What’s next? Why not a watch that doesn’t exist… yet?
In the first of two articles, our expatriate watch collector who just happens to live close to Silicon Valley offers his suggestions on what the Swiss watch industry needs to consider when developing its watches of the near future.
Today we have decided to innovate. There is no known watch featured in this article. Not even a watch that exists. At a time when the world’s watchmaking industry is asking itself a lot of questions and the great divide between "status symbol watch" and "wearable technology" is becoming increasingly apparent, perhaps it is time to try to look ahead at what the watch of the future could look like. As far as “classical” watchmaking is concerned, there is a lack of innovation. And it’s not another tourbillon, an umpteenth overcomplicated complication or a marketing genius that is going to convince us otherwise. The current “vintage” trend is proof enough that innovation is backpedalling, and that any fresh wind is more likely to come from California than La Chaux-de-Fonds.
So this is where the problem lies…
Because we like Swiss watchmaking. We like its history, its potential and its ability to make us dream. And it would be a shame to see our manufacturers concentrate on the happy few who can afford watches that cost hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs. Because innovating at these prices is no longer really innovating. The true wrist revolution will involve bringing the innovations closer to “real people”. The high-tech industry understood this long ago and their latest targets are in the Swiss Jura.
Let us therefore take some time to think about the future and try to come up with a photofit of the watch of the near future, which will draw upon the best of Swiss history and the capacity of the country to attract start-ups and sell to the world its taste for innovation and fine workmanship…
Where will the innovation come from? Some Swiss brands are already preparing for it. TAG Heuer is one example, but others have so-called smart watches in their drawers as well. But these are just hybrid watches that attempt to graft technology on to traditional watchmaking. The real challenge for the watchmakers is integration. And this will also mean adapting business models and organisations.
Will the watchmaker of the future be a watchmaker, an engineer or a software developer? How can Swiss Made position itself against “Made in Cupertino”? And how long will the Swiss watchmaking industry continue to develop its management models along the lines of consanguinity (I worked here, so I will work there), while Apple is recruiting from TAG Heuer, Burberry and even from leaders in the med tech and green tech sectors? The winner will be the one that learns best, not the one that protects itself the most…
The companies of Silicon Valley grew out of a phenomenal capacity to learn and adapt. Let us not forget that Tesla is managed by the creator of PayPal. There is nothing at all to connect these two industries… apart from their ability to break conventions, understand their environment and move forward quickly.
The watch manufacturers who manage to understand and above all accept this new situation will be able to react. The others will continue to produce beautiful gold timepieces with complications, but they will be overtaken.
The watch, version 2.0
The future of watchmaking will be governed by integration rather than by abandon. Faced with the threat of quartz technology, the Swiss watchmaking industry first responded with… quartz. It shot itself in the foot but it also managed to react thanks to Swatch. Faced with digital technology, the challenge is also great. But the response this time needs to be different.
The Swiss industry nevertheless has a number of advantages that will help it to do better than just resist the digitalisation of our wrists. The watch, version 2.0 will be a combination of design, materials, energy, mechanics, digital functions, all offered at an attractive price.
Design: No need to worry here with brands like MB&F, HYT and De Bethune already offering innovative designs that break the conventions of classic round, square or rectangular watches. But they remain niche brands whose watches are expensive.
Materials: Watchmaking already uses a range of materials that is much broader than the classic steel or gold. It ranges from the plastic of Swatch to the sapphire crystal of Richard Mille, passing through the carbon fibre of Cvstos or the ceramic of Hublot. And this list is not even exhaustive. But yet again, with the exception of Swatch, the price of some of these watches is totally incompatible with the watch, version 2.0 and the new requirement for luxury materials at affordable prices…
Energy: It may be mechanical, it may not… Here, too, ideas are changing and you only need to look at Omega or Breitling to see a return to “battery-powered” high-performance watches. Even for its B50, Breitling has recently started using a rechargeable battery, coupled with its in-house quartz calibre; Tissot uses solar power. This source of energy seems promising, even if it cannot yet be used for watches which need a lot of power.
Mechanics: I am convinced that the watch, version 2.0 will need a mechanical dimension. But it will need a movement that is compatible with digital functions yet which can still be small enough to avoid turning the watch into a wrist computer. Here, too, the Swiss watchmaking industry knows what to do, and to do it well: Piaget and Vacheron Constantin are good examples. They just need to work on the price.
Digital functions: Let’s be honest, for the moment the know-how is in Silicon Valley or Korea. Even worse, Apple and Google dominate the digital environment with their iOS and Android operating systems. But a number of other companies are innovating and offering alternative but compatible solutions. The concern – which has quickly been identified by those who abide by the classical approach to watchmaking – is with the fact that these functions are reinvented practically every month So the challenge is updating them and managing the progress of technology from a technical point of view.
But the solution is here, and it’s Google that has found it…
So the scene is set.