Swatch gives new meaning to investment dressing

February 26, 1992|By Robin Updike | Robin Updike,Seattle Times

If you didn't buy Microsoft stock when it went public for peanuts in 1986, here's another missed investment possibility that will make your day: That same year you could have plunked down $50 for a Swatch wristwatch designed by pop artist Keith Haring that might be worth as much as $5,555 today.

Yes, we're talking about one of those plastic, techni-colored watches with plastic bands and hands instead of digital readouts. Their looks change each season according to the fashion whims of the Milan, Italy, design team and guest artists who design them, making Swatch the watch industry's equivalent of trendy T-shirts or costume jewelry.

But the company's policy of producing each design for a limited time has had an ironic result: The inexpensive watches that were originally marketed to trend-conscious teen-agers as an alternative to Japanese digital watches have become collectors items. Watches that were meant to be bought several at a time and changed with each outfit are being stored in bank vaults.

At a 1990 Sotheby's auction in Milan, and a 1991 Christie's auction in Zurich, rare Swatch designs in mint condition brought from $150 for a 1988 model called "Roses are Forever," to $25,432 for a limited-edition Swatch designed by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Members of recently organized Swatch collectors' clubs in Europe and the U.S. study new models in coffee-table sized catalogs and buy and sell rare watches among themselves.

At the downtown Seattle Bon Marche, collectors have been poring over this season's designs, trying to guess which will become the most sought after. They have also been snapping up the limited inventory of Swatches from previous years' collections that the company has pulled from its back stock and is selling for the same prices at which the watches were originally sold.

The Swatches on display, and the back models for sale, are from the company's first collection in 1983 through its 1991 designs. Swatch produces between 40 and 60 new models each year, said Amy-Beth Chamberlin, Swatch exhibit director. Not all of its previous models are on display or for sale.

"Swatch works like haute couture," she said. "There is a spring/summer season and a fall/winter season. The watches are sold for six months only, they're not discounted and they aren't made after a certain date."

Ms. Chamberlin says Swatch doesn't know which watches will become the most valuable on the resale market and that the company steers clear of predicting future prices.

"Sometimes it's the watches with the fanciest bands and fanciest faces that become valuable," she said. "Sometimes it's because of the artist who designed it. Or it can be because of a particular color. The color yellow doesn't sell well. So Swatch doesn't make many. When they do, they become valuable."

For Swatch enthusiasts, the promotion has been like offering car collectors the chance to buy a never-used, 30-year-old Porsche for its 1960 price.

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