Minutes & Seconds

Mechanical watches and their fans resist tide of smartwatches

Smartwatches such as the Apple watch (above left) have multiple functions and tell time more accurately while mechanical watches such as the $12,000 IWC timepiece (right) are known for their engineering and artistic expression. Luxury brands that hav
Smartwatches such as the Apple watch (above left) have multiple functions and tell time more accurately while mechanical watches such as the $12,000 IWC timepiece (right) are known for their engineering and artistic expression.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
Luxury brands that have jumped on the smartwatch bandwagon include (from left) Tag Heuer with the Connected Modular 45, Louis Vuitton with the Tambour Horizon and Breitling with the Exospace B55.
Luxury brands that have jumped on the smartwatch bandwagon include (from left) Tag Heuer with the Connected Modular 45, Louis Vuitton with the Tambour Horizon and Breitling with the Exospace B55. PHOTOS: TAG HEUER, LOUIS VUITTON, BREITLING

Not everyone is going for smartwatches as many appreciate mechanical watches for their workmanship, durability and soul

National serviceman Brian Chang's favourite watch is a Hublot Classic Fusion which he received as an 18th birthday present from his parents.

"It has sentimental value for me," he says.

Smartwatches do not appeal to him, never mind that they boast multiple functions and tell time more accurately.

"Mechanical watches have a soul. No smartwatch comes close to the feeling of a mechanical rotor whirring on your wrist," he says.

He is not alone. Many people feel the same way, which explains why the day when smartwatches will slay the luxury watch market may not come to pass. At least not yet.

Figures from the global market intelligence firm, Internet Data Corporation, reveal that sales of smartwatches fell by 51.6 per cent in the third quarter of last year compared to the same period a year earlier.

Although they have been around for a couple of decades, smartwatches started making a splash only three years ago when the likes of Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S made their debut.

Some trend watchers predicted a revolution as these newfangled watches could be synced to phones and used to pick up calls and reply to text messages.

It looked like, they reckoned, a replay of the quartz crisis of 1969.

Mechanical watches have a soul. No smartwatch comes close to the feeling of a mechanical rotor whirring on your wrist.

NATIONAL SERVICEMAN BRIAN CHANG, who has a Hublot Classic Fusion

That year, Japanese watchmakers introduced the Seiko Quartz Astron 351, which turned the traditional Swiss watchmaking industry topsy- turvy.

The switch to electronic timekeeping was a bitter blow, decimating the number of Swiss mechanical watchmakers, estimated at 1,500 in 1970, by more than half to just 600 in 1983. Many traditional Swiss watchmaking houses went under.

But the industry valiantly fought to stay alive.

In 1983, Swatch - a new type of inexpensive analog watch with bold designs and styling - was launched to recapture the lost market share.

It was a huge hit and its popularity helped Swiss watchmaking get back on its feet.

Luxury watchmakers then made a concerted effort to extol their history and lineage and promote the artisanal expertise that went into the making of each of their watches: the exquisite handwork, the elaborate structures, the complex mechanical movements and the use of new mechanisms and materials.

Not a few brands started featuring transparent casebacks so that consumers could see just how intricate the workmanship was.

Sales of mechanical watches steadily increased. In two decades, between 1991 and 2011, the export value of Swiss watches went up four times.

But the positive outlook took a battering a couple of years ago.

The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry said watch exports last year fell by nearly 10 per cent.

Pundits attributed this to a sputtering global economy, currency fluctuations, a crackdown on luxury gifting in China and the advent of smartwatches.

Decreasing sales figures of smartwatches indicate, however, that their impact is not as dire as feared.

There are several reasons for this.

While smartphones come with many functions, they are not always practical or easy to use.

Two years ago, IT manager Lawrence Tay, 48, bought an Apple Watch.

The novelty quickly wore off.

"It's leceh lah, you have to keep charging it," he says, using the Malay word for troublesome.

"It's small, so it's really not so easy to navigate. It also has to be paired with the right phone or tablet, so you really have to think twice about changing either of those gadgets," adds Mr Tay, who has gone back to wearing his Breitling.

Many people also look beyond function when it comes to watches.

Mr Chang says: "If you really want to know the exact time, check your smartphone. But if you want a legacy of mechanical engineering at its finest and an expression of art, look at your wrist."

There are other reasons. A solidly constructed mechanical watch lasts a long time and can be passed down generations.

Smartphones, on the other hand, have much shorter life cycles because technology changes quickly.

Despite this, the smartwatch market is still primed for growth. Global analysts firm CCS expects sales of smartwatches to double to 86 million units in 2021.

This explains why some luxury brands have jumped on the smartwatch bandwagon.

Two days ago, Louis Vuitton launched the Tambour Horizon, made in conjunction with Google and Qualcomm Technology and compatible with both Android and Apple platforms.

Tag Heuer, meanwhile, caused ripples earlier when it released its Tag Heuer Connected Modular 45 smartwatch.

The watch is unique because of a modular design which allows every part of the watch - from lugs, strap and buckle - to be replaced and customised. You can even trade it in for a mechanical watch after two years. Prices start from $2,100.

Tag Heuer's chief executive Jean Claude Biver explains the watch's unique concept: "We like to say that we are the artisans of eternity. Any high-quality watch, once maintenance is regularly done, will work for hundreds of years.

"That's what I call eternity. That explains better why we could not handle the idea of producing a watch that would become obsolete, which will be the case of any technological watch.

"So what could be the solution ? Asking ourselves the question for more than a month finally brought us the answer with the interchangeability."

Other luxury watchmakers who have come out with smart models include Montblanc with its Summit and Breitling with its Exospace B55 and Bentley Supersports B55.

It appears that smartwatches will not sound the death knell for mechanical watches. But it is definitely pushing them to make changes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2017, with the headline 'A battle for wrists'. Print Edition | Subscribe