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Apple watch vs classic timepieces

The Apple Watch won’t oust luxury mechanical timepieces – but it can teach traditional watchmakers a thing or two.

Think about this: Luxury mechanical wristwatches are almost the antithesis of technology. Why? Because they embody an archaic idea first developed some four centuries ago – a portable timekeeper powered by gears and springs.

In concept, mechanical timepieces are closer to water clocks made of wood and iron from millennia ago, than they are to today’s smartwatch. On the other hand, the latter is a leap forward in the evolution of technology, a gadget that is part of you without being implanted.

The very appeal of timepieces lies in their outdated technology, and are less about timekeeping than luxury and history – precisely the qualities that transform them into a status symbol. Watch whizz Jean-Claude Biver, famous for turning around both Blancpain and Hublot before selling them for millions, created a wristwatch that embodied that appeal back in 2006.

One of the highlights of that year, Hublot’s Big Bang All Black had an all-black dial that made it almost impossible to read the time, due to the lack of contrast. Biver even displayed it in a dimly lit showcase, further emphasising its illegibility. But that was precisely the point: A modern luxury watch isn’t necessarily meant to tell the time.

That illustrates the comical extreme of the appeal of the mechanical watch, and the reason that, in my opinion, luxury timepieces will not be supplanted by the Apple Watch.

The latter will still be a game changer and on a massive scale, as Apple has successfully styled itself as a maker of luxury electronics – something it wants to pursue with the recruitment of ex-luxury goods executives, such as the former chief of Burberry.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I think it’s likely that, in its first year, and certainly by its second, the Apple Watch will sell more, in both volume and value, than all the watches exported annually from Switzerland.

But the Apple Watch remains a functional object. Even with the sleek solid gold models, it lacks the cachet of a finely made mechanical watch. And the fact that each successive generation will render the previous one obsolete means the Apple Watch will lack staying power. Each new Apple Watch model will become the next coolest thing, until it is not.

In fact, the Apple Watch may actually increase wristwatch use, since it will introduce the idea of wrist-borne timekeeping to many who would never wear a wristwatch – a significant portion of the young in many countries.

However, lower-end luxury watches, the sort that cost as much or a bit more than the Apple Watch, might need to up the ante to stay attractive. In the sub-$1,000 segment, a mechanical watch is less a status symbol than a functional object.

Makers of pricey mechanical watches do not need to change the fundamentals of their product – the antiquated mechanics that are quaint, charming and impressive – but they can make a better, affordable product, as the Apple Watch demonstrates.

What Apple has managed to achieve in terms of construction (a large sapphire crystal without a bezel) and materials (the ceramic-gold composite for the top-of-the-line model) is superior to anything Swiss watchmakers can muster for the same price. Add to that the fact that the Apple Watch is made in China, something that might lead one to ask: Where’s the value in Swiss-made?

Swiss watchmakers would do well to learn a few things from Apple, most obviously how it can produce a well-finished watch with relatively advanced materials for prices that will appeal to a wide range of consumers, especially non-watch-wearers.