I was never a watch guy. The moment I bought my first cellphone, 15 years ago, I ditched my wristwatch, and I’ve never worn one since. I just couldn’t see the point — I could tell the time by looking at my cellphone, which was always with me. And soon enough, every decent phone had an alarm, a stopwatch, and everything else your average wristwatch could have, only better.
How come, then, the cellphone failed to kill the wristwatch? The reasons are many — the wristwatch can be a status symbol, a training partner, a diving computer. Above all, it’s a highly desirable, collectible gadget. As I’ve come to learn by reading extensively about the world of horology during the past few weeks, the Apple Watch and smartwatches in general are not about to threaten most — if any — of those niches.
Can a smartwatch afford to be expensive?
My interest was piqued when I read a bold report, in February, that Apple plans to manufacture 1 million units of the most expensive variant of the Apple Watch, the solid-gold Apple Watch Edition, per month. For comparison, all Swiss watchmakers exported 2.2 million units combined in February, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
The report is unconfirmed (and cites Apple’s booming market in China as justification for the figure), but as a thought exercise, let’s assume it’s true for a moment. Is Apple being realistic? I could understand the logic behind the cheaper models — a smartphone companion on your wrist which sets you back a couple hundred dollars might not be my thing, but I could see people buying it. But Apple Watch Edition — the gold variant with exactly the same software and innards, starting at $10,000? Save for those buying it purely as bling, how big can the market for a gold Apple Watch be?
So I started reading up on luxury watches — some of these are priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I wanted to know what drives someone to buy a gadget like that. Initially, it was frustrating, as none of it made sense. An automatic watch, which is less precise than a battery-powered, quartz one, typically costs much more. And all the extra functions — complications, as they call them in the world of horology — can be easily, and cheaply replicated on a digital watch.
To put it short, a $350 Suunto sports watch puts a $250,000 Patek Philippe to shame in terms of features.
Even worse, luxury watches in general aren’t good investments (though the aforementioned Patek Phillippe might be an exception there). Buy a $5,000 watch and it will lose value as soon as you exit the store — like a car — and it will just keep on losing value as time goes on, unless you’re a celebrity.
Realizing this, I thought I was in some sort of weird, inverse-logic land. My instincts told me that luxury watches really are, as they’re sometimes categorized, jewelry — pointless trinkets that serve only to show how rich you are.
A whole different ball game
But then, trudging through the immense swamp of watch-related blogs and forums, I started to realize that luxury watches today are a different breed of gadget than smartphones, tablets and even smartwatches like the Apple Watch. What makes them desirable is equal parts craftsmanship, design, precision, history, imagination and artistry. It’s not about what they can do: It’s about the effort, experience and knowledge required to make one.
Take this watch, for example — the Omega Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon. It has a chronograph (a stopwatch), a tachymeter (a scale that lets you calculate speed, though you have to do the math yourself) and yeah, it tells time. Its retail price is more than $10,000, depending on the variant. It can’t connect to your smartphone, you can’t change its face, it doesn’t have apps and it’s not upgradeable. And though parts of it are golden, it doesn’t have a gold case, like the Apple Watch Edition, which comes at a comparable price.
Omega Speedmaster ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ timepiece. Image: Omega
The devil, however, is in the details. This particular watch by Switzerland-based Omega is a new take on the original Omega Moonwatch, worn by Buzz Aldrin during his stroll on the moon in 1969. It’s powered by the Omega Co-Axial calibre 9300 movement — an advanced mechanical timekeeping mechanism created by Omega’s watchmaking masters that can’t be easily replicated or mass-produced on the cheap. Its hour, minute and chronograph hands are painted with Super-LumiNova, a strontium aluminate–based paint that shines brightly and beautifully in the dark.
You know how Apple puts special effort into the design of its products? Well, it doesn’t come close to the level of precision and the attention to detail needed to create this watch. Add to that its glorious history, and you got a very desirable collector’s item.
Apple Watch’s drawer
Does the Apple Watch really compete with the Omega or similarly priced luxury watches? In some areas, yes. A slab of gold on your wrist sends a message, and so does a luxury watch. It also connects you to a brand — Apple — which is what many luxury watchmakers do with certain models, like this Hublot.
But in all other areas, it’s not even the same type of device. In fact, in many ways the Apple Watch is the opposite of the most coveted luxury watches — it’s mass-produced, it doesn’t have history, it’s digital, it’s not hand-made by some expert watchmaker and, most importantly, millions of people will soon have one on their wrist. In the world of horology, being unique or a part of a very small group is desirable. Seeing everyone around you carrying the exact same hardware — gold case or no gold case — on your wrist is not.
More than one winner
So, budget permitting, which one would you buy — the Omega or the Apple Watch Edition? Regardless of your preference, the only proper answer for watch aficionados is: both. Watches are different than smartphones: You don’t just wear one until the next model arrives. You weigh your options, you do the research, you calculate your budget, you obsess about a timepiece, and then after you purchase it, your hunger is only satiated for a little while, until the next beautiful time-teller catches your eye.
Ever wonder why instead of the usual one or two options, Apple is offering dozens of different combinations with the Apple Watch? That’s why.
Apple is offering a multitude of options for its Apple Watch, including different sizes, materials and wristbands. Save for the almost certain initial boom (courtesy of Apple’s reality-distortion bubble), I can’t predict how well the Apple Watch will sell. Some reports indicate Apple expects to sell a huge quantity of Edition watches; others claim the cheap models are likely to get the most customers. But based on what I’ve learned about the world of watches, even if the Apple Watch absolutely kills it in the market, it will not make other watches obsolete. At best, it might become the preferable day wear timepiece of many; but I sincerely doubt watch lovers’ Rolexes, Zeniths and Hublots will be collecting dust.
The ultimate synergy?
Most watch enthusiasts already know all this. They already have an opinion about the Apple Watch, and they are very well aware at how different it really is from the haute horlogerie pieces they own or lust for.
But Apple covers a vastly larger demographic, and I bet even many gadget geeks don’t know much about what makes a luxury watch tick. Now — just as I did in the last few weeks — with the Apple Watch knocking on the door, many of them may learn about why it’s desirable to wear a watch, and those with the budget will also look into luxury watches.
The latest World Watch Report, a yearly publication by the Digital Luxury Group (DLG), sees increased interest in luxury timepieces in 2014. Contrary to the report mentioned earlier, DLG thinks 80% of Apple Watch sales will consist of cheaper units, priced below $700, meaning it shouldn’t hurt Swiss watchmakers too much.
With Apple’s enormous reach, it’s folly to think the Apple Watch will not affect the timepiece industry. It wouldn’t be too surprising if Apple sold more watches in 2016 than all the Swiss watchmakers combined. But the way Apple Watch compares with the luxury timepieces, I’m inclined to think it’s not going to hurt the industry; in fact, it’s likely we’ll all just be talking about watches a lot more in the years to come.