To what degree does the emergence of wearable technology threaten the future of luxury watchmaking? Although the watch industry has faced extinction before, this new assailant is attacking from a different angle. The software for wearable technology may well be basic now, but it is highly likely to develop apace and could feasibly become essential to daily life. Additionally, it is possible that the software and usage of wearables will evolve in a multitude of ways, enhancing their appeal and increasingly their potential personalisation, which is bad news for the traditional wristwatch.
Luxury wristwatches and smartwatches are barely comparable items, but you can only wear one at a time. In spite of this territorial clash, it seems likely that incredibly high-end watches will escape the contest as their role is incredibly specific and its application far less common. It is the quartz beater and entry-level luxury brands that should feel threatened. According to Deloitte’s 2015 study of the watch industry, it seems they do.
The study showed that 25% of industry executives now see smartwatches as a serious threat to sales. That might not seem stratospheric, but it represents a huge leap from 11% in 2014. On top of that, 39% of the surveyed executives stated that the release of the Apple watch made them more aware of the burgeoning threat to the status quo. So what can this segment of the luxury watch market do to combat the rise of the smartwatch?
Pioneering Pocket Watches of the Present
Because the wrist is the most popular place for wearable technology, it seems luxury watches might be primed for a return to the pocket. Traditional tailoring has returned to the extent a pocket watch is in line with current fashions. Although the most vulnerable echelon of brands has not yet explored this avenue, some of the high-end heavyweights have produced some pretty amazing examples of the sort of thing we can expect from a luxury pocket watch in 2015.
Examples such as the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pocket Time Instrument, with its four, gravity-defying tourbillons, the titanium Richard Mille RM-020 that updates the classic round case shape to something blunt and edgy, and the Urwerk UR-1001, which perfectly straddles the divide between wrist and pocket by incorporating a strap attachment on the backside of its mammoth housing. Seeing these new machines, rendered in futuristic materials and in an avant-garde style, really legitimizes the possibility they could return. If owning a smartwatch becomes a necessity, their affordability could push the cost of entry to the luxury wristwatch market out of the reach of regular people, leaving a gap in the market for entry-level luxury pocket watches.
Detractors will remind us horologists that a smartwatch is plenty smart enough to tell them the time (and they’d be accurate in every sense of the word). But a luxury timepiece hasn’t really been about the time for years. Luxury watches are status symbols, objects of personality, manifestations of belief systems and cultural preferences. Such an artefact would do just as well in the pocket as on the wrist. With any luck, the new location might even enigmatize the piece and make it all the more desirable. For now it seems only time will tell.