What does the arrival of smart watches, like the Apple watch, mean for traditional watchmakers?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 12:27pm

What does the small screen have in store for the future of the watch industry? Now that Apple, the most influential player in the smart-watch arena, has shown prototypes of its upcoming product, the world has what may be the most premium technology able to be worn on the wrist ever to hit the consumer market. 

Many are asking how this will affect the traditional watch market. Will there be demand or even use for all the sensors, phone links and web connectivity that the smart watches can provide? Will we need all the data that we can now collect? Is it appropriate to even see the computerised wearable wrist device and the traditional wristwatch as similar?

It is important to remember that the traditional watch market has been changing since its formation. Mechanicals came, then began being produced all over the world, then battery-powered, quartz and digital came threatening the mechanicals, then the mechanicals strengthened again - as badges, jewellery or fashion. 

Even the addition of computing power to the wrist isn't that new. The now-trendy Casio calculator watch may have been the first consumer-accepted product that went mainstream when it popped up on hopeful students' wrists decades ago. There were dive computers for scuba aficionados, altimeters for skydivers, weather predictors and GPS trackers for adventure seekers. Even Swatch created models that included electronic ski slope passes. Still, the most recent crop of wrist technology is by far the most complex and most widely appreciated. 

There are several points of view on what the effects may be. Those outside the watch industry often believe that traditional watch brands will be forced to integrate smart-watch technology. Wristwatches themselves were once an example of technological wizardry that found its way to the wrist. 

Many watch companies have already integrated smarter technologies into their watches, and not just Casio or Suunto. Breitling has long had models with analogue and digital functions, including its iconic Emergency models that can send out rescue signals. Chopard made a special run of watches that combined a clean analogue face with a virtually invisible digital readout. TAG Heuer has made some very accurate and very expensive technologically advanced digital timepieces encased in its milestone square case with the dual-face Monaco 69. 

TAG Heuer has a head start in the phone market, and its Monaco would be the perfect platform as it combines legacies in history, technology, design and motorsport. And it is already square.

With technology, the key is often application. As trendy as wearable computers may be, the future may come down to how useful they are. The most popular applications are health-oriented devices such as pedometers and heart-rate monitors. It is arguable that the wrist is not the best place for these sensors or devices. 

"There are a lot of better locations for such a device than the wrist, as it doesn't allow you to use your two hands to use the device," says Piaget Asia-Pacific president Dimitri Gouten. "Maybe in the future, such applications allowed by smart watches will be included in smart clothes or directly integrated in our bodies, so I still foresee that the wrist will remain a preferred location for wearing accessories and high-end watches will still be seen adorning men and women's wrists." 

The reason for the wristwatch is now as much an appreciation of design and history as it is a way to tell the time. 

"The market is full of great opportunities but I would not put the new smart watches on the same footing as high-end mechanical watches," says Angelo Bonati, chief executive of Officine Panerai. "New technologies will help us to improve our lives in many ways, but mechanical watches will go on having their specific role. The relationship between a person and his mechanical timepiece is all about passion, identity, emotions."

If very high-end watches, such as Piaget and Panerai, are connected so closely to our emotions, where would we expect to see smart watches come in? 

Emerson Yao, managing director at regional watch and luxury distributor and retailer Lucerne, has been in the watch business for more than 30 years. Yao says: "As the functionality of smart watches evolves, I feel they will pose a big threat to the lower price segment of the watch market, those in the US$200 to US$500 range and especially in the sports/digital market. 

"I believe the arrival of smart watches will encourage more people to wear wrist devices again. As we have seen in the past few years, more people are relying on their mobile phones instead of wearing a watch as a means to tell time. Smart watches will have the potential to reverse this trend."

The traditional watch market will definitely feel the impact of the smart watch, but the industry in general may continue the trends of recent years anyway. It may seek to redefine itself to see where it can be appreciated and why. 

The smart watch may well be the tool of the lower level of demands. The fine wristwatch still resides at the top of the spectrum.