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This is what luxury watch executives think of your 'cheap, plastic-designed' smartwatch

Jon Phillips | July 8, 2014
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.

Cutting-edge features vs. timeless appeal

If there's anything I learned from my interviews with the watch company executives, it's that they're operating in a completely different universe, with different rules of order, relative to the consumer electronics companies. Both camps produce things we put on our wrists, and these things display information a user might find relevant. But these are just trivial, incidental similarities.

Each industry must respect completely different pricing rules: A smartwatch can't reasonably cost more than a $300 smartphone, while a luxury wristwatch can cost a year's salary.

And each industry must respect completely different product cycles: The electronics industry embraces planned obsolescence, and that applies to everything from silicon chips to style trends. But a luxury watch must have timeless appeal.

And each industry must respect a completely different marketing narrative. For smartwatches, it's all about functions, features, utility, productivity, and the next step in mobile computing. For luxury watches, the focus really isn't even on telling the time. It's about telling the world what kind of person you are via the loaded symbolism of a white-gold finish or a dial once preferred by Steve McQueen.

Yet smartwatches are here. They're buzz-worthy. And the luxury timepiece market is taking notice, even if its manufacturers never intend to directly compete with the gadget companies for an ever-dwindling audience of people who will strap things to their wrists.

Wolfe says smartwatches should bring renewed interest to all types of watches, but Citizen remains fully committed to its Eco-Drive technology, a proprietary platform that uses ambient light to power its watches. This all but relegates Citizen to analog watchfaces for power-consumption reasons. And beyond that, Citizen would never align with, say, a Google because the company doesn't "like to depend on third-party software people who may not be fully invested," Wolfe says.

Ironically, it's Linder of TAG Heuer who's more open to a world of smartwatch possibilities. His company has already dabbled in the smartwatch space with a limited run of Aquaracer AC72 models designed specifically for the World Cup sailing efforts of Oracle Team USA. These watches — just 50 were produced in total — eschewed moving hands entirely, and used a simple monochrome display to report sailing metrics like wind direction and intensity.

So it's not like TAG Heuer has been completely antagonistic to the forward march of digital technology. Besides producing the limited-run Aquaracer, Linder says his team has studied smartwatches from Samsung and other manufacturers; this is certainly an exercise that should be helpful to the defector Pruniaux as he tries to elevate Apple's iWatch above the smartwatch fray. It's just that Linder and company aren't going to sacrifice style and simplicity to reach what is essentially a different market of consumers.


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