Mechanical watchmaker on the Apple Watch: 'I wouldn't say I consider it a threat'

John Tarantino, the founder and CEO of Martenero discusses Apple's first smartwatch

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Apple completely changed the mobile industry with the iPhone and essentially invented the tablet market with the iPad. Now it’s trying to have the same kind of impact with the Apple Watch, a feat that may be a bit more challenging. The traditional watch industry isn’t in trouble, or in need of reinvention. The nearly recession-proof Swiss watch market has continued to grow, exporting over 28 million watches to the tune of $21 billion in revenue in 2014, and by all indications that growth hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

This is a new challenge for Apple; can it turn a piece of technology into a massively desired fashion accessory? And can the Apple Watch stand up against its competition, from low-end quartz watches to high-end Rolexes? To answer these and many other questions, we put the Apple Watch in the hands of a mechanical watchmaker, the exact type of person Apple is trying to make obsolete.

John Tarantino is the founder and CEO of Martenero, one of the few mechanical watch companies based in the US. Martenero sells customizable mechanical watches built in New York City for around $500, a price point that undersells the quality of its timepieces. The Verge sat down with Tarantino (and a 42mm Apple Watch with a leather loop) to discuss his initial thoughts on the Apple Watch as a watchmaker and its potential impact on the mechanical watch market, and to find out if he will purchase one.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.

What are your first thoughts as you hold the Apple Watch?

Normally — and I think I speak for a lot of people — I gravitate toward circular watch cases, as opposed to square. Apple must know that circular cases sell better. This feels about right. I have a hard time seeing what you can do with anything smaller than this. This seems like pushing it, honestly.

"It looks very nicely done."

It’s nicely done, very simply finished case — that's not a knock on it. I think if this were a mechanical watch, a lot of people would want to see something a little bit more detailed on the finishing. To compare mine, we did a combination of brushed and polished elements, we've got that bezel which sort of wraps around the outer case, we tried to do something more design-focused.

As I look at it more and more, it looks like an Apple product. This makes sense. The lines, the curvature around the edge — absolutely true to their aesthetic. I like how the crown is more integrated into the case; it actually looks like it's sort of embedded ever so slightly, as opposed to a traditional mechanical one that juts out more. It looks very nicely done. For some reason, I was expecting something that kind of popped a little more. This is very sleek; it sort of blends into your wrist nicely. I was expecting something that drew a little bit more attention to itself.

Do you consider it a watch?

That’s an interesting question. I guess they can call it a watch because it goes on the wrist, and it looks similar to a watch. [picks up iPhone] This is a phone, but it’s also a computer. The Apple Watch is, too. It’s like a mini supercomputer really. With a leather strap on it.

Watches are about a lot more than telling the time. When you wear a watch, I think a lot of people think it says something about them, and they like for people to notice their watch. It's easy for me because it's my own brand, but I love it when people notice my watch. But even before, I was a small-scale watch collector, and I had what I thought was an interesting collection, and you can kind of tell when you’re in a meeting and people would notice your watch and look at it from across the room.

"Watches are about a lot more than telling the time."

If this were on my wrist, it probably would not have the same psychology behind it. I don't think I'd really be looking to showcase to people that I'm wearing an Apple Watch. There's something about putting on a mechanical watch that I picked out; it's something that's sort of special. Whereas the Apple Watch is sort of the opposite — it's a mass-produced item. But I have no question that they're going to sell millions of these.

You sell $500 watches. Do you see the Apple Watch as a threat?

It’s something to pay attention to. I think it would be really silly for me to ignore it. It’s definitely something I’m watching. I’m really curious to see the market response. Right this second I wouldn’t say I consider it a threat. Yes, the price points are similar, but they’re pretty different products right now, and I think [they] appeal to a different sensibility.

It could really turn into an interesting category. What that means for the mechanical watch world, that’s yet to be determined. There was the quartz crisis in the '70s — that’s something that was more revolutionary than smartwatches. This seems less revolutionary. With quartz, all of a sudden there was this much cheaper and more accurate technology, and yet, ultimately mechanical watches bounced back. There’s something else about them that really, really appeals to a sizable group of people that quartz just doesn’t capture. I think there might be some of the same thing going on here.

If there’s a threat, it’s more to that — I’m picking an arbitrary number — 25-and-under crowd. People who maybe down the line would be interested in a mechanical watch, but they’re not there yet. If they get hooked on something like this early, that could mean potential trouble for the mechanical watch market.

