One of the worst-kept secrets of the technology industry is that the next big product category will be smartwatches, wearable computers that sources have all but confirmed will be released soon by Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung. But no matter how useful, how beautiful and how advanced these wristwatch-like devices end up being, at least one group of people likely won’t be moved by them: hardcore watch collectors, who favor wind-up watches with analog dials, gears, and springs over any hypothetical touchscreen or voice-activated product.
"I doubt I’d wear it on my wrist."
"It’s not going to disturb the market for serious watch collectors," said William Massena, a New York-based consultant who’s collected luxury wristwatches for the past 20 years. Massena shares his passion with other like-minded collectors on Twitter and the discussion forum of a watch collecting website called TimeZone. "If they came out with an iWatch tomorrow, I would consider it a tool more than anything else. I’m sure I’d use it, but I would probably put it in my pocket. I doubt I’d wear it on my wrist."
Two luxury watches from William Massena's collection. The collector, an NYC-based consultant, says he's lost track of how many pieces he has in total. (Credit: William Massena)
Massena is not alone: other avid watch collectors and industry-watchers reached by The Verge said that they would certainly take a look at Apple’s rumored iWatch or competing smartwatches, and might even purchase a few for kicks. But they adamantly maintain no computerized device, no matter how advanced and beautifully designed, could ever disrupt the lucrative market for new and vintage mechanical watches, which are made with technology that originated in the Medieval era.
$10,000 to multimillion-dollar range per watch
The luxury watches prized by collectors technically start at $1,000 — though prices in the $10,000 to multimillion-dollar range per watch are more common — and are primarily made by Swiss companies including Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. These watches have hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of moving parts and regal, austere names like Royal Oak and The Saltarello, or numeric designations, like the 5196R. They have internal jewels to prevent wear. There’s a whole system of classification for the types of features and functions they offer beyond the time, known fittingly as "complications."
"For so many people, a watch is not a timepiece."
"For so many people, a watch is not a timepiece," said Gene Stone, a wristwatch collector, journalist and author of The Watch, a book on luxury timepieces. "For people who love watches, it’s like having a piece of history sitting on your wrist. That’s a whole different psychology from having a computer on your wrist." Stone, who said he owns 10 luxury wristwatches and numerous other clocks, is part of a small group of collectors in New York City known as the Watch Enthusiasts of New York (WENY), or "Weenies," who meet monthly to talk watches and show off their favorites. "I could see myself wearing a Royal Oak on my left wrist and a Microsoft computer watch on my right," Stone said, but added the Microsoft smartwatch would have to be "beautiful."
Hardcore watch collectors may be forgiven for shrugging off the arrival of a new breed of multifunction smartwatches. After all, the old-school, wind-up mechanical watches they favor, most of which come from Switzerland — known as the "watchmaking capital of the world" — have survived disruption by more advanced technology multiple times before.
"It's glanceable information."
Indeed, just under a decade ago, Microsoft partnered with several lower-end watch consumer companies — Fossil, Suunto, and Swatch — to introduce a line of digital smartwatches. These were based on a Microsoft technology called SPOT, "Smart Personal Objects Technology," which used FM signals to deliver live-updating information to watch faces, such as local weather forecasts, stock quotes and news headlines. "It's glanceable information and it's a combination of the two things that I think people really care about — fashion, something that's fun and exciting, and technology that brings them personal information," Bill Gates said at the time (sound familiar?). Consumers, however, did not agree, and after four years of low adoption, the clock ran out on SPOT in 2008. "Microsoft tried and completely failed, and here we are, they are trying again," Massena said of the failure of the company's smartwatches.
Microsoft SPOT watch.
"probably the last people on Earth who need to know what time it is."
