The tides are changing
Nearly half a century ago, the Swiss watch industry was all but wiped out by the advent of revolutionary new technology in the form of the cheaper, trendier and more accurate quartz watch. Now, 45 years on, the digital wave looks set to send mechanical watchmakers into a panic once more. After all, smartwatches have never been more successful than in recent years. Thanks to the widespread connectivity of this decade, smartwatches are finally thought of as complementary to our lifestyles, rather than the clunky novelties its early predecessors once were. And the Apple, Pebble and Samsung Gear watches (and the millions who clamour to own them) more than justify the hype.
But this time, the reactions garnered from the old-school watchmakers have been largely indifferent and, in some cases, even supportive. While this may seem surprising at first, it’s not so implausible once you consider that luxury watchmakers are targeting a very different market and with products that offer a completely contrasting set of selling points. What high-end mechanical watches lack in functionality, they make up for in heritage, craft and exclusivity. And so, rather than view the smartwatch wave as competition, a growing number of prestigious watch companies are instead treating it as an opportunity to expand their product lines.
The new kids on the block
For instance, Bulgari’s Diagono Magnesium Concept watch is equipped with a Near Field Communications chip that will allow it to interact with similarly enabled devices – such as car doors and vaults – when paired with the Bulgari Vault app. Frederique Constant’s Horological Smartwatch tracks your activity and sleep, and displays the information on a cleverly disguised subdial. Montblanc, on the other hand, leaves the actual watch alone and places its tech in its e-Strap – a “smartband” that features a touchscreen display that can be used to read notifications from iOS and Android devices, and provides vibrating alerts and remote control for the paired phone’s music player and camera. These are just a few examples of luxury watchmakers that manage to do what they do best – make stunning timepieces – while leaving the “smarts” to partnered tech companies.
Fashion brands may soon join in the fray as well, despite lacking a history of mechanical prowess. Gucci Timepieces has teamed up with musician Will.I.Am on a smartwatch that will operate without a smartphone, but will be able to make calls, send and receive texts, track your fitness, hold music, and even has a voice-activated personal assistant like Apple’s Siri.
The period that marked the decline of the mechanical watch in the 1970s was appropriately named the Quartz Crisis, but it was also known as the Quartz Revolution. And the latter moniker might be better suited to what’s happening now, since the marriage of tradition and its historic enemy (technology) to create a new category in watchmaking is, in so many ways, revolutionary.
An adapted version first appeared in 24:7.