SURVIVAL OF THE SMARTEST. In the wake of smartwatches, some brands rise to the occasion while others resort to the tried-and-true formula of beautiful designs and watchmaking extraordinaire. Chris Andre recounts the extravagant watch fair
Messe Basel, the location of the Baselworld Fair
The last few winter days at Basel, Switzerland, welcomed curious visitors to the small town for the exciting novelties to be unveiled during the weeklong Baselworld Fair. March 2015 felt like a critical month, with much talk among industry insiders on the elephant in the room: The Apple Watch was to be released in a month’s time. What would happen then, everyone quietly pondered. Could the watch industry be facing another Quartz Crisis where it’s survival of the fittest with the rules completely rewritten?
Perhaps, a more appropriate way of putting it is “survival of the smartest,” and three different blocks have emerged. One were those that conspicuously pasted the word “smartwatch” on their novelties or forthcoming creations; including big player TAG Heuer and shrewd independent watch manufacturer Frederique Constant. While nothing was shown at the former’s booth yet, TAG Heuer managed to draw a lot of attention with a press conference announcing the partnership between the Swiss watch brand, Google and Intel for a groundbreaking smartwatch in development. Jean-Claude Biver, president of the watch division at LVMH Group and CEO of TAG Heuer, proudly stated, “Swiss watchmaking and Sillicon Valley is a marriage of technological innovation with watchmaking credibility.” David Singleton, director of Engineering for Android Wear, further confirmed, “And using the Android Wear platform, we can imagine a better, beautiful, smarter watch.”
Bulgari booth at Hall 1
A trailblazer in collaborative efforts bridging Swiss tradition and American technology, however, was none other than Frederique Constant. At Baselworld, the family-owned company timely unveiled its Horological Smartwatch, an analogue-looking timepiece that incorporates a pulse reader to keep tabs on the wearer’s sleeping pattern. It works in tandem with a smartphone and is powered by a reliable quartz movement.
“A trailblazer in collaborative efforts bridging Swiss tradition and American technology was none other than Frederique Constant”
Another block worth looking into is those who reacted to smartwatches by inventing distinctive technological advances of their own. Gucci flew in American musician and trendsetter Will.i.Am to Basel and consequently pulled a huge crowd, but not for a music concert or anything such. He and Stéphane Linder, Gucci’s new CEO who had previously worked at TAG Heuer for over 20 years, joined forces to develop a “smartband”—a wearable device that basically functions like a smartphone, complete with a “sophisticated personal assistant” that responds to voice commands. Will.i.Am asserted, “I coined the term ‘fashionology,’ a merging of the worlds of fashion and technology, and this is exactly what this collaboration with Gucci represents.”
Fashion wasn’t on Breitling’s checklist when it decided to venture out into the smartwatch arena, however. The B55 Connected watch presented at Baselworld was big, bold and bulky, yet it is everything a Breitling pilot would ever need. It can count flight times for up to 20 consecutive laps; it has automatic time zone settings, alarms, etc., with all the data shown on a connected smartphone. The watch also runs on a SuperQuartz movement, ten times more accurate than standard quartz. It is, in essence, a professional instrument and couldn’t be further apart from mass-targeted smartwatches.
At the same token, Bulgari carefully tested the water by launching the Diagono Magnesium Concept watch to a select market. Aside from the unusual exterior look—given the Diagono’s material-fusion philosophy—the automatic watch can double as a key to your preferred “vaults.” In practice, you can use the watch to gain access to your most secretive vaults, banking accounts and so on. Bulgari enlisted the help of WISeKey, a Swiss-based expert in near-field-communication technology, for this particular innovation. And fret not, your important passwords are not actually kept inside the watch, but are instead digitally stored in an underground bunker in the Swiss Alps once synced to the related application on your mobile phone.
Frederique Constant’s Horological Smartwatch
The Italian luxury house was also celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bulgari Bulgari watch. Debuting in 1975, the design remains iconic, recognizable by the bezel which is engraved with the Bulgari trademark. Its evolution throughout the years became a powerful display on the booth’s exterior, located right in front of the entrance—across TAG Heuer’s—of Hall 1 at Baselworld.
As a matter of fact, anniversaries were a highlighted theme from the last block of brands that made relatively little noise about smartwatches. One notable entrant of this block was Patek Philippe. Following its 175th anniversary in 2014 and ahead of a monumental watch exhibition in London in May 2015, the venerable Swiss watch manufacturer showcased a wide collection of clocks, pocket watches and early wristwatches. This display revealed a great variety of timekeeping instruments Patek Philippe has done, including pilot watches—in conjunction with the widely talked-about novelty of Calatrava Pilot Travel Time.
