Affairs

Tinkering with time.

As they leaned in, their press lanyards swung from their necks like the pendulums of grandfather clocks. Smartly dressed, well-groomed, they were huddled together, a small horde of them, their attention fixed on the ticking apparatus held in Andre Bernheim’s hand. There at the Baselworld watch expo, at the booth of a small watch company from Solothurn, Switzerland named Mondaine, Mr. Bernheim, the owner, demonstrated for reporters his newest creation, the Helvetica 1 smartwatch.

It is a fully-functional quartz watch, but it is also smart, connected, he explained to the group. It tracks the number of steps you take throughout the day and your caloric intake; it adjusts the time according to your current timezone; it records your sleeping patterns; and it does all of this, with functional style, he boasted. There was a noticeable pause as each journalist considered the invasive implications — and the usefulness — of the watch’s personal data-gathering features. And it was then that a female reporter broke the tension: does this little device monitor all bedtime activities?

In exploring the impact of the Apple Watch on the high-end watchmaking sector, Andrew Harrison, writing for Esquire UK, penned a perceptive piece centered around two companies: Mr. Bernheim’s Mondaine, and his competitor, Frederique Constant. Both have recently released analog-digital smartwatch hybrids; and both in doing so, represent calm, sensible approaches to entering smartwatch stakes — if as a company, that is your initiative. But what is the actual tenor towards the Apple Watch throughout the top segment of the industry, and is Apple’s gadget as much of a threat to the gilded, traditional Swiss horology sector as Mr. Harrison suggested?

The answer is somewhat complicated. While an insightful read, his title — “The Smartwatch Wars: How Switzerland Fought Back” — is a tad misleading. Both Frederique Constant and Mondaine describe themselves as “accessible” brands; the upper echelon of Swiss watchmakers are anything but. Both companies may be based and manufactured in Switzerland, but given their pricing — Mondaine hovers in the $200 – $500 range; Frederique in the $1,500 – $3,500 range — and positioning — Mondaine is mostly quartz; Frederique is viewed as more of an entry level mechanical manufacture — they are not the prototypical Swiss mechanical manufacturers one thinks of when they hear that term. Fine companies though they may indeed be, they are, in fact, rather atypical of the high-end Swiss industry as it is broadly perceived.

This is a relevant distinction given Apple’s current retreat from the top end of the watch market. As of the Apple Keynote on Wednesday, the unveiling of the Apple Watch Series 2 marks a notable absence: the 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition, priced between $10,000 and $17,000, is no longer available, replaced by a ceramic edition which starts at $1,249.

The 18-karat gold Apple Watch lacked the mechanical, kinetic warmth, and the ability to improve with age, that knowledgeable customers at that price level expect from their timepieces.

Increasingly, and rightly so, Apple has started to move away from framing the Watch as a luxury item, to something that makes much more sense: the Apple Watch as a fitness device. “Apple is making an admission that it’s not a luxury product in watches,” James Dowling, co-author of “The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches” told Bloomberg. “In fact, it’s making a declaration that it’s no longer in the watch business, but that it’s in the health-tracking business.” Jean-Claude Biver, the pugnacious, ruddy-cheeked chief of watches for LVMH also spoke to Bloomberg on the matter, saying: “Apple’s move tells Swiss high-end brands that they were right not to touch the connected watches. On the other hand, it’s a sign for the lower-end brands that they should try to make a connected watch. Because if Apple has become the second-biggest watchmaker already, without ever having touched a watch in its history, it means the connected watch has some legs.”

This proves that while the best in horology might tend to glance over at Apple’s progress every now and again, the suggestion that they are existentially threatened by the Watch and its ilk is, quite frankly, not the reality. Apple Watch anxiety, especially now, plagues accessible watch companies — the Uniform Wares, Aark Collectives, Daniel Wellingtons of the world, as well as Frederique Constant and Mondaine, who have made direct plays in Apple’s direction. Among the elite mechanical manufacturers the likes of Patek Philippe, Ressence, Moritz Grossmann, and A. Lange & Söhne, however, this panic simply does not exist. This class of enterprises operates at a much higher price point, produces an industry leading product in smaller runs, and courts a far more informed and discerning customer.

By pointing to Mondaine and Frederique Constant, this is an argument Mr. Harrison made, if somewhat unintentionally. At $349 – $399 for the Watch Sport, $549 – $1,099 for the standard Apple Watch, and $1,249 for the ceramic model, Apple’s device is priced competitively for the accessible market. Apple’s 18-karat rose- and yellow-gold editions were priced up to $17,000, yet featured the exact same computing power and capabilities as the other models. Not least of all, they lacked the mechanical, kinetic warmth and the ability to improve with age — no one’s going to pass down a 30-year-old, outdated Apple Watch to their son — that knowledgeable customers at that price level expect from their timepieces. It gives the impression, noted Mr. Harrison, “of a watch designed by people who don’t really know about watches.” Echoing that notion, Frederique Constant chief, Peter Stas, also chimed in: “The unspoken word is that if Steve Jobs were still alive, the Watch wouldn’t have been released,” he said. “My feeling is that it’s going to be a failure. Apple doesn’t realise that the reasons for buying a watch are very different from buying a phone or Mac. . . . A real watch is not obsolete after a couple of years — you want to pass it on.”

“After the novelty of texting someone by yelling at your wrist wears off,” mused Mr. Harrison, “you find that the Watch doesn’t do anything that your phone doesn’t do better. In fact, it does too much.” Is this to say that smartwatches do not have a place, that they are completely useless? Well, no. They hold value for some consumers, particularly if functionality is edited and thoughtful, rather than redundant, which explains Apple’s shift to the fitness market. Still, we must ultimately question whether always-on, data-driven connectivity is an improvement on the wristwatch: a tool, whose timeless technology, centuries on, still serves us remarkably well and does exactly what we expect of it.


Further reading:

1. Apple’s luxury watch dream is over
    — The Verge | Micah Singleton

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