LONDON — Sometime in the early hours of March 26, Paul McKeown woke up on the sidewalk for the second morning in a row.
The 58-year-old retiree, an avid watch collector, had been sleeping outside the Carnaby Street store of the Swatch watch brand, waiting for it to start selling MoonSwatch, a new collection made in collaboration with Omega, its sister company. The mood had been light, fun. Friendships had been formed.
But as the sun rose on MoonSwatch Day, things changed.
“The atmosphere got dark about 5 a.m. in the morning,” Mr. McKeown said. “It got nasty, with sinister people turning up on mopeds.” He estimated that, by 8.30 a.m., there were hundreds of people surrounding the small store.
“The police were pushing everyone back and the crowds were surging on this little front door,” he continued. “A man appeared and asked me if I was No. 1 in the queue. He said: ‘You’re not, you’re No. 7 because me and my friends are Nos. 1 to 6.” The man then pulled a knife and told him to leave.
Mr. McKeown said he did as he was told. And walked away without a watch. The store opened at 10 a.m., and half an hour later the police ordered it to close.
MoonSwatch was no high-end collectible. It wasn’t even a limited edition. Instead, it was a $260 mash-up of Omega’s Speedmaster Professional design, known as the Moonwatch for its role in NASA’s Apollo space program and retailing for $6,400, and Swatch’s colorful bioceramic, a proprietary mix of ceramic and what the brand calls bio-sourced plastic. Swatch and Omega are both Swatch Group companies.
The drop itself resembled the arrival of midnight on New Year’s Eve, starting in Asia and rolling its way around the globe as Swatch stores opened. Within minutes of the first sales, models began appearing online, listed on secondary market sites such as eBay, StockX and the specialist watch marketplace Chrono24. The first resale completed on eBay that same day, confirmed by the site, was for $1,089.
Fans camping out overnight and frenzied resales may be commonplace for concert tickets or sneaker introductions, but the watch industry had never seen anything like it.
MoonSwatch now is recognized by many as the watch industry’s defining moment of 2022, and perhaps of the decade — even though the year is only half over and the decade has seven years to go. It has been a global phenomenon that added a new dimension to the lower-price category and redefined who is interested in those timepieces.
But questions remain: How long can the hype last? Will an inexpensive plastic timepiece turn around the financial decline that Swatch has been experiencing without damaging the Omega brand? And how has MoonSwatch changed both the primary and secondary watch markets?
Like their counterparts in fashion, automobiles and other luxury sectors, watch brands have used collaborations to create buzz — and generate sales — for decades. And Swatch was an early adopter, starting in the mid-1980s with artist-produced dials by Kiki Picasso and Keith Haring.
The idea for an in-house collaboration of Swatch Group brands was hatched in 2021 and advanced in secrecy, code-named Project Galileo. The Speedmaster wasn’t the only model considered: During development, prototypes using the Fifty Fathoms by Blancpain, another Swatch brand, and the Omega Seamaster 300 also were cast in bioceramic.
The final result was a collection of 11 models, all facsimiles of the Speedmaster’s familiar form: an asymmetrical case, with the “dot over 90” detail on the tachymeter bezel and additional subdials. And the dials were signed with both brand names, as well as the italic Speedmaster logo and a MoonSwatch label.
But each one — named for planets in the solar system, with the sun, the moon and Pluto filling out the roster, and individual titles like “Mission to Mars” and “Mission to Venus” — had its own slight design variation and vivid color, like pink, yellow or green.
Several days before the drop, ads appeared in newspapers with the cryptic lines: “It’s time to change your Omega … Swatch” and “It’s time to change your Swatch … Omega.” Online teasers followed, and then it was announced that MoonSwatch would be available in only 110 Swatch stores worldwide — there would be no online sales.
Lines snaked for hundreds of yards along sidewalks from Tokyo to New York as fans and scalpers — resellers that flip streetwear, electronics and other goods online — scrambled to be among the first to buy.
Virtual crowds had formed, too. “In the three days leading up to launch, searches for MoonSwatch surged by 2,410 percent, and then by a further 149 percent on launch day,” said Tirath Kamdar, general manager luxury at eBay.
Mr. Tirath said those global figures were high in comparison with other eagerly anticipated events, such as the latest Supreme x North Face drop, which prompted a 37 percent increase in searches earlier this year. “We’ve finally seen this happen in the watch space,” Mr. Tirath said. “MoonSwatch became an investible asset.”
Data gathered by DLG (Digital Luxury Group), a digital marketing agency in Switzerland, indicated that interest wasn’t limited to MoonSwatch. When the collaboration was announced in March, Google searches for Swatch worldwide rose by 397 percent month-over-month while searches for the Omega Speedmaster itself increased 171 percent in the same period.
“This is the highest uplift in search volumes recorded on Google for these brands in the past few years,” said David Sadigh, DLG’s founder.
Media outlets from Bloomberg to The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong covered the MoonSwatch mania. So did watch news outlets like Hodinkee and A Blog to Watch — even though the collection dropped just as the industry was getting ready for Watches and Wonders Geneva, where exhibitors including Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe would be gathering for the seven-day in-person event for the first time in three years.
“MoonSwatch was getting 50 times more attention than the new launches at Watches and Wonders,” said Rob Corder, founder and editor of the specialist watch website WatchPro.
Stories like Mr. McKeown’s were reported around the world. Police, for example, were called to control crowds at Swatch’s two Singapore outlets, prompting the government’s home affairs minister to chide would-be buyers the next day, saying, “We don’t need to lose our minds over these situations. It’s not life and death.”
“It was one of the greatest collaborations we’ve seen in recent history,” Mr. Corder said. “But they didn’t anticipate how much hysteria there would be. It wasn’t a good look.”