Patek Philippe’s booth
Sitting next to Patek Philippe’s booth was Zenith, which encapsulated its 150-years journey so far in a tribute book composed by French watch collector Joël Duval over the course of 10 years. Woven within the pages were names and faces of renowned figures, including leader of the Indian independence movement Mahatma Gandhi, French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot and celebrated Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, amid impressive timekeeping advances Zenith has achieved from decade to decade. The enticing series of 2015 novelties also lived up to expectations, from the classic Elite 6150 to the highly intricate Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane Grand Voyage II.
Hermès’ dramatic interior
Intricacy in materials instead of movements is Hublot’s forte. And this year capped off a decade for the Big Bang line, one that catapulted the 25-year-old Swiss brand to the big leagues. Fusion after fusion of metals, fabrics and more make up the basic offerings of the novelties. Owing to Jean-Claude Biver’s strategic thinking, it seems that both Hublot and TAG Heuer are now deploying matching marketing plans: Feature experts from different fields as the face of the watches. Chinese pianist Lang Lang and beautiful model Bar Refaeli are two among the hugely publicized ambassadors for Hublot, and it goes to show how relevant and commercial the brand has become. Correspondingly, we have David Guetta and Cara Delevingne as the new ambassadors of TAG Heuer.
“Anniversaries were a highlighted theme from the last block of brands that made relatively little noise about smartwatches”
Meanwhile, Bell & Ross heavily promoted a decade of the BR01 line—the flagship watch whose square-shaped case is now synonymous to the brand identity (Bell & Ross has, of course, more than just square-shaped timepieces). For the occasion, the French watchmaker re-launched the simplistic-looking BR01, adorned with its tenth anniversary engraving on the case-back. This festive spirit, however, felt a little bit dampened at Corum’s booth. Despite observing its 60th year, the brand didn’t go all out for the special moment. It did bring back the eye-catching Bubble watch from its past archives, though, but there was simply not enough song and dance about the momentuous anniversary.
Bar Refaeli at the Hublot booth
Apart from these three blocks formed in the wake of the smartwatch uprising, the Swatch group still hasn’t confirmed anything solid. Rumor has it that they have already developed an analog-looking front dial and a smartwatch-looking case-back to be released soon. Nevertheless, it was still too soon to dwell on the subject. That is, unless one pays attention to several sophisticated timepieces shown during Baselworld. Omega created the Speedmaster Skywalker X-33 Solar Impulse Limited Edition, a solar-powered quartz watch, in conjunction with the Solar Impulse project—whose objective is to fly around the world using solar-powered aircraft. Rado, the master of ceramic watches, pulled off a major development in tactile technology that removes the need for a crown. While not exactly brand new, the presence of the HyperChrome Touch Dual Timer couldn’t have come at a better time.
Guests viewing watches at hall 1
TAG Heuer’s booth
In the end, yes, it is true that the existence of Apple Watch could pose a threat to the Swiss watch industry. Yes, some who are unshaken in their views believe that the high-end category would fare just fine … eventually. Even better, there are those who see it the other way around. Emmanual Dietrich of Dietrich Watches saw smartwatches as a platform that would introduce everyone to the habit of wearing a wristwatch; consequently, watches (not smartwatches) will no longer be valued for their function and instead depend on their aesthetics.
Rado’s bright watch display
If the future is going to be so, no one does it better than French luxury house Hermès. It was remarkably unfazed by smartwatches during Baselworld as it focused on a new watch family: Slim d’Hermès. Several months after Baselworld, Hermès and Apple together announced the Apple Watch Hermès, a series of Apple Watch with Hermès strap variants, available as of October 2015. A lesson to learn from this: Smartwatches don’t have to be seen an enemy to the fine watch industry, and that the market is big enough for the same consumers to have not just a fine watch in their collection but also a piece that you can literally talk to—Siri, that is. Business adaptability is crucial, but no one can do it all, creating complicated fine timepieces and very sophisticated smartwatches at the same time. A smart move would be to extend a hand to new partnerships. The only other alternative is sticking to what one knows best and surviving through the “smartwatch” phase. Only time will tell.
Zenith’s 150th anniversary El Primero watch