“Switzerland is in trouble.” – Jony Ive
I’ve heard these words before. All watch collectors have. Back in the ’70s, the Swiss watch industry was under attack from the Japanese in a battle for wrists that became known as the “Quartz Crisis”. Many storied brands succumbed to the relentless onslaught of accurate, reliable, durable and (most importantly) affordable quartz timepieces that flooded the market, seemingly overnight. It took a thorough rethinking of what it meant to be Swiss to revive the industry and restore it to the horological preeminence it previously enjoyed. The epitaph, it seemed, was premature.
Then, in the mid-2000s, pundits started predicting the demise of the wristwatch, this time due to apathy, as opposed to a focused attack. Ironically, the cellphone was the catalyst here, used as a sort of modern-day pocket watch by the younger generation; no need for a watch when the correct time was always in your pocket, right? Wrong. In spite of the ubiquity of the cellphone, or perhaps, because of it, high-end timepieces are more popular than ever before, with new buyers flocking to boutiques, while seasoned collectors are bidding up vintage watches to record-breaking prices on a regular basis.
And yet here we are again, now with an industrial design hotshot telling us that Swiss are living on borrowed time. Indeed, this inflammatory remark could be written off as mere bravado if it weren’t for the singular bit of produce that pays said hotshot’s salary: Apple. Underestimating the Cupertino tech behemoth is a mistake that most don’t get to make twice. Apple rewrote the rules for personal computing, turned the music industry on its ear, created a revolution in telecommunications, and now they’re setting their sights on the budding smart watch market with the eponymous Apple Watch. So why is it that I’m not scared?
For starters, the Apple Watch looks like a smart watch, which, frankly speaking, is a huge letdown.
Well, for starters, the Apple Watch looks like a smart watch, which, frankly speaking, is a huge letdown. Together, Apple and Jony Ive have a long history of creating groundbreaking, iconic designs, so it’s only natural that we were expecting more of the same. Couple this with Apple’s high-profile hire of Patrick Pruniaux, TAG-Heuer’s former sales director, and it’s easy to see why Swiss watch executives were holding their breath. They shouldn’t have been. In its current incarnation, there’s nothing about the Apple Watch that would make a watch collector swoon. Sure, the design language is appropriately smooth and sleek, but beyond that there’s little in the way of nuance or detail, important factors in creating the “personality” collectors look for when spending big money on a timepiece. In fact, from a design perspective, the Motorola Moto 360, which runs Android’s smart watch platform, Android Wear, makes a far more compelling case for the traditional watch owner because of its round screen.
And then there’s the issue of planned obsolescence. When I buy a watch, it’s for the long haul, and mostly forever. You can’t do this with the Apple Watch, or any smart watch for that matter. Like the phones that they’re tethered to, smart watches will evolve on a regular schedule, with new models trumping the previous generation with slimmer form factors and increased functionality. After a couple of years, your state-of-the-art smart watch is living in a smart watch nursing home. Compare this with my oldest watch in regular rotation, which dates from the mid-1960s, and then ask if you can you see yourself wearing a first generation Apple Watch 50 years from now. Heck, my pocket watches date from the turn of the century, and not the last one, at that — the one before that.
My oldest watch dates from the mid-1960s. Ask if you can you see yourself wearing a first-generation Apple Watch 50 years from now.
Okay, so up until now I’ve made the case that dyed-in-the-wool collectors like myself will have little interest in forsaking our mechanical masterpieces for technological wizardry, but what of Average Joe who has a passing interest in watches, but who doesn’t want to spend $20,000 on an Audemars Piguet? For him, the Apple Watch certainly makes more sense, and indeed, I would almost prefer to see him going that route as opposed to blowing the same $350 on a quartz fashion watch, which he’s just gonna throw out once the battery dies. Mind you, he’s got about two or three years before that happens, which brings me to the final point about smart watches — battery life. Yes, they’re all rechargeable, but that charge is measured in hours, not days. This means bringing not only your phone charger but your watch charger for every weekend hop out of town. For a lot of folks, the novelty of doing so is going to wear thin sooner rather than later. Perhaps down the road, with an intervening quantum leap in battery technology, this time will be measured in days or weeks, but we’re not there yet. Not even close.
Even so, the smart watch is here to stay. With Apple joining the fray, that statement is as close to objective fact as you can get. Folks will wear them, and developers will create new ways to add to their usefulness. However, as of right now they’re still a novelty, whose functionality is constrained by size, battery life, and, of course, the cellphone, without which they can’t operate. But this will change, and indeed, there are a couple of high-end watch manufactures who are taking this challenge to their supremacy seriously. Jean-Claude Biver, the visionary behind Hublot and now the head of all of LVMH’s watch brands, has publicly stated that TAG-Heuer will begin development of their own smart watch; Nick Hayek, the CEO of Swatch Group, which owns brands such as OMEGA, Blancpain and Breguet, has made similar statements. Can they overcome decades of buyer resistance and crack the code for true watch collectors? Only time will tell, but if so, it will be done in conjunction with, not at the expense of, their traditional watchmaking initiatives.
Which is all to say the Swiss watch industry has nothing to worry about; they’ve weathered far more existential threats to their existence and triumphed. Of course, this won’t prevent the next group of hotshot looking for a sound bite to claim once more that “Switzerland is in trouble”, and when they do, I’ll just think while strapping on my vintage Tudor Blue Snowflake: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”