Although it may not be luxurious or exclusive, few watch designs have had the kind of immediate market and cultural impact that Swatch had upon its debut in the ‘80s. Intended as a vibrant, playful, and affordable Swiss answer to the tide of cheap quartz timepieces flowing from Japan at the time, the original hooded multi-lug Swatch silhouette has gone on to be reinterpreted in nearly every imaginable color, size, and theme. However, the classic Swatch shape was not the only design the brand considered at its inception, and one of its closest competitors in the initial concept phase was a clean, elemental square case layout. For 2023, Swatch returns to the original drawing board for this square concept, imagining a world that never was where this alternative design became the face of the brand. The new Swatch What If? collection takes Swatch back to its ‘80s roots, repackaging some of the brand’s earliest offerings in a chic square format that highlights its lightweight bioceramic case material.
At 33mm wide, the matte bioceramic cases of the Swatch What If? line are small enough to fit nearly any wrist, but the sharply angular shape helps them to stand out substantially. Available in a range of colors including black, medium gray, forest green, and creamy beige (our test samples arrived in black and beige), these cases are simple in concept but deceptively nuanced in execution. The main case body is, quite literally, just a square. There’s no attempt at contouring or faceting here, just boxy lines and crisp angles. Despite this, the case is light, comfortable, and a joy to wear on the wrist. The lugs are a major factor here, with a downturned, hooded shape that naturally contours to the shape of the wrist without compromising the purely angular design language. Furthermore, the often-denigrated bioceramic material shines in this application, with a compellingly silky, nearly weightless feel and a lightly grained monochrome matte look that successfully channels the ‘80s era the brand aims for (in particular, the beige case looks like it could be lifted from the same production line that made the original Apple Macintosh desktop computers back in the day). This case’s greatest stylistic flourish is fittingly simple in concept as well. Rather than simply sitting atop the case, the bio-sourced glass crystal wraps around at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock, stretching to nearly midway down the case sides. Not only does this allow the dial to be viewed from a nearly 90-degree angle, but it also lends the entire watch a charmingly airy, open quality. Swatch makes one further nod to the round models that actually started it all with the casebacks of the What If? line. Each model’s battery cover depicts one of the original early ‘80s Swatch dial variants in impressive detail. While these casebacks might be cheekily self-referential, they’re far from durable, with Swatch rating the series for a mere 20 meters of water resistance.
Each model in the Swatch What If? series offers its own dial layout. For the black-cased model, the overall design is ultra-minimalist, with a matte white base, simple printed black lines for the hours and minutes, and a lumed black baton handset. By contrast, the beige-cased model brings a bit more character to the proceedings. The royal blue dial surface is still perfectly flat and matte, but a mix of printed white Arabic numerals and slanted indices add a bit more complexity to the layout. The chunky printed squares of the outer minutes scale graphically illustrate the unique quirks of square-dial timekeeping with their squashed-and-stretched placement, giving the dial an almost modern art-esque feel on the wrist. A set of polished straight sword hands completes the layout, drawing the eye immediately towards the timekeeping elements with the watch’s only reflective surfaces.
Swatch powers the What If? series with a basic, undisclosed quartz day-date movement. Given the functionality and the price point, it’s likely this is a Ronda 517 or an equivalent. It’s hard to fault the use of this movement in a watch costing a hair over $100, and while it may not be refined, it should provide dependable performance for years to come. To complete the look, Swatch pairs each What If? model with a bio-sourced rubber strap in a case-matching color. These straps flow seamlessly into the hooded lug structure for a clean, uniform tapered look, and offer a soft, impressively comfortable wearing experience on the wrist.
Few watch collections in history have had the sort of instantaneous impact that the original Swatch catalog did in the 1980s. In many ways, the brand has been riding (or attempting to ride) the cultural wave of that launch ever since, so trying to reimagine the brand at its very inception is a potentially risky design exercise. With that said, the Swatch What If? collection succeeds commendably in channeling the styles of the original Swatch lineup into a striking new shape, combining the cheap-and-charming simplicity of early Swatch with the innovative bio-sourced materials that the brand champions today. The Swatch What If? collection is available now through authorized dealers. MSRP for each model in the collection stands at $110 USD as of press time. For more information, please visit the brand’s website.