The designers behind the Nike FuelBand are working on old-school watches

San Francisco's Astro Studios looks back to see the future


If you were to place a bet on the future of wearables, odds are good that your cash would not go toward a line of ordinary wristwatches. Yes, wristwatches: the things that tell the time and little else, often operating on centuries-old technology. The very objects that were disrupted by cellphones over the last decade. Dinosaurs.

Don’t tell that to Astro Studios, though. The prolific San Francisco-based branding and design firm has helped meld a variety of high-tech products ranging from Sol Republic headphones and the Xbox 360 to the awesome-looking (but ultimately unsuccessful) Boxee Box. Now, it’s turning its attention to a line of watches — just regular, plain-old watches — that it sells under the Minus-8 brand. (The name is a subtle reference to San Francisco’s time zone, Greenwich Mean Time minus eight hours.)

Minus-8’s line currently consists of four models, ranging in price from $198 for the simple Zone to $598 for the Layer 24, a full four-dial chronograph. They’re big, heavy, wholly unapologetic timepieces. It’s almost as if they’re sending a middle finger in the direction of the wearables industry that’s trying to kill them.

Minus-8 1

So why do they exist? Why now, in the shadow of Android Wear, the Apple Watch, and countless fitness bands? Part of it is old-fashioned indulgence on the part of Astro. "From a pure design standpoint, it’s sort of like doing that classic chair, that piece of furniture, that eyewear, the bag, the shoes. I mean, there’s sort of a designer hit list that you kind of want to go through over the years. So watches sort of fell into that," says Brett Lovelady, Astro’s founder and CEO. "We shared [Minus-8] with the design community and got a lot of traction and ended up in a bunch of publications and things, so we basically decided to manufacture a certain number of the products."

It turns out that a dumbwatch can still attract some attention

Still, it’s surprising. It’s not that Astro doesn’t have experience with wearables or smartwatches; the firm was behind the design of the Nike FuelBand, one of the first widely popular connected wearables. It just turns out that a dumbwatch (if you will) can still attract some attention, as long as it’s done correctly.

Minus-8 2

While the concept started in an Astro conference room, Minus-8 is owned by PCH International, a company that handles the ins and outs of turning ideas into actual products. PCH’s bread and butter lies in Asian-manufactured electronics. These watches are decidedly not electronics, but the DNA comes through: they employ a "layered" manufacturing technique, for instance, which Lovelady tells me was inspired by the layer-by-layer construction in the electronics industry. For Minus-8, this means a stack of stainless steel slices on the cases of the Layer and Layer 24 models that are bound together; by changing the colors of individual slices, Astro has a lot of flexibility in tweaking the design.

And like many modern gadgets, the Minus-8 watches are assembled in China. The cheaper models use Quartz movements; the larger, heavier, more expensive ones use self-winding mechanical ones, but they’re all Japanese — not Swiss, like you find in most higher-end timepieces. "We felt like our customers would appreciate Japanese movements as well as, you know, Swiss or other movements. Especially at the price points that we’re talking about," Lovelady says.

Minus-8 3

It’s an interesting line that Astro is walking, pairing the design sensibility of a nice watch with the manufacturing sensibility (and the price) of a typical gadget. While handcrafted ultra-luxury watches get away with charging tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars — unaffected by the sea changes in technology that are happening all around them — Minus-8 is made and priced no differently than the wearables it goes head-to-head against.

Lovelady is still bullish about his prospects, because watches fill a role in the wardrobe that smartwatches and other wearables simply haven’t been able to. "I think the reason you’ll still see traditional watches do really well is because they’re also still involved in traditional relationships of apparel and fashion and expression and all those things," he says. "I don’t know how much of a watch junkie you might be, but a lot of people have multiples, just like they have different kinds of shoes and they want to wear that watch on that day." He says that the Apple Watch, with its high level of customization and personalization, is taking some strides in that direction — but for now, the theory goes that the watch still has its place.

That’s not to say the studio is spurning smartwatches altogether; Lovelady acknowledges that Minus-8 could eventually move in that direction. In fact, some of its current models have an NFC chip molded into the band that can trigger a programmed action on an Android phone (launching the camera app, for example). "It’s more of an easter egg," Lovelady says. "It’s a nod toward technology." Otherwise, though, these are just good-looking timepieces that don’t cost a ton of money, trends be damned.

"We’re not worried about following anybody else."