You don’t need to follow the watch industry closely to know there’s been a lot of talk about what impact the rise of the smartwatch is having on traditional watchmaking.
The Swiss, by and large, claim not to be too bothered. What they make will last a lifetime, they say, while what Silicon Valley makes will be on the tech scrapheap with your smartphone, your Mini Disc and your Betamax within a couple of years. So your watch is also a phone? Big deal.
Then there are the tech companies, parading their new gizmos as symbols of progress. Your watch only tells the time?
Somewhere in between there’s us, wondering whether there isn’t simply room in the market for both.
Plenty of analysts and tech hubs have claimed victory for the smartwatch already. And they might have a point. Swiss watch industry exports have taken a hit since the Apple Watch landed. Last year alone, they were down 10 percent. Exports to Hong Kong, if we’re counting, have halved in that time. All hail the smartwatch? Maybe, but then again, even basic analysis of the global watch market shows there are far bigger macroeconomic factors at play here than sales of smartwatches, no matter how many units Apple may have shifted.
What’s more, recent reports suggest talk of the demise of Swiss watchmaking might be premature. Swatch Group and Richemont – who between them own industry giants Omega, Cartier, Longines and Tissot, among others – have both reported recent growth, suggesting the slump is over.
“Why compromise, when you can have a watch that’s both mechanical and connected?”
While the two trade blows, TAG Heuer has put the cat among the pigeons by planting its feet in both camps. Yesterday, the company announced its second smartwatch, the Connected Modular 45, a watch that can be both a smartwatch and a mechanical watch, depending on your mood (and your budget).
The idea is that the watch is modular, right down to the central time-telling unit, and that you can switch out a battery-powered, wi-fi, GPS and NFC-enabled module for an automatic mechanical movement. One watch, many timepieces. Or so goes the theory.
TAG Heuer, with its usual understatement, is calling this a revolution. Not just because it’s not been done before; not because TAG has embraced fashion’s ‘see now, buy now’ concept and made the watches immediately available; nor even because it’s got Google and Intel on board – although all these things are significant in themselves. It’s revolutionary, says TAG, because this system can be rolled out across its collection. Why compromise, when you can have a watch that’s both mechanical and connected, is the sentiment. Or, why have just an automatic time-and-date watch when it could also be a perpeptual calendar. And so on.
That’s an interesting promise. But is it the future of watchmaking? TAG says by the end of 2016 it had sold 56,000 of its first Connected watch, which debuted in late 2015 (so already obsolete), three times forecast. And it reckons it’ll do around 150,000 sales of the two models by the end of this year. Pretty good for a smartwatch that costs £1,400, before you start adding in the Calibre 5 automatic module (£2,800 for the set) or the in-house Heuer-02T tourbillon chronograph (£14,400, also for the set).
But then again, while consumers like choice, you can have too much of a good thing. There are 56 versions of the watch to choose from at launch, and that’s before you start choosing straps, lugs and buckles. The purists will hate it – simplicity is better. The avant gardistes will love it – progress at work. Either way, TAG Heuer’s Connected Modular 45 is Swiss watchmaking history.