The Birth of a Piece of Plastic
The history of Elmar Mock as watch inventor starts after his graduation from the engineering school in Biel (Switzerland). Despite the Quartz-crisis he managed to find a job at the ETA SA in Grenchen. Fritz Scholl, the director of this company at that time, already knew that high-precision plastic parts would get important for the watch industry. Thus, he bought a plastic-injection machine, camouflaged it as chemistry-material and hid it in the attic.
There Mock was asked to learn the technique of plastic injecting on his own using this machine. He soon realized that he lacked the scientific background needed to operate this material, so he decided to visit a postgraduate school for plastics-engineering. Mock got one year off to get his diploma, which he eventually got in 1978.
By the time he got back, Ernst Thomke got the new boss of the ETA SA. He was known as a real leader personality and a tough boss. However, he was also a visionary who understood very quickly what the watch industry needed. Mock got supervisor of three technicians, with whom he was entitled to work on the ‘Delirium I’, a watch less then 2mm thick.
First draft in two hours
Elmar Mock’s friend and colleague Jacques Müller was an expert on inexpensive mechanical watches and worked on several calibers for Cyma in Tavannes. After a few changes he ended up at the ETA SA as well, where he joined Mock in the study for the introduction of plastic elements for watches. They gathered seven patents, but Mock could not ensure a proper quality with the machine they used, so he wanted to apply for the purchase of a more modern but expensive Netstal plastic-injection machine.
The investment would be half a million Swiss Francs (500 000$), and the procedure to get the money granted would be very difficult. As Thomke got the forms to approve the money he wanted to have exact facts about the investment, so he scheduled a meeting with Mock on Thursday the 27th of March 1980 at 1pm. Mock got informed at 11am of the same day about the meeting, this left him about two hours to get his concept ready.
Panicked he got back to Müller and together they somehow came up with the idea of a plastic watch, where, as for the Delirium, the base of the case would carry the movement. A Plexiglas crystal should then be hermetically welded on top of it.
Mock and Müller managed to grab a pink and a blue pen to draw some sketches, with which Mock then rushed to Thomke for the 1pm meeting. Thomke was already in a bad mood before the meeting, so when Mock presented him his idea, Thomke asked him if he was mad wanting to spend half a million Swiss Francs for a useless machine. Mock explained that they would be able to produce inexpensive plastic-watches with it and handed over the sketch he and Müller had made.
18 hours days
Thomke took a glimpse of the sketch, realized the ingenuity of the idea, but said nothing. He confiscated the sketch with the comment, the idea would be completely wacky, as other engineers would already work on a similar project for two years with no results. Mock returned to his office feeling like a battered dog. Shortly after, Mock’s direct supervisor Urs Giger stepped into his office, telling him that Thomke wants Mock to be freed from all his responsibilities. He and Müller would have six months to work on that Plastic-watch project up to building a prototype in all secrecy. That was a triumph for Mock and Müller. They moved to a hidden office at ETA and worked 18 hours per day for seven days a week.
Robots take over
During half a year Mock and Müller were drawing like crazy and finally coming up with a prototype … which was catastrophic: The watch was working, but the hands were running counterclockwise! Thomke granted some more time to fix the problems. In December 1981 five Prototypes were presented, which worked perfectly, after having solved all kinds of problems. Mock and Müller had created an amazing product with just 800 000 Swiss Francs of initial investment. Despite some changes, the basic concept remained the same until this day.
In October 1982 the Swatch watch was launched in Dallas (Texas, USA) for which ETA SA provided 10000 handmade watches. The introduction to the market was a flop. The watches were aesthetically not very spectacular. Max Imgrüth, the marketing chief for the USA at that time, could convince Grenchen, that these watches could be handled as Fashion accessories, with collections changing twice a year. Fancy colors and crazy dial -and strap designs made the Swatch to a huge bestseller.
Ref.: Text adapted and translated into English from Article: ‘Eine Idee aus Plastic erobert die Welt’: 4. April 2008, 9:35am, NZZ-Online