Disruption” has become something of an overused term these days, but there are times when it is precisely the correct one. April 24 2015 was one of those days: the Apple Watch went on sale, bringing calls, emails, navigation, social media and health and fitness monitoring to the wrist. The more pessimistic observers had flashbacks to the so-called quartz crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when the mechanical watch industry was pushed to the edge of extinction by electronic timepieces.
Anyone attending the Apple convention in Cupertino this September might have thought that in a little more than two years Apple had accomplished just that. Clad in a zip-up cardigan, CEO Tim Cook paced up and down the stage in the Steve Jobs Theater in front of a large screen with a list of world-famous watch brands, at the top of which appeared the name of Apple. “Today I am thrilled to tell you the Apple Watch is now the number-one watch in the world.” Applause was rapturous.
However, the “slam dunk” that this suggests is slightly disingenuous. It depends how one defines “number one”. It may not sell the highest numbers of cars, but Italian manufacturer Ferrari seems to be holding its own, and the streets of the West End were still clogged with Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces and Range Rovers the last time I looked.
Nevertheless, sales bombast aside, the Apple Watch (from £249) has had remarkable, if less readily calculable, results. Wristworn technology using Bluetooth to connect with mobile phones has been around for about a decade, but it was the Apple Watch that broke out of the wearable tech sector and made the Swiss watch industry take notice and take action.
Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH’s watch division, had been in talks with Google and Intel before the launch of the Apple Watch, and on a brisk New York morning in November two years ago he addressed the expectant crowd filling the immense, glass-sided, aquarium-like “Magic Room” atop the LVMH Tower on East 57th Street. “On the 9th of November 2015, the Swiss watch industry connected itself to the future.” Sometimes projecting his voice with a vigour that would have impressed Donald Wolfit, at other times lowering it to a stage whisper to bring his audience closer and make them feel more… excuse the pun… connected, Biver held the room spellbound. “Watch Valley started in 1551, Silicon Valley 40 years ago. In 2015 they come together to create for Tag Heuer the first luxury Swiss connected watch,” he thundered, leaving the audience energised by his final, full-volume rhetorical flourish. The room rose in the now-familiar 21st-century standing ovation: to get a better shot with their smartphones.
Two years and one generation later, the Connected (from £1,200) numbers among Tag Heuer’s bestsellers. Biver believes that this is because it looks like a conventional watch. “Our smartwatch was the first that looked like a mechanical watch. And that was the trick.”
He also feels that the relative exclusivity of the connected watch and its Swiss-made label initially added to its appeal – and, if that appeal waned, customers could part-exchange for a mechanical model. Now, two years later, the straps are interchangeable between connected and mechanical models to keep things fresh. “You can switch them in a couple of seconds,” says Biver. “You can have a connected watch today, and tonight you put on the tourbillon model.” It is this mixing of high tech – including water resistance down to 50m and an NFC sensor for payments – with haute horlogerie that Biver likes. “It’s complementary, it’s another business. It’s like the tweed jacket and the denim jacket: both have their uses.”
Hamdi Chatti, who runs Louis Vuitton’s watch and jewellery business, uses another sartorial simile. “Sometimes you wear a beautiful shiny shoe with a tuxedo, sometimes you wear sneakers. This is what we are offering with watches; within one style, you can have a connected or a mechanical watch. And it’s up to you to mix and match it to your needs.”
Louis Vuitton’s Tambour Horizon smartwatch (£2,140 and £2,600) appeared this summer, and it is as much another branded Louis Vuitton product as it is a watch. A quick strap-change mechanism means that “if you are an LV monogram lover, you can have a monogrammed face paired with a monogrammed strap. You can do the same with our Damier and Epi leather styles.” The dial can be personalised in a way that mimics “Mon Monogram”, the brand’s bag customisation programme. Stressing the travel heritage of the marque, the Louis Vuitton City Guides have been installed on the watch; they link to local time, so “if it’s afternoon, they’ll suggest a place where you can have tea or coffee”.
However, Chatti is most proud that the Tambour Horizon is housed in the same case as a Tambour watch with a mechanical movement. “This was the biggest challenge. It is exactly the same kind of construction, from the waterproofing to the sapphire face, and the size and position of the crown. Believe me, this is a big, big job. Many connected watches have a strange look or are oversized, because you have to accommodate antennae.”
