A watch can do more for you than tell the time, and a smartwatch can be more than a gadget: one represents a timeless connection to the past, while the other is a tiny computer that connects you to the ephemeral present. They seem diametrically opposed and in competition for the same wrist real estate, but is it possible to have the benefits of both in a single product? Both watch and tech companies believe so.
The Apple Watch remains the best of what the tech world can currently put on your wrist. Its sleekness and smooth user interface are thanks in large part to a platform that's totally integrated into its design from the ground up — an "in-house movement," in watchmaking parlance, if you will. The Apple Watch outsells any other watch in terms of both units and revenue, and is deservedly the standard against which other smartwatches will be measured.
The success of the Apple Watch is why brands like TAG Heuer, Montblanc, and Louis Vuitton felt pushed to get in the game, though they offer a different perspective on the smartwatch. These luxury companies are better known for making elegant and refined goods such as watches with in-house mechanical movements, which often merely tell the time — and cost thousands of dollars. Their smartwatches claim to leverage generations of experience in the likes of their design and case construction, offering their unique visions, but built around the same operating system developed by Google.
Is the history, craftsmanship and prestige of traditional watchmakers compatible with a touchscreen, software updates, notifications and inevitable obsolescence? What do these brands have to offer the world of wearable tech? And how do they stack up against the Apple Watch? We put them to the test.
Traditional horology in the Apple Watch
Historic watchmakers might have the heritage, but Apple has shown that it's far from horologically ignorant. The tech company enthusiastically points out that they've incorporated a host of elements aimed specifically at fans of traditional watches. "Did you notice?" they seem to be saying directly to watch enthusiasts with a wink. We did.
Ergonomic Apple Watch features are the result of Cupertino directly and intensely studying the watch industry — after all, industrial designer and watch industry veteran Marc Newson was deeply involved in its initial development. Turn an Apple Watch over in your hand, inspect its finishing and construction, operate its Digital Crown, and notice the round charging station with sensors on the case back where so many traditional watches also put their power source on display...fans of traditional watchmaking will find a lot of familiar echos. The software reveals even more.
The watch industry's influence is most readily apparent in the screen ("face") options based on watchmaking archetypes like chronographs (stopwatches) and GMTs (second time zone displays). Those Apple Watch faces where half the hour indices are in Roman numerals and the other half Arabic? Watch nerds call the design a "California dial" — they've been around since the 1940s. Apple calls the customizable bits of information integrated into watch faces "complications," a term borrowed from the watch industry despite the fact that many lay people are unfamiliar with it. Of course, seconds hands are animated to sweep smoothly like those of mechanical watches, as well.
The list of traditional watches' influence on the Apple Watch goes on, and it shows that the Apple Watch is designed as much more than simply a shrunken version of a smartphone or tablet. It also shows that Apple's sights are set on conquering the wrists even of traditional watch lovers, and luxury watch companies have two ways of fighting back: by charming customers with traditional watchmaking, or by producing smartwatches of their own.
Smart tech in a traditional watch case
Within the case of a traditional mechanical watch are typically over a hundred parts. They can comprise everything you see from the dial and hands to applied elements like indices and other components, as well as the intricate clockwork inside called a movement. These tiny parts are often, to varying degrees, carefully designed, produced, finished and applied (in many cases by human hands) and they're a significant part of such watches' appeal.
In a smartwatch, all this is replaced by the batteries, circuitry, sensors and other tech needed for the amazing things modern gadgets can do. Every luxury smartwatch of note runs on Google's Wear OS, so despite some software and features proprietary to each brand, the user interface is similar. What you're primarily left with that's still got the feel of a watchmaker's touch is the case and strap — but these can also represent impressive feats of engineering, construction, finishing, design and refinement.
Take the TAG Heuer Carrera, for example: its angular case in no small part helped spur the brand's success in the 1960s and continues to enjoy an iconic status among watch collectors to this day. That's all there, in modern form, in TAG's Connected watch. Note its confident lines, multiple surfaces and facets, contrasting brushed and polished finishes, grooved pushers and their solid operation: the TAG Heuer Connected is comfortable to use and beats the Apple Watch for case details.
