times the store price on the secondary market. Patek Philippe can’t keep any of its Nautilus models and chair Thierry Stern told Swiss newspaper Le Temps this week he gets as many as 100 emails a week from customers desperate for one. Around the same time that Swatch’s Omega coup unfolded, Rolex and Patek were among manufacturers showing off their latest models at the Watches and Wonders show in Geneva, a genteel event drawing 20,000 people checking out minor updates to some models that haven’t been radically overhauled in 20 years or more.
Swatch and its brands — which include Breguet, Longines and Blancpain — don’t participate in the show, which is hosted by rival Richemont, the maker of Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches, among others. No matter. The MoonSwatch stole the show for an event where watches priced at more than Sf500,000 (R7.89m) traditionally make their debut.
The MoonSwatch launch comes as the Swiss industry has enjoyed a tentative rebound from a pandemic-driven sales crash in 2020. Still, the comeback has been tempered with caution as Chinese tourists haven’t returned to Europe in significant enough numbers to drive sales, and traffic in airports — where Swatch has many of its boutiques — has persisted below pre-pandemic levels.
Omega has long perfected its marketing pitch as the watch of choice for aspiring astronauts and the world’s favourite secret agent, James Bond. Swatch, conversely, has struggled to hang onto its iconoclast image, having previously won credit for saving and reviving the Swiss watch sector from the so-called quartz crisis of the 1970s with its colourful, cheap designs.
The plastic Swatch was once a global phenomenon with customers thronging stores in search of new releases. But that was back in the 1980s and 1990s. Lately, smartwatches and fitness bands have become the more common wrist accessories. In fact, exports of Swiss quartz watches dropped to a 38-year low in 2021, according to trade statistics.
“It is about time that Swatch Group invents something new and exciting for its eponymous brand,” Bernstein analyst Luca Solca said. For now though, the MoonSwatch is “a stroke of genius”, he said.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com