End of year report: the year watches got smarter

The wrist-wear landscape is undergoing its greatest change in decades. Long the domain of traditional manufacturing brands such as Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC, this jealously guarded territory has experienced incursions over the past decade from the fashion‑conscious houses of Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermès and even Montblanc.

Audemars Piguet Diamond Punk won the jewellery watch prize at the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie in Geneva in October.
Audemars Piguet Diamond Punk won the jewellery watch prize at the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie in Geneva in October.

No surprise, really – it just confirms that the watch today is firmly entrenched as a fashion item, and fashion names thus have new legitimacy on the wrist.

Still, the arrival of these competitors was a mere skirmish compared with the emerging battleground. In the space of a few months, new names have sprung up and they’re flag-bearers for a new kind of movement, the connected one.

The big mover here, of course, is Apple, whose eponymous watch has changed the wrist-game. Never mind the figures – many new watches have a moment in the sun, then fade. Apple has released no numbers, but already it sells in the millions (estimated to be more than 3.6 million a quarter) and accounts for two out of every three smart watches sold.

The Apple Watch, one suspects, is yet to make its presence fully felt, something that will come as the apps it presents become more and more an everyday must-have and the watch becomes available in more locales.

Hermes Apple Watch
High fashion and big tech combine in the Apple Watch Hermès.

Meantime, the real marketing is just beginning and, yes, it involves fashion. Apple’s devices already offer straps in a dizzying array of materials and colours, and the crew at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, has bought into Hermès’ heady world with a co-branded model. Now – in something described as “the consummation of the marriage of technology and fashion” – the brand is set to sponsor the New York Met Gala, a fabled event organised by Vogue’s Anna Wintour, with the 2016 theme 2016 theme ‘Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.’ .

Come the gala on May 2, technology will feature alongside ready-to-wear garments in front of an audience including Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada and Taylor Swift, with Apple’s chief design officer, Jonathan Ive, co-chairing proceedings. Along with the red-carpet night, there will be workshops and high-tech demonstrations, not to mention massive publicity – especially if, like our own Prime Minister, Taylor Swift is sporting an Apple on her favoured forearm. You can imagine the size of the audience that would reach.

The Charming Bird from Jaquet Droz won the mechanical exception watch prize.
The Charming Bird from Jaquet Droz won the mechanical exception watch prize.

The other big mover is Tag Heuer. Rather than taking a stab at something a bit connected, as some watch brands have done, Tag has plunged straight in at the deep end with Google and Intel as partners. Its hope is that the Tag Heuer Carrera Connected has a future as exciting as the Apple Watch.

What makes things interesting is the brand’s heritage as a watch rather than a tech brand, plus its history of being at the forefront; the company knows a niche when it sees it. Heuer was not only an early adopter of the chronograph, but founder and motor-sport enthusiast Jack Heuer turned timing, as distinct from time-telling, into a profitable specialty. He combined this with canny marketing – who can forget Steve McQueen sporting his Monaco chronograph in the 1971 film Le Mans? With marketing wunderkind Jean-Claude Biver at the helm of Tag, we can expect its techie newcomer likewise to target fresh audiences.

GO FIGURE

The connected movement couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Swiss titans; the latest figures at press time make for sober reading. September was the third month this year to show a marked decline in Swiss exports, down 7.9 per cent in value to CHF1.8 billion ($2.56 billion) compared with September 2014, and down 9.5 per cent in units. The largest market, Hong Kong, showed a decline of 18.2 per cent, with the US down 17.6 and China – until recently the mighty sales-driver – down 13. Singapore also suffered a decline, down 14.6 per cent, while the US figure is the worst monthly fall in five years.

And Australia? Regarded as a relative bright spot, even we are down a fraction – 0.7 per cent – accounting for CHF15.3 million worth of watches in September.

Hublot Big Band Broderie won the ladies’ watch prize.
Hublot Big Band Broderie won the ladies’ watch prize.

Of course, Switzerland isn’t the only country known for its watches; Japan’s Seiko and Casio, in particular, have been enjoying double-digit growth here, while worldwide, Japanese watch exports grew in value by 14 per cent in the first six months of this year. That said, yearly Japanese exports total about $1.6 billion, while Swiss exports comfortably exceed that each and every month.

In light of the above, it’s no wonder heads of some of the most prestigious Swiss makes trekked from Geneva to Hong Kong in September to show their latest trinkets. Watches & Wonders is the last major event of the year, a Richemont initiative that’s more and more about spectacular pieces, and the craft and creativity that lives within the traditional watchmaking business.

The brands that stood out in this, the event’s third year, were Piaget and Vacheron Constantin. But be it from Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre or IWC, there were timepieces that more than lived up to the fair’s name.

This, on top of Vacheron’s release just days earlier of the most complicated watch ever made: a veritable pocket puck boasting an incredible 57 complications. Other debuts through the year brought home the sheer diversity of approaches to that seemingly simple task of telling the time.

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