“An expensive watch is a piece of art, part of eternity,” professed LVMH’s bumptious watch chief and erstwhile industry spokesman Jean-Claude Biver on CNN in February. “Because,” he explained, “a watch that is made by hand can be repaired in a thousand years. A technological watch will be obsolete in probably five.”
That may be, but a month later Biver was on stage at the Baselworld trade fair alongside David Singleton, director of engineering for Android Wear, and Michael Bell, general manager of Intel’s New Devices Group. The big news being that LVMH’s sports-watchmaker TAG Heuer will soon launch a Swiss smartwatch in partnership with Google and Intel.
“After all, let us remember that Chinese proverb,” Biver bellowed into his microphone, with typically gnomic glee. “The dying salmon, it swims with the current; the healthy salmon, however, swims against it.”
In other words: Switzerland can’t be caught napping while Apple is poised to seize a large chunk of luxury’s lower-end market (and potentially some of the high end, assuming there are enough people out there happy to spend up to £13,500 on a gold version of a less effectual, miniaturised iPhone). It happened in the Seventies, when cheap technology from the Far East laid waste to a third of Swiss watch jobs – colloquially known as the “Quartz Crisis”. And with exports now back up to around CHF21bn annually, it cannot happen again.
The first hint that major lines of communication have opened between Switzerland and Silicon Valley was earlier this year at the SIHH fair in Geneva. There, Montblanc took everyone by surprise with its TimeWalker Urban Speed e-Strap, which combined a traditional mechanical watch with a separate OLED-screen Bluetooth dongle (sold separately for around €300), showing notifications and keeping track of your daily exertions.
But it’s taken till Baselworld for the advent of the truly integrated, connected luxury watch – the first being Frédérique Constant’s pre-Basel teaser: the so-called Horological Smartwatch (from £870). Of all the new launches, this captures the tone of “SmartSwiss” the best: a traditionally styled, traditionally crafted watch, which doesn’t try to compete with the tech giants’ smartwatches – rather, utilising Bluetooth-connected mobile tech in an alternative, but equally viable way, to enhance your lifestyle. In Frédérique Constant’s case, its new smart-tech factory in Geneva, set up in partnership with California’s FullPower Technologies, makes fitness-tracker watches with proprietary “MotionX” technology – already selling downstream to a third party (Mondaine’s Helvetica watches).
Another, rather more likely entry to this brave new world of high-end connected watches is Breitling, which already makes its own cutting-edge quartz movements to kit out a range of professional-spec, digital aviator watches. Indeed, its recently launched, top-end B50 Cockpit is so packed with functionality that it was practically crying out for a mobile app that disseminated all the info and settings, rather than learning which crowns to twiddle where. And lo, the Breitling B55 Connected prototype was unveiled – a brilliantly intuitive “instrument for the wrist”, fully adjustable and controllable from your phone. Just make sure you don’t leave it till mid-sortie to calibrate, joystick in one hand, iPhone in the other.
Which isn’t to say that SmartSwiss should always be the answer to an unanswered question; why not pose the question yourself? Such as: do you think the wristwatch could be used as an encrypted key to your electronic data? Bulgari certainly thinks so, answering with the Diagono Magn@sium (sic.) – a mechano-tronic hybrid magnesium-alloy watch that contains Wis@key (sic., again) technology, unlocking your priceless data on your mobile device via near-field communication, rather than broader-cast Bluetooth. The data itself is stored in a Swiss military bunker, just kilometres from Bulgari’s watch factory in Neuchâtel.
It’s a million miles from what we’re expecting from Bulgari’s LMVH stablemate and its Google/Intel tie-up. In fact, from what Biver has hinted, the new TAG smartwatch will be closer to our notion of a “traditional” smartwatch than any of the above. What’s remarkable, however, is that no one – not even Biver – seems to know whether a connected watch is the right way to go yet. For now, it seems that the healthy salmon still has some swimming to do.