ONCE there was a time when everybody had one watch. It was brown, it was black, it was boring. Then came the Swatch watch, red and charcoal, gray and orange, bright yellow, teal, peach and lavender. And overnight the watch went from being the dullest, most predictable part of a wardrobe to the most outrageous.
It all began in the early 1980s. ``The Swiss and the Japanese were having a wonderfully heated race to see who could come up with the world's thinnest watch,'' explains Joe Thompson of Modern Jeweler magazine.
The Swiss won, coming up with a watch less than a millimeter thick, with components that were welded right into the case. The watch was so thin, in fact, that it would break if you ever tried to wear it. But the technology that produced this unwearable watch gave birth to the Swatch watch, which takes only half of the traditional watch components and dresses them up in more colors and styles than the little old Swiss watchmaker ever dreamed of.
Today, the marketplace is ticking with all manner of unusual and sophisticated watches. Tourneau on Madison Avenue in New York sells a curious model based on an old-fashioned style: The face is a half circle, with all the numbers on the curve.
Sointu, a New York boutique, sells watches that are ``black and white, very architectural'' and ``tongue in cheek,'' says the design store's president, Kipp Trafton. One of these, called the 10-1-4 watch (those are the only numbers that appear on its dial), has just been accepted in the design collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. ``It's just a visual joke,'' says Mr. Trafton. (The watch retails for $130.)
Digital watches were once the rage, but now it seems that the most creative thing you can do to a watch is leave the numbers off completely. For instance, you can now buy a light blue and yellow Timex watch that has three chickens at 3 o'clock, and the word ``hen'' at 10 (retail price $24.95).
``They [Swatch] started all this nonsense; we were late to participate,'' admits Timex's David Rahilly. In addition to the new idea of the watch as a wacky fashion accessory, ``the new thing is that people are willing to buy a product even if it only lasts a year.'' (All Timex watches are repairable, Mr. Rahilly notes.)
He says there's some concern that the hen watch might be a ``spinner'' -- a watch that the public doesn't buy, that just spins around in the store's case. ``But it's just unusual for Timex. In the world of wacky watches, this isn't so wacky,'' he says.
Another style trend is what might be called the ``high-tech'' watch, made mostly by the Japanese. ``It looks like you're wearing a dashboard on your wrist,'' says Mr. Thompson of Modern Jeweler.
More amazing than their appearance, though, are the things these watches can do.
Lovers of curiosities will lament the fact that in the last few years the television watch appears to have come and gone.
``In today and tomorrow's world, you are bridging a gap. You have to ask yourself when watches become something else. We've decided it's something else,'' says Stuart Zuckerman, senior general manager, merchandising, at Seiko, adding that the TV watch was produced ``as a demonstration of technology. What made more sense is a pocket-sized TV,'' which Seiko is now producing.
``We sent many of these things to the Smithsonian; they're doing a history of watches,'' Mr. Zuckerman says.
But an unusual watch that is still being made by Hattori, a branch of Seiko, is the computer watch. This item -- ``not exactly a computer and not exactly a watch,'' says Hattori's Mike Karmazin -- can be plugged into a computer to record information from, for example, your address book or appointment calendar. Mr. Karmazin says it is more than a watch; he calls it a ``wrist information system.'' (It sells for $199.95, with a pocket version at $149.95).
``You can think of them as monitors with memory,'' he says. You can also download information from Lotus 1-2-3 software, or use the watch as a prompter to remind you of important points during a meeting.
This high-tech watch is a far cry from Swatches, which started the whole revolution. Swatches are the original disposable watch. The wild designs and wacky colors, not the watch itself, are what Swatches are really noted for. ``Pastels are very important now,'' Joe Thompson says. ``The `Miami Vice' colors.''
``When you look at the form, it's actually a pretty classical shape,'' says Swatch's Max Imgruth. ``But when you look at the mix of colors, it's pretty avant-garde.''
Last year, Swatches even came in different smells -- crushed fruit, iced mint, and raspberry. This year's themes are underwater scenes -- abstract fish with lots of waving blue seaweed -- and Egyptian motifs, with here and there a pyramid or hieroglyph (all $30).
You can also buy what Mr. Imgruth calls ``an upscale Swatch'': black plastic with four little diamonds ($100).
Most purchasers of Swatches and their like are girls aged 14 to 24, with a core group from 14 to 18, who sometimes wear two or three of them at a time.
Some adults, too, wear several at a time, perhaps set to different time zones. ``It's a way to be a little different,'' says Howard Fisher of Lorus, whose line this year includes a Halley's Comet watch.
Even men, traditionally suspicious of anything that could be described as ``designed,'' are getting into the act, Mr. Fisher says.
``I have a pair of red sneakers; when I wear my red sneakers, I wear my red watch,'' he says. ``You will see someone on Wall Street wearing a gray pinstripe suit and maybe wearing a yellow watch. That is drastic.
``More men are wearing these plastic watches to accessorize their wardrobes than ever before. They're getting away from that big, clunky, masculine kind of watch that you could run over with a truck,'' he says. ``It's not only in New York but all over the US, all over the world.