Establishment figures seek to allay talk of battle with smartwatch makers, insisting they are into wearables

Watch brands insist they are simply targeting wearables market with the launch of products incorporating smart technology.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 December, 2015, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 10:11am

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Georges Kern, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, was down to his last interview and he was tired. But when asked about the smartwatch trend, undoubtedly a question he has come across a million times over, he suddenly perked up.

“We are not in [the business of] smartwatches,” he says. “People wrote we are in smartwatches. We are not. We will never be in smartwatches.”

Kern is referring to the announcement in May about the IWC Connect, seemingly Schaffhausen’s answer to the rise of the smartwatch. Kern is adamant this is not the case. “What we are doing is [working] with a wearables company called Misfit, and they developed for us a kind of receiver which we will integrate into the watch bracelets.

“We have to distinguish between wearables and smartwatches. [They are] very different,” he adds. “Wearables are these bracelets the kids are wearing, where you have your health pattern, your sleeping pattern, [and] your steps. Then you have the smartwatches.”

Apple Watch launched in April, and since then, debate has boomed. It had been likened to the second quartz crisis, when the Swiss watchmaking industry declined as people turned to the then-new, and more appealing quartz-watch technology.

Mechanical watches have since bounced back and many Swiss executives agree that smartwatches are unlikely to cause the economic upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s.

Head of LVMH Watches Jean-Claude Biver calls the heritage of mechanical watches eternal, unlike smart devices which people are more likely to throw out once a newer version is launched. “[Mechanical watches] will be working and repairable in 1,000 or more years,” he says. “Technology watches [are] born from an industrial process and are certain to become obsolete when the process is changed or improved.”

Swiss watchmaker Franck Muller, whose eponymous watches carry the slogan “Master of Complications”, says the smartwatch is called a watch, “but it’s not a watch”.

“It’s not collectable because it has no value. If it [stops] working, you throw [it] away and in six months, there will be a new model,” Muller says. “You say watch because you wear it [on the wrist]. But watch is not the pretext, a watch is a watch. Perhaps you don’t need a watch, so when you buy a watch you buy something more than just the watch. It’s the prestige, the quality. It’s an emotion.”

However, this small assurance has not stopped the Swiss watch industry from debuting new products with technological functions, especially if Apple reportedly sold five million watches.

Singer John Mayer, a watch connoisseur whose love for IWC watches has been documented on watch blog Hodinkee, told the International New York Times: “We’re all going to end up with the Apple Watch. I don’t care what you say. Even if you have to wear it on your right hand.”

Most of the watch brands that are launching smart products are keen on pushing boundaries and targeting young millennials. One possible reason is this: while everyone is fairly confident smartwatches won’t affect the high-end market, others can’t say the same for entry-level luxury watch brands with comparable price points.

Tag Heuer unveiled its Connected watch this month, having revealed plans for a connected watch at Baselworld in March. Joined by Android Wear engineering director David Singleton and Intel’s New Devices Group corporate vice-president Michael Bell at the launch in New York, Biver boasted that the Tag Heuer Connected watch will “give you the means not only to connect to the future, but also to connect to eternity”, refuting claims that the connected watch will lose its value as technology develops.

The “Swiss-engineered” Android Wear smartwatch will be upgradeable to extend the lifespan of the product. If users opt not to upgrade to future Tag smart watches, they will have the choice to exchange the Connected watch for a mechanical Carrera watch for US$1,500.

Featuring immediately recognisable design codes, the new connected watch looks part of the Tag Heuer Carrera collection, and three dials are available: the chronograph dial, the three-hand dial and the GMT dial in a choice of black, deep blue or pearl white.

Swiss watchmaker Breitling has also come up with the B55 Connected, a concept watch which uses smart connectivity to make its watches more user-friendly. With the accompanying smartphone app, the wearer will be able to adjust the timing and timekeeping functions on the watch, and adjust various flight functions on the pilot watch, including coordinated universal time, flight time chronograph and a second time zone. The B55 Connected, like its predecessor the Breitling Cockpit B50, runs on a thermo-compensated high-end quartz movement that is exclusive to the brand.

Other maisons, such as IWC, don’t see producing Swiss-made smartwatches as the solution.

The IWC Connect will be a completely removable device that can be embedded into the straps of the brand’s mechanical timepieces. Starting with the Big Pilot line, the smart tool is designed to give wearers control over devices that are connected to the internet of things directly from the wrist.

“For us, it’s to be modern, to be part of this world,” says Kern, who saw that many of his clients and brand ambassadors were wearing connected devices alongside their IWC watches. “You can have a traditional watch with something linked to the modern world … but it’s totally [up to] the consumer to choose if he wants it or not.”

Bulgari’s solution was to use technology to give luxury watches an added service. “I’m not sure at all [smart watches] will compete with luxury watches because I don’t see at all the criteria which is usually for luxury,” says CEO Jean-Christophe Babin.

Bulgari’s Diagono Magnesium doesn’t compromise on luxury, Babin says. “It’s a manufacture of mechanical watch. It will not [become] obsolete, but additionally it [will] provide you with real added value [in the form of] a key to a virtual safe.”

The Bulgari Diagono Magnesium has an automatic movement, but the main selling point is the Near Field Communication chip that is included in the watch’s sister concept. While still in development, the concept watch will allow the user to link his portable device with the Bulgari Vault app, and use the watch as an encryption key to unlock the virtual vault.

For Montblanc, who has always focused on the functionality of its products, it was only natural that the brand would go into smart wearables.

“We have always been willing to develop and to enrich the functionality of our watches,” says Jérôme Lambert, CEO of Montblanc. Like Kern, Lambert noticed his clientele becoming more tech-savvy, and Lambert was also sure that another electronic watch was not the solution.

“It will somehow lose its context to have it with the traditional kind of watchmaking,” Lambert says. “It was much more about bringing the two things together – the best of technologic function and the best of fine watchmaking.”

The result is the Montblanc Timewalker Urban Speed Chronograph e-Strap, with the technology functions integrated into the strap only, leaving the watch movement untouched. Available functions include activity tracking, and system notifications for email and social media platforms.

Reception of the Montblanc e-Strap has been “extremely good”, Lambert says, a sure sign that connective straps may be the answer for traditional watchmakers who understand the status of a mechanical watch, and the allure of modern day technology.

Like Mayer so eloquently puts it, “I think it’s a cool device, but there’s got to be another place to put it. I can’t give up precious wrist space for an Apple Watch.”

Additional reporting by Vivian Chen