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Upping the Ante in Smartwatches

In the unstoppable, tech giants-dominated world of smartwatches, the luxury watch industry is carving out its own niche.

By Charlie Co
June 10, 2022

This year, the number of connected wearable devices in the world is expected to reach over one billion – yes, you read right – and this exponential growth is driven primarily by the sales of smartwatches, according to research by Strategy Analytics. Apple, which unveiled its first smartwatch in 2015, dominates this space; its closest competitors are Samsung, Garmin, and Fitbit. You’d be hard-pressed not to spot someone strapped with a smartwatch or some form of wearable device at any given time, place, or situation. They have become more than just an adornment, but rather a functional device some simply can’t do without. 

That much can’t be said about mechanical watches, which some would argue are not necessarily worn to tell the time – at least not anymore; we have our mobile phones for that – but rather as an accessory if not a status symbol. For decades, big luxury watch brands have been trying their best to attract younger generations to buy, or at the very least, be interested in finely made timepieces. The major brands have been creating pieces with less busy, more inconspicuous dials, vibrant tones, unconventional materials for cases and straps, securing enthusiastic endorsements from young celebrities, and indeed even offering more approachable price points. It’s no secret that Generations Y and Z tend to prize functionality over intrinsic value, making smartwatches such an attractive product for them. Not to mention, an intuitive, app-laden smartwatch doesn’t cost nearly as much as a beautifully crafted mechanical watch.  

Photo: TAG Heuer

To put things in perspective, the latest Titanium Apple Watch Series 6 – which sold like hotcakes on release day in the United States – starts at US$799 and runs to as much as US$1,249 for a link bracelet. It is currently the most expensive Apple Watch on the market and you will struggle to find a watch from an established luxury brand for that price.  

For watch enthusiasts, this would be like comparing apples with oranges. A mechanical movement with all its hundreds of minuscule parts painstakingly put together isn’t in the same league as a smartwatch that consists of a microprocessor, transceiver, chips, displays and sensors. On the other hand, a smartwatch user will argue that choosing a features-packed device – which includes everything from an optical heart sensor, built-in compass, altimeter, speaker and mic, and emergency SOS – that also tells the time, is smartly housed and a lot less expensive, is a no-brainer. This debate is as futile as it is endless.  

The two products exist on different planes and the needs of their consumers could not be more different. Smartwatch users are looking for functionality, and price, while luxury watch enthusiasts are willing to splash out thousands of dollars for a piece that’s taken years to conceive, and many weeks (if not months) to assemble, polish and finish, in most cases by hand. There’s little if any intrinsic value in the smartwatch device itself, instead, the value is in the information it can provide in real time (pun intended). The mechanical watch is the complete opposite.  

Breitling CEO Georges Kern has argued that there isn’t really a competition between smartwatches and analogue watches, and that they’re more complements than counterpoints. The former is for sports and health tracking, the latter for style and emotions. 

There’s certainly truth in that, and a few luxury watch brands have attempted to make these two seemingly divergent worlds meet. In 2015, TAG Heuer launched Connected, deemed the first luxury smartwatch by the Swiss watch industry. Years later, a few other brands caught on, including Montblanc, Hublot, Breitling and even Louis Vuitton, with prices that started well above US$1,000 and reaching over US$7,000. Even with heaps of success, however, sales of luxury smartwatches will never be nearly as earth-shattering as those of their less posh smartwatch counterparts. And that’s okay; they cater not only to a different market, but also to different needs, and the luxury brands are now justifying the extra thousands in cost, by adding key apps and features that interest luxury buyers.  

Hublot Big Bang e Premier League | Photo: Hublot

Last year, for instance, Hublot launched the Big Bang e Premier League, the latest addition to its connected Big Bang line, which comes with a dedicated application and a new purple dial and strap, the iconic colour of the Premier League. This Big Bang e comes with features that will thrill a Premier League fan: It’s equipped with an Hublot Loves Football Premier League app, which provides users with animated notifications to alert them to Premier League match kick-off times, goals, penalties, substitutions, yellow and red cards, and time added on. The dial can be set to show the time using digital or analogue displays and, when a match starts, the watch automatically switches to “Match Mode.” 

Football-speak aside, the Hublot Big Bang e is noted for its sleek design and desirable wearing experience. Smartwatches today no longer display a blank screen when inactive; with a face always present, the Hublot mimics the more traditional wristwatch wearing experience thanks to a nicely made strap and design that completes the look and feel. 