Mechanical watches and the Apple Watch both have their own style of craftsmanship. It’s a bit more emotional when you’re dealing with mechanical watches —

Where this isn’t. People collect watches, yes they’re emotional. There’s just something about it. Where as the Apple Watch is more of a commoditized product. They’re taking some of the emotion out of it. Certainly for mechanical watch fans, I don’t think this will be that appealing. Maybe with people 25 and under who aren’t mechanical watch buyers right now, they might have a different take. It’s possible people like that don’t see the appeal of mechanical watches and instead go more toward smartwatches. That seems a lot more plausible to me than guys like you and I, who really appreciate mechanical watches, putting those away — that, I have a really hard time seeing.

The things that make a mechanical watch great — the personality, the hand-craftsmanship — do you feel any of that with the Apple Watch?

Only in the sense that, by all indications it appears to be very well made. I’m sure that they’ve used high-quality materials. The build quality looks pretty strong to me, it’s a well-made piece. There’s something about knowing how a mechanical watch works; I can wind it just by the motion of my own wrist. It’s got a certain romantic or emotional quality that probably this will never have. But for pure design aesthetics, it’s a well done piece.

The Apple Watch Edition is priced against watches like the Rolex Cellini or a IWC Portofino Hand-Wound Eight-Days. Are people that spend that kind of money on a watch going to choose an Apple Watch over the competition?

I can’t imagine. I certainly wouldn’t. The people that I know personally, definitely not.

This is at least my third iPhone that I’ve had, and I love my iPhone. But I get a new one every couple years. Where something like a mechanical watch, I sell affordable watches — they’re $500 — even at this price point, with minimal care, it will last your entire life. It never becomes obsolete because of what it’s about — tradition, craftsmanship, aesthetics, functionality — these are all things that are really timeless. With something like the Apple Watch — so this is the first edition, then what? In a year they come out with a new one, then what? Do you throw this away? Where as people who wear watches and collect them, even on a small scale, like pulling out a watch they haven’t worn in a few months or even a year and wearing it. I don’t think the Apple Watch would ever have the same effect.

"They’ve got to appeal to the emotional side of people. It’s not just practicality."

The people that I talk to that are really into mechanical watches, I can’t see any of them paying up for the Edition. If someone has the means and the wherewithal to spend $10,000 on a watch, do you really want it to be an Apple product?

Are you going to buy an Apple Watch, and if so, how often are you going to wear it?

I probably am going to buy it. I am very curious. I probably will. I’ll probably wear it for a couple weeks and see. But I will not be buying the $10,000 Edition, and I’m fascinated to see who actually buys that.

What would it take for you to put on an Apple Watch every day?

I don’t know. I think what we keep coming back to is the emotional appeal of a mechanical watch like this. This [points to his mechanical watch] just has a bit of a tug to it. You would have to recreate that somehow with the Apple Watch. But then how do you recreate that with a product that — albeit it’s very nice — feels like it’s more of a commodity. How do you create emotional appeal toward a commoditized item?

They’re going to come out with a new version, I’m sure within a year and a half, and so then what? I can’t imagine you’re going to have multiple Apple Watches? So then you replace it, and almost by definition it’s a commodity if you upgrade every two years. They’ve got to appeal to the emotional side of people. It’s not just practicality. You’ve got to appeal to consumers on an emotional level.

What do you think about the Apple Watch now, after using it?

Not at all surprised that they did something nice. Good build quality, interesting strap. I’m not surprised at all, they make good hardware. I think there’s going to be a ton of curiosity about it. I predict that these are going to sell in droves. But from there I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that’s going to — in its current form at least — maintain people’s interest.

I think I would probably have fun for like a week, two weeks, playing around with it. It seems that it’s not as intuitive as other Apple products. I’m sure I’d eventually figure it out and come to enjoy it. It’s sort of like a mini iPhone with a Fitbit mixed in; it doesn't seem like it provides enough extra functionality to really keep people interested. I think there’s going to be huge curiosity about it, and I think in the current form, there might be a lot of people who wear it for a few weeks and put it away for a while.

It’s got to have a reason to exist on its own, instead of just being the sidecar to the iPhone. And Apple might do that, but it seems to me like they haven’t done that with the first round. That’s not even a knock on them; this is the first iteration. They could very well achieve that in the second round or thereafter. Apple is a really interesting company; they’ve launched a lot of really cool, really innovating products. I have little doubt that they can take everything that they’ve learned from round one of the Apple Watch and build upon it.


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