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Editorial - Innovation and tradition hand-in-hand

Editorial Innovation and tradition hand-in-hand

An ability to combine innovation with heritage has helped the watch industry emerge from crises before and will do so again.

The Swiss watchmaking industry recovered from the quartz crisis to later reinvent itself as a luxury industry. It will likely survive the era of smart watches and wearable technology, too. Why? Because the industry manages to exhibit a constant thirst for innovation, yet never forget its traditional roots. Some of its brands are over 200 years old, many still use the tourbillon (invented in 1795), even though its function is nowadays superfluous, and the very backbone of the industry – the mechanical watch movement – dates back well over 400 years. We still see brands producing pocket watches, even avant-garde brands like HYT, when the watch first migrated to the wrist around a hundred years ago.

Watchmakers have also learned to diversify within their core business of telling the time. The Swatch Group, for example, is the dominant force in sports timekeeping and has been responsible for countless innovations over the years. Only last week Longines presented a brand-new “Live Alpine Data” system at the Skiing World Championships that provides real-time data from a sensor fitted to the skier’s boot. As
Alain Zobrist, CEO of Longines Timing, reminded us at the launch, “Longines is a pioneer in sports timekeeping, and innovation has always been the driving force behind its know-how, just like for its timepieces.” Nowadays this innovation comes not just from within the industry itself but from a close cooperation with the athletes, their coaches and TV broadcasters, all of whom benefit from these new technologies.

Around two years ago, there was concern about the impact that smart watches would have on the Swiss watch industry. Watch brands were falling over each other to grab a slice of a tasty looking cake. But it proved to be a cake without any nutritional content and one that was hard to digest. In just two years, the much-hyped partnership between Gucci and Will.i.am has fizzled out without a product ever being launched, Apple discontinued the luxury version of its watch last summer after less than two years on the shelves and wearable device giants like FitBit and Jawbone have their own problems. The former has cut its workforce by 6% and is forecasting a loss for this year, the latter is abandoning the segment completely. TAG Heuer and Frederique Constant have even brought production of smart watch hardware and software in-house in Switzerland.

This should hardly have luxury watch brand CEOs quaking in their boots ahead of Baselworld 2017. But if they are still worried about smart watches, they could maybe take a look at this totally unscientific comparison of relative searches on the term “smart watch” compared with those for a major Swiss watch brand. How many new smart watches will we see at Baselworld this year?

The Ulysse Nardin Innovision 2 is a great example of innovation in watchmaking. I take a closer look at the technology behind it on Friday. At this stage, it is just a concept watch. But the innovations from the first Innovision, presented a decade ago, have since found their way into production models. A look at the Innovision 2 is therefore a look at the future of watchmaking.

Readers looking for assurance that the traditional side of watchmaking is also alive and well will find it in Camille Gendre’s selection of Valentine’s Day watches, published tomorrow, and on Wednesday in an in-depth look at the numerous traditional movement decoration techniques employed by Breguet. My editor-in-chief’s crystal ball predicts that there are more combinations of innovation and tradition to come as early as next week.

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