The Age of the Smartswiss

As the Frederique Constant Horological Smartwatch lands at The Watch Gallery, Alex Doak (in typical Alex Doak fashion) has plenty to say on the tech luxe tidal wave. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s official – haute horlogerie just went digital.

“An expensive watch is a piece of art; a part of eternity,” enthused LVMH’s exuberant watch chief and erstwhile industry spokesman Jean-Claude Biver on CNN in February. “Because 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. Since dubbed Wearable 01, TAG has even promised that you will be able to keep the watch forever, updating the technology inside as it changes.

“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 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.

If this year’s sudden flurry of “smart” – or, to use that more relevant moniker, “connected” – watches are anything to go on, a great number of brands more used to crafting high-end mechanical watches are already making sure they don’t suffer a Smart Crisis of their own. Which has two rather fortunate knock-on effects. For one, watch enthusiasts have never had as richer choice of horological delights gleaming from shop windows, from the high-tech to the high-craft. And with Switzerland getting in on the act, the kids in Silicon Valley are being forced to up their game when it comes to design, build and longevity. Remember the first Pebble Watch, roughly shaped and built like a placky USB stick? Exactly.

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 took 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 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.

Elsewhere at Baselworld, Bulgari had everyone scratching their heads over a conceptual watch (there were a lot of “concepts” around, needless to say) that acts as an encrypted key to your secure digital data, stored in an actual Swiss military bunker. And on the other side of the exhibition stand, we were even more surprised to discover Will.i.am, who was making his “voice” heard at Gucci. The Black Eyed Pea’s Los Angeles-based i.am+ enterprise has worked with the fashion brand’s Swiss factory on a new concept in wearable tech, in keeping with this year’s swathe of smartness. But speaking at the press conference, Mr Adams (as his bank manager knows him) reckoned the new concept could come to define the more fashionable end of the Swiss smartwatch category, adding yet more layers to the burgeoning “connected” onion by saying, “I coined the term ‘fashionology’; a merging of the worlds of fashion and technology.”

What’s remarkable here is that no one – not even Monsieur Biver – knows whether watches connected to your phone are the right way to go yet. As someone who quickly limited his Apple Watch to the weekly jog after just a week of “time to stand up!” alerts (alerts, or nags?) I can safely say that a physical shackle to either can be more stressful than convenient. But what’s brilliant about Switzerland’s reaction to the concept has been its instant innovation, resourcefulness and imagination.

Biver’s healthy salmon still has some swimming to do, but it’s in good shape.

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