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In recent years, so-called ‘digital disruptors’ have spectacularly succeeded in challenging the establishment. Think Uber versus taxis; Netflix versus free-to-air TV, to name a few.
There are exceptions to every rule, though. The makers of ‘smart’ watches – digitally connected timepieces that can deliver a host of smartphone-like functionality – have been looming for years to challenge the venerable Swiss watch industry. Millions have been sold (with the Apple Watch leading the charge), yet it has pretty much been business as usual for the old guard.
Disruption is nothing new in the mechanical watch industry; the arrival in the early 1970s of ultra-precise quartz movements sent many manufacturers to the wall. The remaining players learned to co-exist with the new technology (or produce their own quartz models). By the early 1990s, things came full-circle as worldwide appetite for mechanical watches boomed.
The smart watch has been on the scene since 2013; but it’s fair to say most watchmakers, certainly at the upper end of the market, have taken a very cautious approach to the trend.
For a start, blending the best of both worlds – traditional craftsmanship and engineering with digital smarts – without compromising either is a fine balancing act. There are signs, though, that these hybrid watches are coming of age.
The tech is smoother, less ‘buggy’ and even the most ardent believers in mechanical movements are beginning to see there is room for both approaches.
Besides, if smart watches are encouraging people to wear watches, it has to be a fillip for the industry overall – many buyers who enjoy the look and feel of a timepiece might eventually trade up to a mechanical watch.
Smart watches can also be a handy tool in the kit bag of frequent travellers. There are apps (Android or iOS) available for hotel bookings, downloading boarding passes, checking flight updates, translation, managing expenses and much more – all with a swipe of your finger or tap of a button on your wrist. It’s the kind of convenience that traditional analogue watches just can’t compete with.
Frederique Constant was one of the first mainstream Swiss watchmakers to explore the smart watch concept, releasing its Horological Smartwatch in 2015. Frederique Constant (now part of Japan’s Citizen Group) says the watch became one of its best sellers and has since spent significantly on R&D to refine the concept.
The brand released two new 42mm quartz pieces that, when linked via an iOS or Android smartphone app, offer functions including sleep monitoring, activity tracking, alerts and a world timer – all controlled via the crown. The look and feel, down to its hand-polished hands and leather strap, is pure classic dress watch.
Mont Blanc takes the concept of personalisation to a new level with its Summit 2 smart watch, powered by Google’s Wear OS. Not only does the Summit 2 (42mm) offer four case finishes and 11 interchangeable strap options, the in-built watch face configurator provides more than 1000 watch face combinations.
The Summit 2’s ‘smart’ functionality (when linked to an iOS or Android smartphone) is mind-boggling – everything from notifications of phone calls, emails and social media updates to a voice-activated translator (directly to the watch display), and even Google Pay.
Summit 2 also overcomes a major bugbear of many smart watches that blank their screen when not in use to conserve battery life; the watch has an ‘always-on’ ambient mode, visible at all times. Shut off smartwatch functionality completely and you’ll still be able to read the time but also extend battery life by an additional three to five days.
Add in specialised features like Mont Blanc’s ‘Timeshifter’ travel app – advice on how to minimise jet lag based on a user’s flight times and sleep patterns – and 8GB of storage, and the Summit 2’s repertoire is pretty impressive.
Sports watch specialist TAG Heuer has also gone down the ‘more is more’ route with its highly configurable Connected Modular 45 model (in 41mm, 45mm and 46mm variants).
At the snap of a button, the wearer can swap from a fully mechanical module (either tourbillon chronograph or automatic, these must be bought separately) to an all bells-and-whistles digital package that, with a swipe of the hand, gives scores of alternative watch face options and numerous other functions courtesy of Wear OS by Google.
TAG has released multiple themed Modular 45s (including an Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Special Edition) and its latest iteration is a specialised golf version which does pretty much everything except swing the club for you.
The 45mm sandblasted titanium-cased watch, when paired with an iOS or Android smartphone, can display 3D renderings of more than 39,000 golf courses worldwide. It can track your scores (for up to four players – stroke, matchplay or stableford), show distances to greens and hazards (accurate to a metre), and then download all the stats for post-game analysis over a few beers in the clubhouse.
Breitling is renowned for its highly technical aviation watches but has refocused to appeal to a more widespread audience under new CEO Georges Kern, producing the striking Exospace B55 Yachting connected chronograph.
Housed in a 48mm titanium case, the Exospace is no shrinking violet on the wrist. It’s water-resistant to 100m – very handy, as the chronograph includes a regatta countdown feature aimed especially at the yachties.
Via Bluetooth Low Energy technology, the watch can be synchronised with a smartphone so it can either be remotely adjusted or receive data from the phone. The Exospace will also notify its wearer of incoming emails, phone calls or diary appointments.
Breitling’s Superquartz movement offers astonishing accuracy – up to 10 times that of a standard quartz, which in itself is far more precise than even the most finely engineered of mechanical timepieces.
Lastly, for those who can’t fully commit to the brave new world of hybrid/smart watches, leading German watchmaker Sinn has come up with a novel solution.
Sinn’s Dual Strap System allows you to wear two watches – a mechanical and Apple smart watch – at once for what it calls a ‘best of both worlds’ experience.