Google Wear OS is designed for a round dial (screen), so even affordable smartwatches using it naturally have a more traditional-watch look. A couple of pushers flanking the crown further echo familiar watch types like chronographs. (The Montblanc Summit Lite features these, too.) Known for chronographs in particular, TAG built the Connected with several proprietary applications such as timers and stopwatches that are indeed useful, elegantly designed and fun to operate.
Expanding upon its Tambour watch collection, Louis Vuitton, on the other hand, goes for elegance first and forgoes pushers — without noticeably sacrificing functionality — in the Tambour Horizon smartwatch. Measuring 42mm wide at its base with a subtly curved inward slope toward the dial, this unique case design is the standout feature of a collection that includes a range of traditional mechanical watches as well. It offers a genuinely interesting look and ergonomic feel that one can appreciate aside from whatever notifications or animations are popping up on its screen.
First known for very high-end pens, Montblanc took its approach to craftsmanship and details to its expansion into watches and other products, and eventually into smartwatches. The "Lite" version of its Summit smartwatch offers a relatively basic and affordable wearable featuring an aluminum case and a price ($860) starting around that of the Apple Watch's current most premium Edition. Like Louis Vuitton, it also offers straps featuring its famous leatherwork.
Like any luxury product, the value of such features is relative and controversial — in other words, it depends on your needs, tastes, lifestyle and budget whether heritage and premium details are worth it in a smartwatch.
Who are luxury smartwatches for?
The basic functionality of smartwatches can be highly useful — especially for health and fitness — and it's mostly available in relatively affordable packages. Only a small percentage of people who are interested in owning a smartwatch will be interested in owning a fancy, premium version of one.
Apple might offer the most premium-feeling user interface, but not everyone is an adopter. If you prefer smartphones running Google's Android mobile operating system, you'll have a smoother smartwatch experience and will be best served by choosing among Wear OS devices (even though it's also possible to use them with an iPhone). That means you have a lot of choices, and luxury companies simply represent the top tier.
That range of options is yet another point for smartwatches offered by traditional luxury brands vs the Apple Watch: Apple Watches, for all their available materials, finishes, faces, easy-changing straps and generally excellent design, mostly look like, well, Apple Watches. If you've seen one, you more or less seen them all. Something from Montblanc, TAG Heuer, Louis Vuitton or even an $11,000 Hublot smartwatch covered in diamonds might feel more like an "interesting choice" that goes further to express the wearer's individual taste and personality.
Make no mistake, however, that image and prestige are a big part of the luxury smartwatch equation. These brands have reputations built on a history of quality materials and workmanship, exotic crafts and refined designs. People who know the companies, own their other products and feel a connection with the brand persona are ideal potential customers — and each of these companies have dedicated followers.
That means that some of these customers will also invariably be watch collectors, possibly with a safe at home full of traditional and even high-end watches. And though one might cost multiples more than the most premium Apple Watch, even a luxury smartwatch might be far from the most expensive timepiece such consumers own. Such a watch might be but one in the rotation that comes out for, say, fitness or travel.
There's no single profile of luxury smartwatch consumers, but they surely also include those with an appreciation of advanced technology as well as something that feels personal, natural and human. Whether tech or watch companies are succeeding at delivering this is up to each consumer to judge.
Apple Watch Series 6 'Edition'
The Series 6 is the most current culmination of the Apple Watch's ongoing evolution and refinement, and the Edition is its most premium version alongside the Hermes collaboration. Like other Apple Watch Editions, it's primarily distinguished by its case material, which has previously been the likes of premium materials like ceramic and even 18k gold. The Series 6 Edition has a titanium case with a brushed finish and scratch-resistant treatment. Like the steel version, it also uses scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. Titanium is lightweight and interesting with its own kind of luster, but doesn't make the Edition feel like a huge step up from other versions.
An always-on display is now standard on Apple Watches since the Series 5 (though not for the affordable SE version), and this means you can now check the time at a glance and not feel like you're walking around with a lifeless slab on your wrist. Like other Apple products, the Apple Watch (Edition or otherwise) has a premium feel in every sense, from its user-friendly interface to its ergonomics, finishing and construction. Most crucially, compared to smartwatches from traditional luxury companies, it offers strong value for its price.
