If Apple's new watch guru feels the same way about smartwatches as his former TAG Heuer boss does, then he knows he'll face serious challenges in positioning the iWatch as a sophisticated wrist accessory with mainstream appeal.
On Friday, the world learned that Patrick Pruniaux just left his position as TAG Heuer's Vice President of Global Sales and Retail. He now works for Apple — presumably to help craft a marketing story around the presumptive iWatch. Pruniaux's departure strikes me as particularly curious, because I've been asking executives at luxury watch brands to share their thoughts on the smartwatch market, and some of the most pointed criticism comes from Stephane Linder, TAG Heuer CEO.
"None impress me in terms of design," Linder told me, referring to smartwatches from Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm and Pebble. "They look like cheap, plastic-designed watches. In the luxury category, we work on every detail for crafted value. When I see the smartwatch, it's interesting, but in terms of design, it looks like a cheap wrist computer. There's not one that makes a great connection."
Cheap. Down-market. Too geeky for fashion-conscious consumers. These are the criticisms lobbed at smartwatches by executives at traditional luxury wristwatch brands. It's clear that even Apple, the epitome of tasteful gadget design, will need a talent like Pruniaux to resolve the intrinsic nerdiness of a watch manufactured in Taiwan and defined not by moving hands, but a 2.5-inch digital display.
Still, some watch company executives see glimmers of hope in today's smartwatch offerings, and Linder himself doesn't categorically rule out the possibility of a Swiss-made, TAG Heuer smartwatch some day.
Can you feel the hand of people in it?
If there's a common complaint among wristwatch aficionados, it's that today's smartwatches lack the cues of fine craftsmanship, and borrow too much design DNA from pure consumer electronics. Linder, for one, says he'd like to see smartwatches with much more steel and a higher quality of finishing, "like you can feel the hand of people in it."
Scott B. Wolfe, senior vice president for merchandising, design and product development at Citizen Watch, is another skeptic. Citizen has already dipped its toe in the smartwatch waters with its Proximity model, an extremely technical-looking analog chronograph that provides bare-bones phone notifications via a second hand that sweeps to either a "MAIL" or "CALL" label on its dial. But Wolfe says none of today's smartwatches embrace "aspirational design" — a look that says something about one's personal interests, whether that be sailing, car racing, or just a basic appreciation for precision micro-machinery or the finer things in life.
"From a design aesthetic, all these things look too much like gadgets, and not enough like timepieces," Wolfe says. "The Galaxy Gear, personally, I don't like the design. The case with the screws — been there, done that. They integrated the strap into the case, which looks a little cheap. This is almost what Dick Tracy's watch looked like in the 40s and 50s, and that's not ground-breaking."
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