SIHH is perhaps one of the two or three native grounds of the Horological peacock. Ostensibly a trade show for the watch brands of the Richemont group, it oftentimes devolves into an elegant pissing contest of who wore what. It’s Pitti Uomo except more about how much money you have and less about how poufy you can make your pocket square. It’s the home of minute repeaters, split seconds chronographs and tourbillons. These mechanical complications — beautiful works of micro-engineering and craftsmanship — serve to tell time in the same way that a $200,000 shotgun serves to put food on the table. They’ll do it, but that’s not exactly the selling point.
The Apple Watch Series 3 — which I wore to this year’s SIHH — is, by contrast, nearly all about practicality. It’s got a clock regulated by radio signals sent by a device that measures the atomic frequency of a Cesium atom. Every Apple Watch in the world is within 50 milliseconds of every other Apple Watch in the world. Right out of the box, without installing a single third-party app, you can talk on the phone with someone across the world, time hundreds of concurrent events, measure your heart rate, track your location via GPS and send a text message that says “I’M SENDING THIS FROM MY WATCH!”
The general consensus is that the two have very little to do with one another aside from the fact that they’re both worn on the wrist. For the Swiss — whose definition of a “value watch” at SIHH hovered around $3000 — to be concerned about the proliferation of the Apple Watch is like Ferrari getting worried when Audi debuts its new A4. Even the ‘Edition’ Apple Watch, which is beautifully made of ceramic and four times the price of the base watch was less than a third the cost of the cheapest watch IWC introduced at the show.
The watch industry gets this. They understand. Aurel Bacs, head of the watch department at Phillips auction house put it best when he spoke to The Wall Street Journal right after the original $17,000 Apple Watch Edition came out. “We can have the modern and sensible with the traditional and luxurious. But if there are two camps of watches, that’s OK,” he said. “The guy who drinks a $1,000 Bordeaux at dinner can still have an energy drink the next morning.”
But I’m not entirely sure he’s right. I’m not entirely sure you can be a watch guy and an Apple Watch guy.
My challenge last week was reasonably clear: wear a brand new Apple Watch Series 3 Edition in grey ceramic for the duration of the SIHH and report my findings. This had the added bonus of being my first real chunk of time with an Apple Watch. And so I liberated the gorgeous Edition from its equally gorgeous packaging. Off the bat, the ceramic just felt nice compared to the aluminum series 3s I’d handled before. I think the stainless version of the watch would feel equally hefty but I liked the added polish and dark grey luster of the Edition. Once set up and synced, I was immediately shocked by how much it changed my behavior. I was using the complications to keep track of time in New York while in Geneva; I was standing when it told me to stand; and I was on the verge of self-flagellation when I missed “closing a ring” (that is, meeting a fairly inconsequential daily fitness goal that Apple sets). After a day and a half, I was fully addicted to the connected-watch lifestyle.
I brought two other watches to SIHH. They’re both old, mechanical and I love them dearly, even though one doesn’t keep time particularly well. In my pre-Apple Watch life I would’ve worn them with pride and wonder, glancing down at the little machine ticking away on my wrist. Now though, I was scared to remove the Apple Watch. Just think of all the data I’d miss out on! No notifications? No weather? No measurement of my exercise?
Then I’d step into one of the dozen meetings we had for the day with watch companies. All of a sudden, after peering through the case back of a Lange Triple Split or hearing the tinny alarm chime of the Jaeger LeCoultre Memovox I was sucked back into the mythology of mechanical watchmaking. I remembered the history and the impossibly precise craftsmanship and every other reason watch guys are watch guys. I’d wear a mechanical watch to dinner, it wouldn’t tell me to stand or that my inbox was overflowing. It just told time and started a couple conversations.
The initial watch-guy impression of the Apple Watch, summarized by Mr. Bachs above and echoed by most watch CEOs and collectors, is that the Apple Watch and luxury mechanical watches can exist in a kind of symbiosis. You wear the Apple Watch during the day, letting it crunch data and track workouts. Then, at night, you don your Cartier or Rolex and head to a gala or a date, or whatever. But this just doesn’t seem right, does it? Not only are you minimizing the utility of an Apple Watch that’s been engineered to be worn at all times as more a personal augmentation than a piece of jewelry, you’re also not getting anywhere near the maximum joy out of a mechanical watch that may have been designed to summit Everest or dive the Mariana. Instead, it gets relegated to four hours of glad-handing after work.
After a week with the Apple Watch, I was left at an impasse as both a tech guy and a watch guy. I loved the Apple Watch’s unabashed utility. I loved the shape and the look and the data and taking calls like Dick Tracy. But I missed nearly all of the reasons I wear watches in the first place. I love the intricacy, I love the design, I love the simplicity, I love the heirloom quality, and if I’m being totally honest, I love the uniqueness — Apple sells in the neighborhood of 15 million watches per year. Rolex, the largest luxury mechanical watchmaker by a large margin, sells one million.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I’ve never met someone who I’d consider “a watch guy” who wears an Apple Watch regularly. It’s a choice between connectivity and history, information and idiosyncrasy, status symbol and status updates. There’s no clear answer, but you’ve only got one left wrist.