As for mechanical watches, their persistence across the ages is something of a technological anomaly, driven by a relatively small group of generally wealthy, generally male consumers who value them not as tools for telling time, but as works of art. "People who collect wristwatches are probably the last people on earth who need to know what time it is," Stone said. "If you have an expensive wristwatch, you probably already have a smartphone, a tablet, an assistant, and other gadgets to help tell you the time." Stone added that at Weenies meetings, it wasn’t uncommon for everyone to be looking at each other’s watches, only for someone to ask what time it is and everyone to have to check again, because they were paying attention to other facets of the watches.
The art of mechanical watchmaking arose in Switzerland back in the mid-1500s, a reaction to religiously motivated bans on other forms of jewelry. Mechanical timepieces use springs and a series of gears to keep time, and must be physically re-wound by the wearer periodically. They were massively popular for centuries and their heyday lasted from World War I until 1969, when Japanese company Seiko launched the Astron, the first quartz wristwatch for the consumer market.
The Seiko Astron used a vibrating quartz crystal instead of a spring, which kept time more accurately than mechanical watches, and without requiring winding. In the years that followed, quartz watches made primarily by Japanese and Chinese companies, such as Casio in Tokyo, quickly surpassed the popularity of mechanical watches made by the Swiss. They even enabled a new generation of electronic watches with digital displays. The so-called "quartz crisis" decimated the Swiss mechanical watchmaking industry — bankrupting many companies, while others were slower to catch up and release their own quartz products. Rolex, though, proved to be one of the few Swiss companies to not only adapt, but prove instrumental in popularizing quartz for luxury watches. Its 1977 Oysterquartz line is still considered by many watch enthusiasts to be some of the finest quartz models ever made. Today about 88 percent of Swiss watch sales are quartz, according to WatchTime, a bimonthly magazine for luxury watch collectors.
Rolex promotional image of a mechanical watch being assembled. Here the balance wheel and mainspring are being fitted. (Credit: ©Rolex/Jean-Daniel Meyer.)
And yet, in a strange twist of fate, mechanical watches not only hung on throughout the quartz crisis, but in recent years, newly made mechanical timepieces have become the most profitable part of the Swiss watch industry all over again. In 2012, new mechanical watches accounted for over $17 billion out of $23.5 billion total watch exports from Switzerland, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry group. "The fact that the market for this 400-year-old technology, which is completely obsolete, exists, is astonishing," said Joe Thompson, WatchTime’s editor-in-chief. "It’s a miracle really."
"A watch is generally the only piece of jewelry a man will have on."
Thompson, who has been covering the industry since the thick of the quartz crisis in the 1970s, told The Verge that he first observed the revival for the mechanical watch in the late '80s and early '90s as a status symbol for newly wealthy American men on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. And it is men, primarily, who collect watches, according to WatchTime’s readership statistics (98 percent of their 50,000 subscribers are men). "A watch is generally the only piece of jewelry a man will have on at any given time," agreed Stone. While there's been some handwringing in the industry over the fact that the younger generation doesn't appear to be buying or sporting wristwatches — why would they be, when a mobile phone usually close at hand? — the appetite seems to develop as they age and accrue more money. "Young people tend not to be interested, but as you get older, you may acquire one," Stone explained, "Maybe you inherit your father's watch, or retire after 10 years at a company and get a nice watch, and that's how it starts."
After the financial crisis of 2008 wiped out the fortunes of many of the post-quartz generation of luxury watch collectors, Swiss mechanical watch exports plunged an alarming 22.1 percent in 2009. Then, in 2010, Swiss watch experts resurged and have pretty much climbed steadily every year ever since, driven in large part by a class of newly wealthy Chinese collectors. At least until now — the early statistics from the first half of 2013 show a worrying slowdown in the Swiss watch industry’s growth.
Collectors and industry analysts aren’t so concerned about the mechanical watch’s future, though. "Mechanical watches are enormously complex, and the process to make them is very hi-tech," Thompson said, pointing out that precision machines are used to make and assemble the hundreds of moving parts of luxury mechanical watches. "There’s a tremendous amount of science that goes into it, which is why it’s stayed alive."
Chris Ziegler contributed to this report.