It says a lot when you begin a piece on luxury watches by talking about TechCrunch. The tech industry’s leading source of news usually covers releases by Microsoft, Apple, Google, the big players in the world of digital media; and by startup or niche technology companies that create robotic prosthetics or thinking cars.
So what’s a watch blogger doing here, combing through an article about apps, smartphones and digital wearables? Well, I’m reading words written by another watch blogger and self-confessed fan of “mechanicals” – what you and I would know as a luxury watch. Because this article, written in January 2015 by horology nerd John Biggs, is about the Apple Watch.
When Apple released news about its forthcoming smartwatch, the inevitable media storm predicted the end of the Swiss watch industry. How could stuffy old manufactories in Geneva keep pace with a watch that not only tells the time with knife-blade precision, but includes “complications” a mechanical piece could never aspire to?
As Apple itself points out, “high-quality watches have long been defined by their ability to keep unfailingly accurate time”. When Breguet made its first wristwatch in 1810, for Napoleon’s sister, its reputation as a creator of astonishingly accurate timepieces was already assured. And the ability to keep precise time has been the defining characteristic of the modern luxury watch, which – whether it’s made by Jaeger-LeCoultre or Patek Philippe or IWC – plays heavily on its connection with the tradition of haute horlogerie, and the expertise needed to make springs and balances keep everlasting track of the hours.
An Apple Watch uses the iPhone’s location and clock to determine the correct time, which (again according to Apple) is relayed to “within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard”. And it does this forever, or until its battery runs down. That’s a tall order for even the most complex mechanical movement.
TAG Heuer is reportedly trialling designs of a smartwatch, but as some observers have already pointed out, smartwatches rely on being feature rich and that means hooking them up with smartphones. When a watch also becomes a digital communication and information device, its complications turn into messaging apps, heart rate monitors – all the stuff the Apple Watch is going to perfect over its next couple of iterations.
As Apple is unlikely to give TAG Heuer as much of a link with the iPhone as its own tech gets, the concept of a high-end smartwatch made by a luxury watch house has to remain a big question. And if I was going to put that question into words, it would be: can anyone other than a smartphone manufacturer make a smartwatch people are going to buy?
The Apple Watch, of course, already has a “luxury” model: the Watch Edition, which is available in yellow or rose gold with a sapphire crystal display and a choice of premium straps. At the top end of the budget, an Edition sells for £13k – easily putting it in the high-end category. You can get a Rolex Submariner for less.
How is a luxury watch supposed to compete with this?
The answer, according to John Biggs, is money. A really haute piece of horlogerie isn’t cheap. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Hybris Mechanica a Grande Sonnerie, reputedly the world’s most complicated, and expensive, watch, costs £1.6m. Jacob & Co’s astonishing Billionaire retailed at a cool £11.9m. So while you can’t buy a phone made by Rolex (which would presumably power a smartwatch created by Rolex, if the famously conservative brand were ever persuaded to try such a thing), you’re unlikely to pay in excess of a million quid for an Apple Watch.
The luxury watch industry’s reported “fear” is that the Apple Watch will crack the very foundations on which maisons de haute horlogerie have been standing for all these centuries. If it is precision and desirability alone that make our cherished mechanical timepieces so alluring, Apple’s newcomer could have a shot at knocking the royalty of horology from their thrones.
Those foundations cracked nearly beyond repair in the 1970s, when quartz movements all but destroyed the luxury manufactories for good. Then, as now, a public obsessed with the idea of technical achievement flocked to the newer (and cheaper) quartz models.
But there’s always room for a comeback, and come back the Swiss houses did, first with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (which used a quartz movement, but cost thousands), and then with modern luxury brands masterminded by watchmaking visionaries like Jean-Claude Biver. These new kids on a very old block took the principles of luxury watchmaking and turned them into modern statements.
The Hublot Big Bang, the outlandish designs of Fawaz Gruosi, Richard Mille’s new take on the use of materials – all of these came out of a realisation that what a select segment of the public really wants is luxury. And luxury is a much more nebulous thing than technology or design. It’s emotion. In the case of luxury watches, it’s emotion engendered by a sense of history, and a fascination with the achievements of men and women who turn tiny pieces of metal into machines capable of marking out eternity.
If the Apple Watch were to turn the luxury watchmaking industry on its head, it would only be for a short time. Because class will always tell. Sometimes, you don’t want a phone on your wrist. You want to be James Bond, not Jeff Tracy from Thunderbirds. And while the world’s most famous secret agent might wear a comms device on a mission, he certainly wouldn’t wear it to dinner.