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In San Francisco on Tuesday, Apple chief executive Tim Cook is expected to launch, alongside some updated iPhones, a watch-style wearable computer.
One might imagine that a desirable, mass-market Apple smartwatch could be the final nail in the coffin for the original wearable technology – the mechanical wristwatch, which dates back to the 16th century, and its battery-powered successors.
For a decade it has seemed as if watches were going the way of the bowler hat. Fewer of us wear them, with the mobile phone serving as many people’s timepiece. Even China, which was seen as one of the traditional watch’s last bastions, has experienced plunging sales after an official crackdown on imported status symbols.
Wind the hands, then, to April, when I attended a luxury watch launch. It was a first for me – my usual beat is noisy technology events, aimed largely at young journalists and bloggers. But I like mechanical watches and was curious to discover how such a manifestly moribund product was even surviving in 2014.
On a wet Wednesday night in London’s Bloomsbury I expected to find a few sandalled, bearded men earnestly discussing Swiss maker Audemars Piguet’s new Royal Oak Offshore models to the strains of a string quartet. Instead, I hit on the loudest, rocking-est party imaginable. Seven hundred people, including young celebrities and paparazzi, were treated to a Niagara of Ruinart Champagne and a private show by Tinie Tempah, the rapper. A Twitter stream was projected on to a wall.
To see the actual watches – price £13,100 to £500,000 – required an über-invitation to a guarded inner chamber. Even the watch reviewers ushered in alongside celebrities seemed young and cool; and yes, there is such a thing as a watch critic, even though the first thing you learn about expensive, windup watches is that accuracy is not considered a big deal, so what they critique is a little arcane.
The event was a masterclass in marketing. Even though the broad public has probably never heard of Audemars Piguet, and many in my experience, despite the watch industry’s massive advertising, are hazy over whether traditional watches are even made any more, it was hard to avoid feeling this was the party to be at, and that the Royal Oak Offshore, which, naturally, is neither royal, wooden nor a boat, is the watch for a person of substance and style.
And here is the extraordinary thing: far from dying, with Apple about to gobble up its remains, the mechanical watch business is ticking away splendidly, and has been doing so right through the personal technology revolution.
Statistics from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry – Switzerland produces more than 90 per cent of fine watches – show that between 2000 and 2013, despite the recent dip in exports to China, luxury watch exports have tripled, from 2.48m watches annually to 7.47m. In the same period, Swiss electronic watch sales are down a quarter, from 27.2m watches to 20.6m.
Between 2010 and 2013, the value of exports to the United Arab Emirates, for example, increased from SFr579.1m to SFr934.1m, while those to the US rose from SFr1.68bn to SFr2.24bn.
In the UK, where the value of Swiss watch exports increased from SFr597m to SFr952m between 2010 and 2013, the boomlet has been highly visible. In July, Watches of Switzerland opened the world’s biggest luxury watch store over three floors in Regent Street with 6,000 watches in stock, priced from £2,000 to £1m. Nearby, Patek Philippe has doubled the size of its New Bond Street store. This growth is mirrored outside London, too. Berry’s, an old Nottingham jeweller, has just moved into a new store with an entire floor devoted to Patek Philippe.
This counterintuitive trend backwards, not from digital to analogue, but digital to clockwork, has not been lost on electronic watch specialists. Swatch has just introduced a £108 machine-made mechanical watch, the Sistem51. So what is going on?
Timothy Barber, editor of luxury watch magazine QP, says watch culture is very male – as is evident from looking around any expensive watch store.
“It’s partly a grown-up version of things men geek out over, like collecting comics,” Mr Barber says. “It’s obsessing about things that don’t matter logically, but do emotionally. People are very knowledgeable and at the hardcore end, proudly describe themselves as a WIS – Watch Idiot Savant.”
So one explanation for the watch’s refusal to die is that it is jewellery men are happy to wear. They also have macho show-off potential, like a Ferrari you can bring into a bar.
In July the technology bible Wired magazine published its annual watch supplement, featuring a number of decidedly non-techie mechanical models. Publishing director Rupert Turnbull says this reflected a move towards men owning two watches – one as a dress watch together with a new smartwatch.
But the continuing love of these retro machines goes deeper. Owners speak of being enthused by the machinery on their wrist, comparing its mechanical ticking to a heartbeat.
“More mainstream, there’s a new appreciation of things that are crafted,” adds Mr Barber. “People notice your watch in business meetings and you notice theirs.”
The question of accuracy quite irritates fine watch connoisseurs. “If I want to know the time, I’ll probably look on my phone,” says Mark Todman of the website WatchGeek. “If I look at my watch, though, I get a broad idea of what the time is, and checking my watch is a much more engaging experience.”
François Le Troquer, executive director of the luxury division at Aurum, which owns Watches of Switzerland, expanded on this at the launch of its Regent Street store: “It depends on you and how important is it for you to be on time,” he said. “For some people, five minutes is not late. For some, 15 minutes is not late. You can have the most precise quartz watch but be looking for more poetry. When you buy a beautiful, sophisticated car, it’s not only about the look, but what’s inside. The same with watches; people want to know the authenticity, the craftsmanship.”
So how do you judge and critique a watch when accuracy is not important? “A watch might appeal to me because of the detailing on the strap or the way the case is designed,” says Mr Todman. “Or the romantic vision of the company may drive my appreciation of the aesthetic the designer has put across. The movement inside may be pretty bog standard. So it’s all about the critic’s interpretation.”
If Apple does indeed launch a smartwatch this week, the product may not be threatened greatly by the persistence of demand for fine old-school watches – the technology company will be looking for a far bigger market than traditional watchmakers seek. But Apple will still find any new product in this field competing with traditional manufacturers for space on the wrists of the wealthy and influential.
Further reading: British craft springs up as Swiss move with the times
The first wristwatches were English and made for women. Elizabeth I was given an “arm watch” by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1571, writes Jonathan Margolis.
Women continued to be the main users of wristwatches, whereas men wore only pocket-watches until the early 20th century.
Today there is a small but growing new British watch industry. Brands such as Bremont of Henley-on-Thames, Christopher Ward of Maidenhead, Schofield of Henfield, West Sussex and Robert Loomes of Stamford have a global reputation.
Roger W Smith, of Ramsey on the Isle of Man, is one of the world’s most prestigious watchmakers. There is a seven- to 11-year waiting list for his £50,000 to £100,000 creations.
Meanwhile, fresh brands are still appearing in Switzerland, pioneering new types of mechanical watch movement. HYT, which started in 2012, specialises in hydraulic or “hydro mechanical” watches. These have a single hand to display minutes, while a piston-driven stream of brightly coloured fluid shows the hour.