Apple Watch: Is Switzerland really in trouble?

Apple may soon sell as many timepieces as all of Switzerland, but does this really pose a threat to the country's four-century-old industry?

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10 March 2015

This is not the first time that the Swiss watch industry has found itself under threat. Back in the 1970s and 80s, Japanese companies producing Quartz watches seemed to be calling time on the ancient, genealogic watch companies scattered around Switzerland. 

Seemingly overnight everyone wanted a Casio or Seiko despite their industrial, ugly faces and irritating beeps because they could do more than a Breitling and looked better with your Nike Air Max. Switzerland was over and everyone knew it. The battle for wrists eventually became known as the 'Quartz Crisis' as many storied brands succumbed to the onslaught of reliable and (most importantly) affordable timepieces. Even say as late as 2000 no one would imagine a world where Asian companies didn't dominate technology. Children wanted a Nintendo, Tamagotchi and most people had a Samsung or Panasonic TV.

The reasons for recollecting this are two-fold. Apple is a technology company first and foremost, and the Apple Watch is its first venture into wearables. It's a bold move, but one that has been a long time coming. Apple's smartwatch collection will range in price from $349 to $17,000 depending on the metals they are made from and the straps they are bought with. The average price will be around $1000, making it a mid-range wearable. The lower-end version of the watch, retailing at just $350, will certainly appeal to the masses: the sporty, the teenage and the techno-lovers. But can the $10k+ version (called the Apple Watch Edition) really topple the luxury watch market from its lengthy reign at the top? I doubt it.

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To begin with let's look at why someone with $10k to blow might buy an Apple Watch Edition...

It can do more than your Rolex

The Apple Watch is basically is a smaller, sleeker iPhone, it's more difficult to lose and it can do, well everything, your Omega or IWC can't. From opening hotel doors and showing your boarding pass to paying for sweets at a vending machine. Traditional watches are as much about display of wealth as they are about time-telling, but with this luxury version of the watch you can do everything and still prove you're rolling in it.

It's clearly luxury product

Apple has become the go-to brand of countless middle-class families in recent years, their products are luxurious, but with some saving many people were able to find the money to buy an iPad to keep the kids quiet or a phone contract that worked for them. With this Edition watch though, they've got luxury customers in their sights. The most expensive edition will be solid 18-carat gold, followed closely by the 18-carat yellow and another 18-carat rose. Its techy credentials may not be enough to sway a true horologist but the design certainly may be. Which leads me on to....

The style credentials

Apple's attempt to dip their toes into the luxury pool was first signalled last year, with their hiring Angela Ahrendts from Burberry to transform retail and marketing. This set the fashion ball rolling and repeat hiring from within the fashion and luxury industries has been announced. These contacts led design chief Sir Jonathan Ive to the offices of Vogue and Women's Wear Daily, where readers were invited to submit designs for the watches' face – an important tool used by designers when creating shoes and bags. This emphasis on style and design is an important step for Apple; capturing the audience of luxury and fashion brands indicates a clear acceptance and understanding of wearables, something that wouldn't have gone amiss with GoogleGlass.

Kevin Lynch introduces the various features of the watchKevin Lynch introduces the various features of the watch © Apple

"Switzerland is in trouble" Jonny Ive

Back in September, Jonny Ive was overheard bragging about the credentials of the watch and what it held for the fulcrum country of watchmaking. Unsurprisingly the watch industry held their breath, no one underestimated a tech behemoth such as Apple, especially after they hired TAG-Heuer's former Sales Director Patrick Pruniaux last year. They shouldn't have worried, there is little in the design of the Apple watch that would make a watch collector swoon. No nuance, detail or handmade delicacy that add to the personality of classic timepiece. 

What Apple have created, very successfully, is a watch that can be more than a watch. But is it not just a suped-up version of what came around in 1980s and is now worn to be edgy? Everyone in Shoreditch or Brooklyn wears a Casio, but they also eat £3-a-bowl cereal and ride fold-up bikes. Hipsters won't buy the Apple watches because they're too flashy and too mainstream consumerist. Teenagers will because they're cool.

But for those with money to spend the lines are too blurred – can you really tell the difference between a $350 one and $17,000 luxury version? Maybe you can. But people don't buy Swiss watches because you know how much they are, they buy them because they've been handcrafted using hundreds of years of experimentation and knowledge, and they're simply beautiful to look at. The Apple Watch is cool and functional, but it's not beautiful and artisanal.

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The question now is whether those people buying expensive mechanical watches will switch to the Apple Watch, and what impact this will have on the industry. In previous tough times the Swiss have gone back to basics and focused on high-quality design and mechanics to entice buyers from China and Japan. Can they do this again? Well probably and certainly for the time being they're safe. The Apple Watch is still in its early stages and inevitable problems and issues will arise. As it improves over time and becomes a necessity over a gimmick, Switzerland may need a rethink.

At the moment Apple is a giant, able to wipe the floor with any industry that stands in its path. However, luxury customers and investors aren't easily swayed. They know how to spend money and spend it well. Apple products don't increase in value with age, watches do. Apple technology is designed with the next innovative step in mind, out iPhones wear out, the screens scratch and our enchantment with them lasts a year or two, if that. Watches are investment pieces and limited editions are always in style. Even though there's a luxury version, the Apple watch will be too mainstream and too recognisable to ever eclipse the pride an owner has in a classic timepiece.