From Switzerland via California: Montblanc Tackles the Smartwatch

As the Apple Watch’s sales slump, Montblanc proves that your watch can be smart without sacrificing style. You just need to think outside the steel and glass box.

There are two men in my office who started wearing Apple Watches not long after their release. One of them has always steered towards the sporty; before his wrist succumbed to the silver rectangle, it spent two years wrapped in a Nike FuelBand. He likes to know how far he’s walked. How far he’s run. How many calories he’s burnt doing both. Then he likes to share smug round-ups of his exertions on Facebook. It’s a lifestyle.

The other chap’s got more classic tastes. He’s the kind to rock a double-breasted blazer and knitted necktie – even if they’re now likely coupled with a pair of tailored joggers and Stan Smiths in place of suit flannel and brogues. His watch arsenal was once full of rugged three-handers and – as if unable to fully abandon this past life – he opts for the same setting on his spangly new smartwatch.

But despite the weeks spent rolling sleeves up to reveal their new wrist candy; of faking forgotten appointments as an excuse to check the time; of sending pictures of crudely drawn genitalia to each others’ wrists during meetings (not a function mentioned in the promotional literature) no one else in the office has boarded the bandwagon. And nor, according to reports that the Apple Watch’s sales have slumped 90% since launch, is anyone else. Because for all Cupertino’s marketing muscle, the truth is that their product trips over the same hurdle as all other smartwatches; it’s neither smart enough, nor watch enough, to satisfy either geek or horologist.

Not to cast aspersions on the smartwatch’s usefulness. Knowing how much you move could save your life, and notifications on your wrist save constant delves into a pocket only to discover more spam. But to date they’ve been designed by people in California, not Switzerland. And the techy’s urge to pack in everything plus a kitchen sink app comes at the expense of what makes you want to wear a wristwatch even though your phone can perform most of its duties; namely as a marker of taste, of success and of your ineffable elan. None of which comes in 38mm of galvanised square steel.

Which is why the Montblanc Timewalker Urban Speed e-Strap is so intriguing. Facing the world you have a Swiss-made, sand-blasted steel chronograph, with mechanical guts and a face that won’t once make you think, “I wish I had the option for the dial to look like Mickey Mouse.” Then on the underside, where you’d normally find a clasp, sits a metal and glass rectangle which recognises that, for all watchmaking’s love of tradition, modernity isn’t a terrible thing, either.

This is the e-Strap’s “e” – a smart tracker, independent of your watch, that logs your daily step count and calorie expenditure (and will chide you if you’re not moving enough to meet either) as well as beaming notifications from your phone straight to your wrist. It’s missing a dedicated smartwatch’s more esoteric functions – no sending your heartbeat to a friend here – but more than makes up for it with the fact it’s essentially indistinguishable from an ‘ordinary’ Swiss watch.

The Timewalker Urban e-Strap proves that there’s no reason “smart” elements have to be packaged within watches. It’s just that your wrist is a tried and tested place to put something unobtrusive you’ll wear everyday. By designing from the watch backwards – rather than crafting a computer that happens to tell the time – Montblanc built a timepiece that’s not a novelty, and which will transition from boardroom to bike home (the strap’s Extreme Leather is mercifully sweatproof, as well as being impervious to scratches and fire) to ensure your end-of-day calorie count is actually accurate.

This seems to be the way the luxury watchb market’s moving, and for good reason. Horologists don’t wear luxury watches because they love knowing the time; they wear them because they love the intricate engineering and dedication to enduring quality that they represent. Where an Apple Watch has a three-year shelf life before its technology decays, the Montblanc Timewalker Urban Chronograph is something you can pass on to your son. And until he’s ready for it, you can simply upgrade the e-Strap without throwing out what it attaches to. To us, that sounds like a seriously smart watch.