I couldn’t resist this tiny, but oh-so evocative, 1980s relic when I chanced across it in Past Caring, one of my favourite London vintage shops. This small plastic Le Clip quartz watch was meant to be clipped onto the lapel of your jacket, your jacket pocket, or even your tie or shirt. The circular grey watch swivels to unlock and click out of the spring-loaded clip, presumably allowing it to be changed for another face when you felt like mixing and matching for your get-up that day.
The Swiss quartz movement! The colours! The grafitti! The anarchy-like symbol! The face with her big red lips! Sooooo 1980s! It’s wonderful and makes me grin as it reminds me of my childhood, when I loved wearing Swatch watches. You can probably tell that I’m rather taken by my Le Clip, so I did a bit of research and decided to amalgamate everything that I could find here.
Le Clip was devised and designed in 1986 by the dynamic Swiss entrepreneur Michel Jordi (b.1948), and launched at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival that year. His father was a watchmaker and he studied watchmaking when young, which explains his interest in watches. He went on to study marketing and business management in Switzerland, the UK, Japan, and Harvard in Boston, before founding his first company. Today, Jordi is best known as a maker of high end, high quality mechanical watches, some with intricate complications, and some in limited editions.
Jordi wanted to redefine the watch – why should it always be worn on a wrist? The combined flat surface area of the clip and the face also allowed creativity to run riot in terms of colour and pattern, more so than the usual strap and face combination. Everyone could find their favourite Le Clip to express their individuality and character. It was different, new, fun – and trendy.
Le Clips were fitted with a high quality Swiss quartz movement, manufactured by Ronda in Lausen, just outside Basel. The plastic cases were printed with a vast number of different, brightly coloured patterns typical of the 80s. These included a neon Keith Haring style pattern of dancing people, colourful exotic fruit, neon wavy lines, a cartoon of a Swiss man blowing an Alpenhorn, and a pattern of neon lines resembling laser lights on a black background. Superman, and the Italian singer Gianna Nannini also made an appearance. Many patterns have a Pop Art aesthetic. Some of the patterns were produced by artist, circus performer, and clown Rolf Knie (1949-1997), whose abstracted figural paintings, drawing and prints are known for their bright colours that positively leap off the canvas.
There was also large wall hanging version of the watch that presumably also acted as a shop display. Some say that these were limited editions. Very rare versions of the person-sized watch have a built-in alarm function or a moon-phase ‘complication’, but these are hard to find. The bottom of the sprung clip has holes, allowing it to be clipped onto a branded cord lanyard or ‘pocket watch chain’, so that it could be worn around the neck, or attached to clothing. I’m not entirely sure how easy it was to read the time whether it was upside down around your neck or (worse!) on your jacket lapel. Both are certainly less easy to read than a wristwatch! Or maybe that’s just habit. After all, there is some similarity to watches worn on clothes by medical professionals, and they manage to cope.
An example of period advertising I’ve seen shows a rad dude and his cool girlfriend dressed in brightly coloured clothes and positively ecstatic about the various Le Clips adorning their jackets. The wording exclaims “LE CLIP. IT’S ABOUT TIME! Now the time is as much fun as the times. Le Clip. Totally Swiss in its quartz precision, its staunch water resistance, its silent efficiency behind mineral crystal. Totally, wild, fun and free. It’s about time you were wearing Le Clip. Everywhere.” and “EVERYWHERE…BUT THE WRIST“. Another one with the same wording is below. Soooo 1980s!
So, was is popular? In short, yes. Very much so. In its first year, Le Clip S.A. of Geneva sold over 25 million Swiss francs worth of watches, and the company had high hopes for them becoming the hottest ‘must have’ fashion accessory across the world. As a result, it was launched in the US the following year (1987), and Andy Warhol attended the launch party, clipping Le Clips all over himself, including on his glasses. Amazing! Le Clip’s success was also helped by them being worn by some of the most famous musicians of the day, including Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan, George Benson, Carlos Santana, and Al Jarreau.
The American advertising agency Biederman & Company won the American advertising account for Le Clip. Company owner Barry Biederman stated that 500,000 of them were expected to be sold in 1986 in Switzerland, Britain, France, Spain, and the US that year – and the global sales target for 1987 was 2 million watches. Steve Bochner, formerly a regional sales manager for Swatch, was employed as Managing Director of the American arm, Le Clip U.S., which had a budget of $500,000 to market the watch in 1986, reputedly rising to a staggering $2-3 million in 1987. Big numbers!
These numbers get even bigger when you do the maths with the retail price in the US, which was apparently $35 – the equivalent of about $85 today in 2020. That’s a hefty price tag for a ‘fast fashion’ accessory, especially as a (competitive) Swatch wristwatch could be bought for around $20-40 at the time. However, there seemed to have been plenty willing to wear the latest fad and, globally, over three million Le Clips were sold in the first three years. Le Clip’s success wasn’t just financial – in 1987, Jordi won the important ‘European Award of Excellence’ at Monte Carlo for his innovation.
My Le Clip is a little time-yellowed and the battery has long-since died, so it doesn’t work. And here seems to be a major issue. I examined it closely all over and I can’t find any way to get into the (seemingly) single piece grey housing to change the battery. Nobody online seems to have managed it either. Do you know how to? Maybe the glass can be removed somehow, but I don’t want to wreck it trying to prize it open with a blade. So, alas it’ll probably never work again.
What did that mean at the time? I have no idea – the original instructions state that it required ‘qualified personnel’ to replace the battery. Presumably the battery lasted long enough for it to be worn and enjoyed as a fun, jaunty and colourful (and apparently rather expensive) ‘fast fashion’ accessory typical of the times before it was discarded and forgotten about – and then thrown away. Or lost.
Le Fin <Le Sigh>
I think that, due to the difficulty of reading them and the very ‘of its time’ design and patterns, the wonderful Le Clip was probably a flash in the pan gimmick at the tail-end of the 1980s. Like a struck match, it burnt strong but fast after its launch. I was 11 at the time and don’t remember them, and I can’t say that I’ve noticed one or heard about one since. And nor is there much online about them, indicating they haven’t piqued much interest – yet. A couple of sources say that the company went down and the factory was taken over by Zeno Watches, who continued to manufacture them for a while, bearing their name on the faces.
It’s probable that most Le Clips must have ended up being binned when they fell out of fashion and eventually stopped working, as I can’t find too many of them for sale online. When you consider how many were sold over three decades ago, it’s the only answer – unless they’re still lurking around in lofts and drawers across the world. Whatever happened to the rest of them, I’ll proudly wear my Le Clip like a brooch or pin, and smile every time I pull my lapel up and angle and arch my neck to see it…