Mr. McKeown agreed. In London, he said, “they were completely unready. They thought it would be an orderly queue and they only had one security guard. They should have given out tickets with time slots.”
Did Swatch and Omega have any idea how popular MoonSwatch would be? “We didn’t know at the beginning,” said Gregory Kissling, Omega’s vice president of product, who developed the watch and gave it its planetary theme. “But when we first saw the design, we saw the Speedmaster spirit.”
Neither brand would comment on MoonSwatch sales, but in mid-July, the Swatch Group’s half-year report announced net sales of 3.6 billion Swiss francs ($3.76 billion), an increase of 7.4 percent at constant exchange rates over the previous year. The report cited the “phenomenal success” of MoonSwatch and said demand “currently far exceeds available product.” (Swatch Group does not disclose how many watches it produces.)
Analysts have predicted big numbers for MoonSwatch. “Sales could reach more than $50 million this year, providing the biggest boost to the Swatch brand in decades,” Jon Cox, head of Swiss equities at the financial services company Kepler Cheuvreux, wrote in an email.
Oliver Müller of the Swiss luxury consultancy LuxeConsult and a co-author of Morgan Stanley’s annual watch report, went further, forecasting sales of 500,000 watches and revenues of around $130 million by the end of the year.
Mr. Müller said such numbers would help the company. According to Morgan Stanley estimates, “Swatch was in need of a serious boost to its sales, which went down from the tens of millions per year in the 1990s, to 3.2 million last year,” he wrote in an email. “Not only does the Swatch Group need volumes to keep its fully integrated manufacturing capacities busy and profitable, Swatch has been a massive loss center, losing 150 million Swiss francs on sales of around 210 million Swiss francs” in 2021.
Swatch’s market position was highlighted by the June export figures published by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. They showed watches with an export value of less than 200 Swiss francs (export value is traditionally about half the retail value) were up 23.5 percent by volume and 9.1 percent by value year-over-year, making it the industry’s fastest growing segment by far. Analysts have attributed the uptick to MoonSwatch.
The impact of MoonSwatch on Omega’s Speedmaster Professional appeared positive, too. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in sales of the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch since the MoonSwatch launched,” Brian Duffy, chief executive of the Watches of Switzerland Group of watch and jewelry retailers, said in a written statement to The New York Times. “Since March we’ve seen significant double-digit increases in its sales and more widely on the brand as a whole.”
The MoonSwatch effect was also felt in the pre-owned market. “When the news came out, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Tim Stracke, co-chief executive of the German-based specialist online watch marketplace Chrono24. “But when we saw the first results on our platform, we were blown away. And not just by MoonSwatch sales, but also by Speedmaster sales. In the weeks after, there was a 40 percent increase in sales of the original Speedmaster” year-over-year.
But as months passed, and deliveries to stores continued to be unpredictable, interest in MoonSwatch appeared to be cooling. By the middle of July, Mr. Stracke said Chrono24 had sold 3,200 MoonSwatches with an average sale price of $620, down from around $1,000 in the first month after the release. And both DLG and eBay reported similar declines in search results.
Most observers said they still believed MoonSwatch would continue to improve the fortunes of both brands. As Mr. Duffy of Watches of Switzerland wrote: “Omega got to make a colorful, playful version of their legendary timepiece in bioceramic for $260 and introduce the Speedmaster to a younger client, whilst Swatch brought their entire brand to the attention of the more serious watch purchaser.”
But Mr. Sadigh of DLG sounded a note of caution. “Omega has spent a lot of money on elevating the Speedmaster collection and trying to increase its brand image and experience. And then it does something that gives the impression that the watch is cheap, plastic and affordable,” he said. “The real question is whether this move will be beneficial in the long-term? I doubt this.”
Nick Hayek Jr., Swatch Group’s chief executive, announced in July that the MoonSwatch would not be made available online, as some fans and industry watchers had expected, keeping the pressure on stores. “Store staff are being bullied and abused to this day by people demanding MoonSwatches,” Mr. Corder of WatchPro said.
Swatch has said it was increasing its output. “The hype is still huge and we have to respond to the immense demand, so we’re focusing on production,” Mr. Kissling of Omega said, although he would not provide specifics.
There has been a lot of speculation on where the project will go next. Some have predicted Swatch Group will put one of the prototypes, such as the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, into production. But Mr. Kissling demurred. “I don’t think it will be a good idea to come out with a new model now,” he said.
What appeared certain was that MoonSwatch had changed watch-buying culture, at least at lower price points.
This time, the G-Shock x Bamford 6900 — a digital watch with Bamford powder blue accents priced at 149 pounds in Britain and $170 in the United States — was to go on sale at G-Schock’s Carnaby Street store two days before an online release. Some prospective buyers waited in line overnight, but in the morning scalpers stormed the storefront and police shut it down.
“It turned bad very quickly,” said George Bamford, founder of Bamford Watch Department, who was at the store with two of his young children and had to be escorted to safety by police. “It’s the first time I’ve felt unsafe. The people at the front of the queue were big and tough, pushing and pushing. Some people might say it’s really cool we got shut down, but I don’t. It’s sad.”
Mr. Bamford linked the incident to MoonSwatch, and said the culture of watch buying and collecting has changed: “It’s like we were in a little wonderful boat and now this juggernaut of a pirate ship’s come along.”
As for Mr. McKeown? He made friends with the Swatch store manager while he was hanging around in line, and as a result he now has four MoonSwatches. “It would be nice to get all 11,” he said. “It’s about patience and sticking it out.”
The dust may be settling, but no one will forget the MoonSwatch landing.