Is the clock ticking for traditional watchmakers?

In recent weeks Apple announced the launch of a new smartwatch which many are calling a game changer. The news was followed quickly by a story that TAG Heuer’s boss had hinted at plans for a smartwatch by his own brand. Is this the way the market is going, or will it be a textbook here-today-gone-tomorrow fad?

Apple has form in the game of entering markets very late and changing the game. That much is certain. The iMac was not the first self-contained PC, but it caught the imagination of the late Nineties tech-adopters.

The iPod was not the first MP3 music player, but it was somehow cooler than everything else on the market at the time. The iPhone was not the first smartphone with sci-fi levels of functionality, but it was regarded as a ‘game-changer’ from the moment the late Steve Jobs, founder and former CEO of Apple, walked out in front of a press conference to reveal his company’s invention to a baying public. There has always been a kind of Willy Wonka appeal about Apple, which is probably largely attributable to its notoriously secretive approach. Leaks about its new products are considered a big deal, and the rumour mill surrounding the company has provided a livelihood for the owners a many Mac-focused news websites.

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So when the market started warming up for the introduction of the company’s smart-watch offering, expectations were high. And it is fair to say it did not disappoint. Probably the most important thing for the jewellery industry to clock was that it will be available in 18ct gold and also rose gold. In a Jewellery Focus feature in October 2013 about the launch of Samsung’s offering (the Galaxy Gear), we noted that the firm described itself as “[conjuring] images of luxury jewellery while still being understated enough to go with any outfit”, so it was clear that smart-watch manufacturers want them to be regarded as jewellery more than just gizmos. But Apple’s use of gold is a much more brazen play for jewellery lovers as opposed to technology fanboys.

Interestingly, Apple has developed its own type of gold alloy for the Apple Watch. On its website, the firm says the device “has a watch case crafted from 18-carat gold that our metallurgists have developed to be up to twice as hard as standard gold. The display is protected by polished sapphire crystal”. Sapphire crystal is a substance you’ll find on Rolexes and many other high-end watches. TAG Heuer also uses it: “All our watches are fitted with sapphire crystal. This is cut from a polished slice of solid sapphire that has been created by the fusion and crystallization of alumina. Sapphire is so hard that only a diamond can scratch it.” But more on TAG Heuer later.

Another poignant element of Apple’s efforts with this launch is the fact that part of their marketing collateral includes explicit references to the importance of timekeeping and attendant traditions.

Key quotes from Apple’s website

“High-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time, and Apple Watch is no exception. It uses multiple technologies in conjunction with your iPhone to keep time within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard. And it can automatically adjust to the local time when you travel. Apple Watch also presents time in a more meaningful, personal context by sending you notifications and alerts relevant to your life and schedule.”

“The crown has been a standard feature on watches for more than a century. Our new Digital Crown is a multifunctional input device that lets you zoom, scroll and select without covering the screen.”

“Apple Watch comes with 11 watch faces ranging from traditional analog faces to new faces like the dynamic Timelapse face; the Astronomy face with its interactive, real-time 3D model of the earth, sun, moon and planets; and the Solar face, a contemporary sundial. Apple Watch can be personalised in appearance and capability with additional information such as upcoming events, moon phases or your activity level, enabling millions of possible configurations.”

That last one is arguably another part of the firm’s attempts to appeal to traditional watch lovers: you can make it look like a traditional timepiece or a gadget, and having the moon phases as an option invokes high-end timepieces from top brands.

The gadgetry elements

It would not be an Apple product without some clever technology powering it in the ‘back end’, so to speak. The device makes use of some clever LED tech on the back of the case which can read your pulse for the fitness apps on the device; it can sense when you are walking or moving around so you can get stats about your daily jog; and it can transmit vibrations to your wrist to alert you that you have received a text on your phone – which you can then open and read on the watch face.

Inevitably, there are some drawbacks. The cogs and gears of an automatic simply do not generate enough power for the on-board processor and screen that the Apple Watch makes use of. It has to be charged like a phone, and one suspects it will be on a near-daily basis. There are some innovations designed to conserve battery life, such as a sensor which can detect when you are moving your wrist up towards your face to view the time and switch the screen on only in that moment. There is a rather smart ‘induction charging’ device which simply has to be touching the back of the watch to charge it, and which snaps perfectly into place using powerful magnets. Furthermore, you have to be an iPhone owner, and have that iPhone in your pocket whenever you’re wearing the watch, for most of its functionality to be in full flow. The apps, the texting, the email and calendar alerts – they are all driven by the phone. For the type of consumer who is sufficiently evangelical about Apple to be an early adopter of the watch, this will be no problem. But reaching out to all the millions of (mainly young) consumers who own devices manufactured by other tech firms, a great many of the features the watch boasts will be out of action.

Wider influence

To get an idea of how the smartwatch market is developing, one only has to look at the number of firms that are producing one. Pictured are some from Samsung and Sony, whose offerings were both announced in 2013, illustrating just how late Apple has come to the market. But it looks as though the long looming spectre of the tech firm having any success with the product has spurred some traditional watchmakers into exploring the space.

In September a swiss newspaper reported that TAG Heuer is planning a smartwatch product. The comments, purportedly made by Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH’s watch business, were published in NZZ am Sonntag, a major Sunday newspaper in Switzerland, according to Reuters. Biver is alleged to have said: “We want to launch a smartwatch at TAG Heuer, but it must not copy the Apple Watch. We cannot afford to just follow in someone else’s footsteps.” He then apparently indicated that the swiss watch industry would be unveiling a range of smartwatch devices at the Basel watch fair in 2015. TAG Heuer has already indicated its interest in the smartwatch market after announcing it had made a one-off product to be worn by Oracle sailing team in the tournament in 2013. It also already makes a high-end smartphone, called the ‘Meridiist’.

Such is the hype surrounds Apple product launches that it is difficult to tell whether the excitement is temporary, or whether this competent-looking product can exert sufficient influence on both consumers and manufacturers to steer the market in the smartwatch direction. One suspects, thought, that the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe will be staying out of the pulse-measuring, app-playing territory for the foreseeable future.

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