One of the most unique collections of watches from recent times went under the hammer as part of the Important Watches sale at Sotheby's Geneva earlier this month. The Schmid & Muller collection, which sold for $1.3 million (approximately £800,000) was a super lot of pieces from Swatch's early years. More than 4,000 pieces, including nearly 1,000 watches and hundreds of rare prototypes and sketches, offer a snapshot into what became a groundbreaking moment in watch and design history.
The compendium of pieces was created and assembled in the 1980s by Marlyse Schmid and Bernard Muller, the two designers who were key in shaping Swatch's artistic development. At a time when inexpensive, mass-produced quartz watches were prevalent, they gave them a brilliantly pop identity, taking a conceptual approach and working with engineers to reduce the number of components and thus create a new and revolutionary visual identity for the wristwatch. Originally conceived as a Second Watch – hence the name Swatch – it allowed design to be more experimental, surprising and fun. Watches were made of plastic, in bright colours and with bold patterns, breathing new life into the watch industry.
Inspired by popular culture, Swatch's groundbreaking links with artists produced some striking and avant-garde results. Highlights in the recent collection included the collaboration with Keith Haring, one of the first major artists to work with Swatch, who spent two years on the six different designs that made up his 'Serpent' collection in 1986. Drawings to go alongside the watches show the possible changes of colour he considered on the dial.
Other collaborations, including with Kiki Picasso and surrealist artist Jean-Michel Folon, were anti-conformist, intelligent and rife with humour. All pieces represent a new type of design: 1983's 'Original Jelly Fish' watch – the first transparent watch – is tongue-in-cheek, while others, such as 1984's '12 Flags Watch' are interesting because of what they tell us of the design process; most notably the evolution of colour and style. Especially significant are the first sketches of the Swatch case, 'Vulgaris', which on 27 March, 1980, marked the beginning of what turned out to be a truly revolutionary horological movement.