Born in 1983 and forever associated with the ’80s, Swatch was the brainchild of businessman (and a future face on the watch world’s Mt. Rushmore) Nicolas Hayek as a way of offering a second watch – that’s what Swatch stands for – to both watch enthusiasts and casual fans alike.
The outcome was a truly egalitarian Swiss watch. An inexpensive, lightweight, and reliable watch with a plastic case, a quartz movement, and, crucially, limitless potential as a canvas for a remarkable array of designs.
Swatch was a near-instant hit, selling more than 1 million watches in the brand’s first year. And since then, the brand has created literally thousands of fun-loving and highly collectible watches. Among those colorful ranks, we find a sub-series of Swatches that became the focus of select and influential artists of the 1980s.
In 1985, Swatch launched the Swatch Art Special, a program that commissioned popular artists to apply their unique aesthetic onto the Swatch form. From the very start, the program would establish a legacy of creating not only special Swatches but also uniquely collectible objects that blurred the lines between watches, art, and even apparel.
Today, this collection – which is now called Swatch & Art – continues in a similar format, and the offering within the range is an ever-growing and dizzying collection of seemingly endless creativity surrounding that classic Swatch silhouette. Even now, this multitude of color, shape, pattern, style, effect, and personality can all be traced back to the sleek dazzling veneer of the 1980s and Swatch’s innovative idea — to make its seminal everyman watch into a playful alternative to traditional watch design.
While Swatch continues to create special editions with a wide range of artful collaborators, some of the earliest such creations have become among the most valuable and sought-after watches ever produced by the brand, and the following three collaborations are ones any watch enthusiast should have on their radar, be they ’80s kids or otherwise.
Kiki Picasso: No, not that Picasso. But still very cool.
This is the first special edition watch released under the Swatch Art Special directive, born from the mind of the French artist, graphic designer, and filmmaker Christian Chapiron. Chapiron was also known as “Kiki Picasso,” which is how this limited-edition watch got its name.
Highly valuable and endlessly collectible, the Kiki Picasso Swatch features an artistic portrait of Chapiron’s wife and was limited to 140 pieces under reference GZ008. What’s most interesting about the Kiki Picasso Swatches is that each dial is unique, having its own treatment for the coloring of the stained glass-like image.
Compounding the level of interest in this vintage Swatch, each model came with a poster that featured 120 of the given dial variations. Dials shown on the poster are now called “poster dials,” and they represent the most valuable iterations of the Kiki Picasso limited edition.
When giant high-value Swatch collections hit the auction market (like this or this), you can generally expect to see at least one Kiki Picasso among the ranks (if not several). As the start point for the Swatch Art Special, they couldn’t have done better than the Kiki Picasso, and just about any Swatch collector would love to have one in their collection.
Keith Haring: When Warhol is busy.
Though the instantly recognizable, graffiti-style New York artist became known for a number of collaborations (both with Swatch and with others, including G-Shock), the genesis of the Haring-designed limited editions came in 1986 with his collection of designs for Swatch.
Haring’s collaboration with Swatch revolved around four distinctive models: the Milles Pattes (GZ103, third from left), Modele Avec Personnages (GZ100, above left), Serpent (GZ102, above second from left), and Blanc sur Noir (GZ104, above right), and it’s hard to argue with the outcome. His work pops to life on the small and specific canvas of a watch.
As the story goes, Swatch had originally reached out to Andy Warhol to see if he might be interested in creating a limited edition. When Warhol declined, he suggested Haring – his protege at the time. The result is four now-iconic Swatches that continue to appreciate in value and, like the Kiki Picasso, help to form a pillar of Swatch collectibility among enthusiasts from both the watch world and the art world.
Mimmo Paladino: Redford, The Dalai Lama, and Oigol Oro
Released in 1988 for the spring/summer collection, the Oigol Oro (ref GZ113) is a striking design from the mind of the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Having been part of the European rebirth of expressionism during the 1980s, Paladino took his minimalist brand and created an icon.
A black case and strap frame a stark white dial showing a captivating black mask – with stylized hands emanating from its mouth. Only 140 Oigol Oros were made (each is individually numbered), and of that total allotment, some 40 examples were made with Roman numerals and given to Paladino and Swatch employees. Of the remaining 100, which have backward Arabic numerals, the first 27 in the series are the most sought-after as they were given to a variety of Swatch VIPs, including Robert Redford and the Dalai Lama.
Produced in a couple of variants across the exceedingly limited production, the Oigol Oro has proven to be not only a great example of the effect of the Swatch Art Special but also one of the most valuable and desirable Swatch collaborations ever made.