Why you should care

Because it’s a cheap and sporty timepiece available in as many shades as your wardrobe.

There’s a hierarchy in the watch industry.

If you’re scaling your way up the ladder of rich douchiness, you start with a middle-class-friendly Casio or Timex. After your first six figures in the finance industry, you move to an “entry-level” luxury watch, like a Rolex, by 30. Then, in your 40s, if you’re lucky, you park your annual bonus on a high-end Swiss number. And in your 50s, feeling both flush and the literal press of time, you rock the equivalent of a Porsche on your wrist, before passing it on to the next generation as a family heirloom.

At some point in the past decade, however, perhaps as traditional career arcs stalled and the creative economy introduced informal dress codes, the watch hierarchy got scrambled. And rich people freaked. Which is when a Belgian entrepreneur came up with the brilliant and intuitive idea that if a watch could symbolize fun rather than status, it would be worn far more often by far more people.

Swatch watches, which still are the market leader in this fun watch category, were slim and not all sporty, like Ice-Watch would be.

Enter Ice-Watch. The name’s a play on Apple’s i-everything name for its products.

Beginning with its launch in 2007, this line of sturdy, attractive, rainbow-colored watches became massively popular thanks to a simple proposition: They’re so cheap (around $60 each) that you can buy a bunch, instead of taking the old-fashioned approach of having one sporty or dress watch. You can even buy a different watch to match your every mood or the time of day, or to color-coordinate with your favorite outfits or other accessories.

In other words, it’s the new Swatch. Remember Swatch? They were light, playful, artsy watches meant to be cheap enough that you could wear a few at once. Casio’s G-Shocks were durable, colorful chronographs that had already become the watch of choice among skateboarders and athletes. And all the affordable watch giants offered options designed to look like luxury watches — the $50 Casio, for instance, that resembles the hugely popular Rolex Submariner or the $120 Swatch with accents of an Audemars Piguet, LeBron James’ favorite watch.

Black and white photo of samples of inexpensive Swatch Watches designed by Jaques Muller.

Inexpensive Swatch watches designed by Jacques Müller

Source Ralph Crane/Getty

Jean-Pierre Lutgen, a Belgian executive at a company that made promotional trinkets and a former advertising executive, spotted a small plastic watch in the store of one of his distributors in Hong Kong and had a bright idea: How about producing a brightly colored plastic that was big and muscular like the Rolex Submariner and other big aquatic sports-inspired watches that were all the rage? Swatch watches, which were — and still are — the market leader in this fun watch category, were slim and not all sporty, like Ice-Watch would be.

Having cock-blocked Swatch by making it seem more flimsy than sporty, Ice-Watch went on to ride the past decade’s big watch trend.

Within three years of its launch in Belgium, Ice-Watch had vaulted to No. 1 in sales in Germany, England, Belgium and France. When the Black Eyed Peas, at the height of their fame in 2010, gave a long, loving glance at a white Ice-Watch in their video for “The Time,” Ice-Watches became so hot they received the ultimate compliment for a hip product: Bootleggers started making and selling rip-offs.

Having effectively cock-blocked Swatch by making its watches seem more flimsy than sporty, Ice-Watch went on to ride the great big watch trend of the past decade — from big to even bigger faces and the rustic vintage look to diving and patriotic flag versions. All in all, there are now 500 models available. For his next act, Lutgen declared he wants to do to almighty Apple what he did to Swatch.

But, you know, fun comes and goes, and isn’t a recipe for lasting style — especially if you’re going after a moneyed demographic. Joseph Rosenfeld, a California personal stylist, quipped over email: “‘Fun’ gets boring very fast, as yet another example of throw-away fashion.”

This fall Ice-Watch launched a line of pastel-colored smartphones called, naturally, Ice-Phones. The resemblance to the omnipresent iPhone is not the only thing Lutgen hopes will attract consumers. He’s banking on the Ice-Phone’s very sexy price of “just” $200.

Leslie Nguyen-Okwu contributed reporting.

Due to an editing error this story has been updated to correctly identify the Ice-Phone’s price.

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