Long term review: three months with Swatch’s Sistem51 automatic watch

March last year (2013) saw Swatch announce, at the Basel watch fair, that Swatch was going to introduce a new, cheap, and revolutionary automatic watch. The watch industry went mad with excitement; and then everything went a little quiet.

They were excited because the entire manufacturing process is automated; it uses 51 parts (just like the original quartz Swatch watch); it’s laser-adjusted or some-such tomfoolery so it never needs further adjusting; it’s Swiss and has that Swiss quality and reliability; the mechanism is hermetically sealed, and therefore should never drift; and instead of being £400 or so, it was going to go on sale for around £99.

Things then went a little quiet because Swatch then looked as if they’d forgotten about it. Every so often, I popped into a Swatch store in London to see whether I could buy one, but I couldn’t. I even set up a Google alert for “Sistem51” to see if the thing would ever make it to market. And then, nine months after the original announcement and the week before Christmas, it finally went on sale.

In Switzerland only.

A few furtive checks of eBay later, where they were for sale for over £250, I remembered that I had a meeting in Geneva in February, and resolved to buy one then. So, a quick train trip into town, I purchased the black Sistem51 that you see above, and took my prize home with me. The price equated to about £99, and the Swiss were kind enough to even pay for the train into town from the airport (tip: there’s a free ticket machine in the Geneva airport baggage hall).

I wanted an automatic watch because I’ve never owned one before: everything on my wrist since the 1980s has been battery powered, which — while efficient — isn’t quite as romantic as owning something that actually ticks via clockwork.

And yes, the Sistem51 does tick. But, unlike quartz Swatches, the tick is quiet and sing-song, a quiet tick-a-tick-a-tick-a-tick rather than their electronic cousin’s relatively grating chunk…chunk…chunk noise. In bed at night, I have to put it to my ear to hear it tick, unlike the quartz models which could be heard almost anywhere in the bedroom.

The black Sistem51 came with a leather strap, which I found bulky and a little irritating, and I quickly changed it to a black silicon Swatch strap that I had lying about the house from a previous Swatch (which was a speaker’s gift when speaking in Neuchatel: a lovely idea, but the Swatch itself was black hands on a black background and entirely impractical for its purpose of telling the time). The other colours (it comes in blue, red and white also) all come with a stitched silicon strap: the black one was the only one with leather.

Removing the leather strap also made this watch shower-proof. The watch is water-resistant, and Swatch watches all cope relatively well from being worn while in the shower. This appears to be no exception — I gingerly tried it one morning to no ill effects, and have worn it in the shower ever since. This is important to me, because the last nice watch I owned, a Mondaine (quartz) watch, is still in a hotel bedroom in Canada somewhere, taken off before an early-morning shower and sadly left there.

The Sistem51 also comes with a date indicator, which is tiny and hard to see but hugely useful.

What surprises me in day-to-day use of this watch is the noise it makes. Not the quiet tick, but the rattle and whirr of the winding mechanism that keeps it alive. It certainly rattles: quite disconcertingly at first, because you think something’s loose. There is something loose: the rotor mechanism, clearly visible from the clear window in the back, which whirrs round and round to wind the watch up, powered by your day-to-day movements. Move the watch the right way — and three months on, I still can’t replicate it — and the mechanism whirrs happily around, winding itself with great aplomb. The winding is certainly loud enough to notice: but also strangely comforting, since you know the watch is doing its job. I’m not the most active person in the world, spending much time on a computer keyboard, but even so, the watch has kept itself happily wound. (It has a 90-hour reserve, which watch geeks say on internet forums is rather good).

It keeps time to within a few minutes a week. This took me slightly by surprise, having been used to a quartz’s accuracy: but this is apparently pretty good for a mechanical watch, and it’s fine for my needs. I probably reset it once every few weeks or so.

And whatever they use as a luminescent paint for the hands appears to dimly glow all night, which is helpful for working out whether my toddler is waking the house up too early, without having to find my glasses and peer at a clock-radio.

I really, really, like this watch, all things being told. The watch-face design isn’t perfect: I’d prefer a simpler, more classic design; but it’s pretty good and very visible.

What a real shame that, as soon as the Motorola 360 comes out, I’ll buy one of those things, and probably have to charge my watch every day… now, an automatic smart-watch: that would be really good.