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Will the luxury watch market be disrupted by new technology?

Why a watchmaker from the 1950s can service your high-end timepiece today.

Disruptive technology is not something that appears often in today’s luxury watches. Almost never, in fact. The mechanical principles and materials behind the vast majority of high-end watches are exactly the same. Most improvements in technology have been incremental, rather than paradigm shifts. To put it in another way, a watchmaker from the 1950s would probably be able to service a modern-day chronograph or perpetual calendar wristwatch.

The reason for this is the same as why an Hermes Birkin is still stitched in the same manner as it was decades ago, and why the interior of a Rolls-Royce is clad in as much leather and wood as it was in the 1930s. It’s all about heritage, tradition and patrimony.

Hence, the introduction of silicon in 2001 to watchmaking is a big deal. The material is used to create the most delicate parts of the regulator, the beating heart of a mechanical watch, as it has none of the weaknesses of metallic alloys, which are easily magnetised, sensitive to temperature changes, and imprecise in fabrication. Major brands like Omega and Patek Philippe use it and Rolex equips an unknown number of watches with silicon hairsprings.

(RELATED: Su Jia Xian: How the watch industry is enticing the spenders of tomorrow.)

But despite the new material, the basic principles of the movements remain the same. Building an internal combustion engine with better materials and engineering will produce more power and boost efficiency, but it burns petrol just the same.

On the other side of the world, Seiko developed an entirely new approach. Just like how the flagship Lexus LS600hL limousine in a hybrid with a power output equivalent to a 6-litre V12, rather than an actual V12 as found in equivalents from Mercedes-Benz to BMW, the top of the line technology from Seiko is a combination of old-school mechanics and an integrated circuit.

The Seiko Spring Drive is essentially a mechanical movement regulated by an electronic brain. A rotor spins to generate kinetic energy that’s stored in a spring, with all the accompanying gears that a traditional watch movement has.

But instead of a conventional regulator that goes tick-tock, the Spring Drive has a flywheel regulated by an electromagnet, with an integrated circuit that monitors and regulates the speed of the flywheel, braking and accelerating it as necessary to maintain a constant rate.

The most expensive watch Seiko makes, the Credor Minute Repeater – which costs as much as a top of the line Lexus incidentally – is a Spring Drive. But it is still a uniquely Japanese solution that Swiss watchmakers, so strictly bound by tradition, will not adopt.

(RELATED: Why retro and vintage-inspired watches are making a comeback, says Su Jia Xian.)

The most cutting-edge development to emerge from Switzerland recently is the Zenith Defy Lab. Featuring an unusually large silicon oscillator vibrating at almost 10 times the frequency of a conventional watch movement, the Defy Lab is notable as much for its features as its price. It was initially launched as a 10-piece limited edition priced at about US$30,000 (S$41,000).

The technology in the Defy Lab will make it into wristwatches that are part of the regular collection, priced at about US$8,000. That likely makes it the first sub-US$10,000 watch with a major technological advancement inside.

That relatively affordability speaks to two facts that define the watch industry now. The first is that high-end watches are extremely expensive, being pricey enough to be out of reach even for moderately well-off individuals. The second is that the business is still in the midst of a sustained and painful slowdown that has seen revenue growth fall from strong double digits to negative double digits at many brands – hence the marked shift towards more affordable watches.

Zenith’s invention won’t be the last piece of affordable tech.

Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website,