Diameter: 40mm or 44mm
Water Resistance: 50m
Operating System: Apple iOS
Montblanc Summit Lite
Montblanc introduced the Summit Lite as a more affordable version of its flagship Summit smartwatch. The Lite features a recycled aluminum case with more basic finishing compared to the contrasting brushed and polished finishes of the stainless steel Summit smartwatches, which cost a couple hundred dollars more — and not much more than the Apple Watch Edition. Montblanc seems committed to being a player in what it calls "New Tech" and, before its full-on smartwatches, introduced an interesting concept of a smart module integrated into the strap of traditional watches.
Like nearly all smartwatches, the Summit line is focused on fitness features and offers several proprietary apps. They largely make use of heart rate and other sensors to guide you in the likes of cardio training, sleep, stress management and "energy levels." Unlike other brands, Montblanc doesn't offer a smartphone application specifically for interacting with the watch — which is maybe bloatware you don't need, anyway, as the Wear OS and Google Fit are probably more than sufficient.
Water Resistance: 50m
Operating System: Google Wear OS
TAG Heuer Connected
TAG Heuer was among the earliest to the smartwatch game and has been one of the most visible traditional watchmakers in the space. In a bid to address the inevitable question of software obsolescence, the brand even introduced a Modular concept in which you could swap smartwatch and traditional watch heads, sold together, between a single case — the idea being that you'd only need to update the smartwatch head when it became outdated.
The Connected, however, is a straightforward smartwatch, but it's an impressively refined one. The Carrera case feels edgy, serious and well integrated into the overall image of a smartwatch made for actual use, and for sports in particular. Its proprietary apps feel like they were designed by watchmakers. Lastly, it offers not only the level of finishing you'd expect of a luxury sport watch, but its pushers and crown — which also operates as a scroll wheel — are as smooth and sturdy. Even its haptic feedback feels premium.
Water Resistance: 50m
Operating System: Google Wear OS
Louis Vuitton Tambour Horizon
Louis Vuitton is a sister brand to TAG Heuer in the LVMH corporate group (along with Hublot, which also makes a high-end smartwatch), but has quite its own approach to wearable tech. The other products featured here — and just about every current smartwatch — are heavily focused on fitness. The Louis Vuitton Tambour Horizon is different in that it only offers 30m of water resistance and doesn't include a heart rate sensor. It will count your steps and such, but as it's on a leather strap, you'll probably want another smartwatch to swap out specifically for the gym.
Inevitably, the prestigious name and recognizable look is part of the significant premium Louis Vuitton is charging compared to other smartwatch makers. The brand, however, offers a genuinely interesting and unique experience with its distinctive Tambour case in sandblasted steel and the brand's famous leather for the straps. Proprietary faces make the package feel cohesive, including special travel-oriented apps, designs taken from traditional Louis Vuitton watches as well as new ones designed especially for the watch by Louis Vuitton Studios.
Water Resistance: 30m
Operating System: Google Wear OS
The future of luxury smartwatches
Is there a luxury smartwatch that outright beats the Apple Watch for premium feel and refined user interface? No. Do such watches offer interesting alternatives to the ubiquity of Apple products? Certainly. For some consumers, the traditional European approach and Google Wear OS might be an appropriate and satisfying choice, but what can luxury companies do to be more competitive?
Wearables lay bare the issue that what tech does is as important as integrating it in a way that enhances the user's life. Consumers and developers no longer expect smartwatches to do everything smartphones do — people don't really want to read news or browse Instagram on a tiny screen. What smartwatches are good at is providing limited and specific information and conveniences, but they've proven most practical for health and fitness applications.
A smoother, sleeker operating system from Google — one that mirrors the intuitiveness of Apple's — would be one way to improve the experience on non-Apple smartwatches. At this point in the evolution of wearables, however, it doesn't seem like more features is necessarily the way forward. Rather, it's all about selectively integrating available functionality in clever ways, and this is exactly the kind of thing that traditional watchmakers are good at. If Old-World watchmakers can creatively combine a smooth, focused experience with the craftsmanship that gives horology its "soul," they'll be in their element again.