Tissot Astrolon: the synthetic revolution
In 1971, well before the famous Swatch appeared in 1983, Tissot revolutionized watchmaking with the introduction of its Astrolon, aka IDEA 2001. It was the world’s first mechanical watch entirely produced in plastic, movement included.
To contextualize this invention, one should be reminded that 1971 was also the year the “Carte Bleue” saw the light. The small piece of plastic with a magnetic stripe revolutionized the world and made the daily life of millions of consumers easier. It was also in 1971 that John Lennon released his second single “Imagine”. The Swiss manufacture Tissot was then dubbed futuristic. Its name evoked the science-fiction movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” directed by Stanley Kubrick that had hit the screens three years before. The Astrolon, or the IDEA 2001, is one of the most innovating pieces of the 20th century and was developed after 20 years of research. It brought about technical solutions that Swatch successfully took up in 2013 for its System 51.
Genesis: from conception to creation
The idea to create a plastic watch came about in 1952. Of course, at the time there were only mechanical watches and Tissot wished to introduce an affordable quality watch.
Edouard-Louis Tissot, CEO of the Le Locle-based brand, gave clear and simple specifications: reduce the number of components, rationalize production procedures by cutting down on assembling operations and their related costs and simplify movements’ functioning by solving the lubrication issue. The manufacture, hence, established a research department to design and produce plastic pieces. That allowed the brand to ensure the whole production of synthetic watches could take place in its workshops. It then took Tissot’s engineers some 20 years to develop this extraordinary watch.
The Astrolon is entirely made of plastic. Each component is molded by injection. Assembling is semi-automatized and does not require screws. The 38 x 45-mm solid case is translucent and striated. The transparent dial reveals an exceptional view of the movement. The piece has been made in a single piece including the indexes and it is equipped with a flange on which Roman or Arabic numerals are painted. The crown is the only metallic element of the water resistant case.
The watch is equipped with the (too?) revolutionary Astrolon 2250 caliber or SYTAL (“Système Total AutoLubrification”).
The Astrolon 2250 is the world’s first plastic mechanical movement. It is hand-wound, it comes with a lever escapement and, most importantly, it is auto-lubricated. This means that it does not need to be oiled, which is the solution to wear problems inherent to classic movements. The piece consists of 52 components only whereas a classic Swiss mechanical movement has around a hundred. Only the barrel, balance, spring and balance-spring are metallic. Another advantage of the movement’s simple design is that its assembling can be done in only 15 semi-automatic operations and hence production costs are reduced.
The Astrolon 2250 caliber is a true in-house movement because Tissot has entirely produced it in-house on a dedicated assembly line. It displays the hours, minutes and sweep seconds.
The brand will produce a version with a date display (caliber 2270). The shock-resistant system has been specially designed based on the Incabloc. At the time, the manufacture stated that the watch was as reliable and precise as chronometers. All these innovations were filed for patent, including one in 1956 for an oil-less watch.
Plastic is great!
The Astrolon’s plastic design was quite advantageous. It made its wearer’s life easier since its auto-lubricated movement did not require any servicing. Incidentally, the sealed case back prevents any attempts of reparation. The piece brought about the concept of disposable watches that Swatch is famous tor having taken up – successfully – 12 years later. The watch is light and comfortable to wear and its antimagnetic qualities as well as its shock-resistance have been strengthened. The transparent dial highlights the movement’s functioning by making it visible. The Astrolon is easier and less expensive to produce than a classic steel mechanical watch and it’s available at a particularly affordable and hence very attractive price.
A tad too futuristic…
The unique and innovating concept of the Astrolon, released in 1972, was created to revolutionize watchmaking.
Its plastic design even inspired several colorful versions of the case (exactly what made Swatch successful in the 1980s and 1990s), dial and movement that were in perfect synch with the post-1968 era. Tissot thought it would be able to use the forecasted profits to sponsor research on and production of quartz watches, a market it aimed to lead in competition with Asian brands.
Unfortunately, the watch was a commercial flop for several reasons. To begin with, Tissot did not communicate properly with the public to “sell” the piece’s innovating concept. The retailers and its clientele were reticent towards a watch entirely made of plastic that looked fragile and cheap and reminded them of a child’s toy. Further, the Astrolon was released on the market at the same time as quartz watches. The latter were available at the same price but were more sophisticated, precise and solid with their steel cases. This fierce competition was fatal for the brand and, as it is, the whole Swiss watchmaking industry. Tissot sold only 15,000 pieces per year until 1976 and even had to dispose of a stock of 500,000 unsold pieces.
From flop to redemption
Despite being a flop, the Astrolon remains an essential piece of mechanical watchmaking’s history. It was undoubtedly an avant-garde model, a digest of innovations that was too revolutionary for its time. The Astrolon links the mechanical watches of the 1960s to1980s Swatch pieces. As such, it can be stated that the Astrolon was the precursor as well as what inspired the iconic Swatch (equipped with a quartz movement) that saved Swiss watchmaking.
In 2013, Swatch revived the Astrolon’s concept of affordable plastic mechanical watches with the introduction of the System51. The two watches have much in common, such as the sealed plastic case, the original simplified caliber with a smaller number of components (51 for the Swatch and 52 for the Tissot) and even their “disposable” character, since they cannot be repaired.
It is quite hard to find a beautiful Astrolon that works nowadays. The price can vary between 150 to 400 euros. A beautiful version was sold for more than 600 euros at an Antiquorum auction in October 2001.