After the early scramble of 2015 to head off the threat of the Apple Watch, the “luxury smartwatch” sector has settled into a relevant and interesting niche of its own. But should it bother at all?
It’s a strange situation: according to research firm Asymco, the world’s most successful watchmaker is Apple, with 2017 revenues eclipsing Rolex. Strange, because Apple isn’t a watchmaker per se (whether you consider the Apple Watch a “watch” is a different conversation). But even stranger because Apple wasn’t even making watches until three years ago. One could also argue the smartwatch sector was lacklustre and in danger of stalling before the arrival of Apple’s entrant, which in effect legitimised the market.
The firm doesn’t release specific sales figures for the Watch, lumping them into its “Accessories” arm, but whatever your feelings about it, there’s no ignoring the fact the Apple Watch is everywhere.
It should have come as no surprise, then, that traditional watchmakers – sniffing a potential replay of the devastating effect cheap Far Eastern quartz technology wrought back in the Seventies – were eager to join the gold rush to horology’s newest frontier.
Now that rush is over, with the histrionics subsequently easing up, and the smartwatch firmly entrenched as a standalone category at the lower end, from Armani to Timex. It also appears that higher-end Swiss watchmakers have arrived at one of two choices: do the same as the fashion brands, adding an extra chapter to their annual catalogues and hoping enough can be done around the standard tech to justify the necessary premium; or simply not bother and give up worrying about Quartz Crisis v2.0.
In terms of the latter, it’s interesting to note that one early scrambler, IWC, has quietly shelved its Connect dongle, which back in May 2015 was launched on the strap of a mechanical Big Pilot, with the promise of a roll-out across the entire IWC sports range. Purist IWC collectors are no doubt breathing a sigh of relief.
In terms of the former, however, luxury smartwatch adopters are hitting their stride with more style than ever. And it’s the watch that drew a line in the sand from the get-go that’s proved to be most successful: the TAG Heuer Connected Modular. Laudably, this effort has even showed the stuffy firmament how to have fun with a smartwatch in the process – much as 1983’s Swatch Watch did, incidentally, at the same time as rescuing Switzerland’s moribund industry with its hyper-fashionable take on newfangled quartz technology.
TAG’s Connected Modular also adds its own high-end finesse in the form of a slickly engineered swap-out system. So, with stock market and email alerts done for the working day, the AMOLED touchscreen module pops out and a traditionally crafted mechanical watch module clicks home for cocktail hour.
Or you could just switch your display to something jazzy and play around with the straps and even the attachment lugs. The latter are available in titanium, titanium with rose gold, diamond-set… Whether you’re a magazine intern or a stockbroker, one thing’s for sure about the Connected Modular: this is a smartwatch aimed at the young, indecisive and fashion-conscious. And why not, with a brand that counts DJs, graffiti artists and a Bella Hadid among its ambassadors?
By contrast, Montblanc’s rather more grown-up “business luxury” proposition was unveiled around the same time as the Modular, in spring 2017. Its Summit model fetches well below the £1,000 plimsoll line in this case, and is styled even more deliberately in the classical fashion, to the point where its analogue dial display is always on, avoiding the disconcerting “black mirror”.
In fact, even at the lower end, with Scandi brands such as Skagen and Nokia, the smartwatch has become smart in the literal sense – which, ironically, could force Apple to round-out its Watch’s rather gadgety, iPhone-on-a-wrist design. In the case of Frederique Constant’s Hybrid Manufacture, a classical dial with proper hands and a mechanical movement piggybacking on its in-house electronic module combine to belie its connectedness entirely.
Rich kids and jetsetting corporates are both well served, then. But are these few examples enough to convince further endeavours by luxury brands?
“I would agree that smartwatches are now a part of the luxury watch firmament, but a very small one,” says Mark Toulson, head buyer at leading luxury retailer Watches of Switzerland. “I don’t think Patek will ever produce one!”
“The best functionality for smartwatches will always be limited to the areas of fitness or wellness,” he continues. “Monitoring your sleep, the number of steps you’ve taken or your heart rate are all useful functions, but trying to read a text message on something as small as a watch just seems like a waste of time. I see smartwatches as complementary to more traditional watches. After all, you have two wrists, so why not wear both?”
Most people would never advocate such sartorial silliness, but in terms of building a watch wardrobe that spans your lifestyle, rather than looking for a horological silver bullet, having a smartwatch for the gym and a traditional one for when you’re not sweating on purpose sounds eminently sensible.