Breitling Exospace B55 Yachting | Photo: Breitling

Interest-driven apps were likewise Breitling’s way into the connected arena. Launched in 2016, the Exospace B55 is not exactly a smartwatch but a multi-function pilot chronograph with an enabled Bluetooth connection to the wearer’s smartphone. It was designed specifically for aviators with a range of functions that could assist a pilot in the cockpit, including, among others a built-in electronic tachymeter (a device for recording flight times). A more recent iteration came in the form of the Exospace B55 Yachting connected chronograph, housed in a lightweight titanium case built for yachting professionals and regatta enthusiasts. Its thermo-compensated quartz electronic movement powers a chronograph and features an ingenious countdown system, and the watch can be paired with a smartphone via a dedicated app that supports data transfer and allows settings to be configured remotely.  

In most instances though, luxury watch brands are not competing based on apps. Let’s face it, they don’t have the technical infrastructure nearly as sophisticated and agile as that of wearable devices manufacturer. In fact, many are even dependent of third-party tech companies to provide them with the chips and software. They compete where they know they’re king, such as in construction. Luxury brands take pride in the craftsmanship that goes into producing each timepiece so why not make that a selling point?  

TAG Heuer Connected Calibre E4 | Photo: TAG Heuer

In the latest releases from TAG Heuer for instance, enhancements were made mainly on their aesthetics and ergonomics, and the results are impressive. To put it simply, it’s like buying a beautifully crafted timepiece at a much lower price that also happens to satisfy your app obsession.  

TAG’s newest generation in the Connected series, the Connected Calibre E4, is packed with apps for sports activities, wellness, as well as a myriad of watch faces to choose from inspired by its iconic chronographs. “With these new, very different Connected watches, we hope to bring a new generation of TAG Heuer Connected Calibre E4 to a wider range of customers, becoming a companion in their daily lives from business to sport activities to the most elegant dinners,” noted Frédéric Arnault, CEO of TAG Heuer in a statement.  

TAG’s new 42mm iteration is smaller, thinner, and more elegant, and comes with discreet pushers and a fully integrated bracelet. The other new edition is more robust at 45mm, its heft giving the wearer that same feeling of wearing a traditional luxury timepiece. The tactile value of these small adjustments cannot be dismissed. Its sizeable crown makes it easier to adjust – something you’d normally do rather regularly on a mechanical watch – while the more generously sized pushers give the watch that “mechanical feel”. 

Montblanc Summit Lite | Photo: Montblanc

Montblanc has a similar philosophy when it comes to smartwatches. Zaim Kamal, Montblanc’s former creative director has gone on record saying that with its Summit smartwatches, the brand wanted to offer something that satisfied people’s need for functionality but did not look and feel like a gadget. The dials of its Summit watches mimic the design of its 1858 line, as well as its case, crown, pushers, and integrated lugs that are engineered to feel like those on a mechanical watch.  

“With the renewed focus on health, fitness, mindfulness and wellbeing we are witnessing today, our goal was to create a smartwatch that had just the right tools to support its owner throughout the day, in a way that was instinctive and effortless for today’s business lifestyle customer,” explains Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki. 

For active users who are not necessarily interested in that mechanical watch feel and are more invested in the features and wearability, Montblanc’s Summit Lite smartwatch is, as the name suggests, lightweight and sleeker, and has a more contemporary design packed with features. They include a Cardio Coach and a body energy, sleep and stress monitor, for those “who are constantly on the move and blend their workout routine with their work routine,” Baretzki adds.

Louis Vuitton Tambour Horizon Light Up | Photo: Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton, meanwhile, with its striking logo-emblazoned Tambour Horizon Light Up, its third iteration of connected watches, it hopes to attract the brand’s avid followers and tug on their desire for exclusivity and personalisation. The design of this piece is far from understated, and takes cues from Louis Vuitton’s original Tambour watch, including the piece’s distinct convex case and curved sapphire glass.  

The OS that drives this piece is custom-designed to deliver a highly intuitive experience, and to integrate seamlessly into the wearer’s daily activities. Its functions are shown with simple swipes, with agenda, weather, step count, heart rate and even air quality displays. There’s also a My Travel app where the user can access travel plans, boarding passes, and 30 of Louis Vuitton’s curated City Guides. It’s possibly the first lifestyle-driven smartwatch on the market. 

Now, all this might not quite level the playing field – price and functionality gaps between smartwatches by tech giants and those by luxury brands are still cavernous. Yet for a community of collectors and enthusiasts who are after heritage and craftsmanship, luxury smartwatches just might be well worth the leap across that cavern.

Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7