Davide Cerrato, who heads up Montblanc’s watch division, faced a similar challenge. “Incorporating complex elements like the antenna is a more involved process in terms of design. You don’t see many connected watches with a metal bracelet because they can create interference with the antenna and then you have an issue with connectivity. The integration of the electronic module is also far more complicated than a mechanical movement because during the time you are working to incorporate it into the case, it’s continuing to evolve.”
Cerrato has created what is in effect a retro smartwatch (the Summit, £765), with dial options that come from Montblanc’s 1858 collection. “We wanted to do something completely different, and we came up with the idea of applying an historic design to a connected device, to create a link between watch making, heritage and the device. The aim was to speak to the young generation, to put connected devices on their wrists with the finishing and quality of a mechanical watch.”
Blurring the line between the conventional and connected horological experiences was also, says De Grisogono founder and creative director Fawaz Gruosi, why his brand brought out a limited edition of 250 black and white diamond-set smartwatches (Samsung Gear S2 by De Grisogono, £13,100). According to Gruosi, the idea originated with the wife of the owner of Samsung. When the Samsung team showed their luxury smartwatch designs to top management, she said, “Listen, De Grisogono would do something like this best.” The look is more Geneva than Korea, with the signature De Grisogono touch of the shagreen strap. “I just think our watch looks like an elegant wearable day watch,” says Gruosi. If you are a daytime diamonds person, that is…
More news on De Grisogono connected watches is expected next year, but the new technology is not for everyone. Italian jeweller Bulgari’s plans to integrate credit card functionality into a watch have been put on hold following difficulties with international financial standards. And IWC is unlikely to produce a smart strap anytime soon. “At the moment you have two routes,” says CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr, “the full smartwatch integration, and IWC’s not going down that route any time soon, and the integration of user identification, fitness tracking and payment into a strap. And there we’re open-minded. But until the tech integration is at a level where the product is sexy to wear, I’m not going to launch something like that under IWC.”
Over at Hermès, artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas has a very different approach, pairing low-tech artisanal leather straps with the Hermès-customised Apple Watch. This month sees the launch of a studded strap (£589) called Médor after a watch Hermès created in the 1980s. “Its design was inspired by a 19th-century Hermès dog collar, so we called it Médor – a typically French name for a dog,” explains Dumas.
Meanwhile there are brands that have developed what one might call electronically enhanced watches that use connectivity to deliver specific functionality (rather than full smartwatch capability). Breitling describes its recently released B55 limited edition Bentley chronograph (£6,430), with analogue dial and two LCD windows, as “enriched with functions tailormade for the automobile universe”: Chrono Rally is capable of recording 30 stages, complete with the departure date of the rally; Regularity Rally is for competitions in which the objective is to cover a given distance in a given time; and Chrono Race is for track days.
While the Breitling B55 is overtly technical, Frédérique Constant’s Horological Smartwatch (£895) looks highly traditional. Only here, hands convey information such as missed calls; users can move between functions by pressing a pusher in the winding crown; and a subdial calibrated to 100 displays performance against pre-set goals without the need for a phone. “You don’t always have to be connected,” says company co-founder Peter Stas. “That’s a big advantage.”
A big advantage that has not escaped Apple, which launched the third-series Apple Watch (from £329) under the strapline “Freedom calls. Answer a call from your surfboard.” Apple Watch Series 3 has, for the first time, built-in cellular connectivity, which means that the user can make calls and answer texts and emails, as well as stream music, without having their phone with them. It’s also water resistant to 50m. And for the surfer – or indeed anyone else for whom speed is an issue – it has a new dual-core processor that is 70 per cent faster than its predecessor’s. Jony Ive, chief design officer at Apple, is considered when it comes to claiming number-one status in the watch industry. “How we define and understand success is complex, but the Series 3 has exceeded my expectations. Its cellular configuration is really bringing the vision we had for a smartwatch to fruition,” he says. There is a short film on the company’s YouTube channel showing users recounting their Apple Watch experiences – from standing up when their watch tells them, to having their lives saved. “When we measure the success of the product, there’s the tremendous growth [Tim Cook has revealed that sales were up over 50 per cent year-on-year in the June 2017 quarter], but I’m galvanised by the letters I receive every day. That’s how I measure its success.”
Ive does not see the rise of the Apple Watch eclipsing the centuries-old values of the mechanical timepiece. “No, I still love my mechanical watch collection. I wear them less, but I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. There’s always space for great products,” he says, adding, “There’s still tremendous value beyond utility.”