How luxury watches smartened up their act

The latest generation combine smartphone technology with time-honoured craftsmanship

Time

25 Apr 2018

Four years ago I asked a TAG Heuer executive how his firm was planning to deal with the impending explosion in the smartwatch market triggered by the arrival of the long-awaited Apple Watch. It was not, he told me, anything for traditional manufacturers such as TAG to be concerned about, because people who were interested in luxury watches would never be interested in ‘smart’ ones.

That particular executive no longer works at TAG Heuer. And little more than a year after our conversation, the brand launched its own luxury smartwatch in the form of the Connected Modular 45 that LVMH watch boss Jean-Claude Biver describes as ‘a watch for eternity’. Why? Because one of its main selling points addressed the fact that today’s electronic devices are quickly superseded — so the ‘head’ of the Connected Modular 45 is designed to be interchangeable with an old-fashioned, long-lived mechanical watch that can be purchased separately and fitted to the smartwatch case.

TAG has subsequently emphasised the luxury nature of its product by expanding the range to include everything from a £1,200, entry-level model to one made from white gold, paved with 589 diamonds and supplied with a Caliber 5 mechanical movement. It costs £155,000.

The jeweller Fawaz Gruosi was also quick to recognise a potential niche for an ultra-high-end smartwatch, launching a special £13,000 de Grisogono ‘haute couture’ version of the Samsung Gear S2 — paved with black and white diamonds — that could be connected with the wearer’s smartphone at a press of the bezel.

Top: Apple Series 3 with Hermès strap Above: Breitling Exospace B55 Yachting

But the limited life of the technology within the watch (an S3 version hasn’t arrived) meant that just 250 were made following the 2016 launch, and those that went unsold are now being offered as conventional ‘unconnected’ watches with normal quartz movements.

Hermès, meanwhile, adopted a ‘can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude and teamed up with Apple to create its luxury smartwatch. Available in several variations, the watch combines Apple’s Series 3 smart technology with a high-quality steel case and a choice of hand-stitched Hermès straps. Prices range from £1,149 to £1,399.

That other luxury luggage maker, Louis Vuitton, has also incorporated smartwatch technology into one of its existing designs to create a new version of its Tambour Horizon that can be supplied ready-equipped with LV’s celebrated City Guides, meaning that the watch can be used to download information about popular locations around the world. Other available functions include a regatta timer and, for some countries, contactless payments. More than a dozen dial designs are available, with prices ranging from £1,735 to £2,140.

Montblanc, best known for its pens and leather goods, entered the smartwatch game four years ago, initially with the offer of a ‘connected’ strap device. Now it offers an interesting combination of modern technology and traditional looks in the form of its Summit smartwatch that looks like a wartime, single-button chronograph.

Louis Vuitton’s Tambour Horizon

Inside lurks an Android Wear 2.0 operating system — compatible with both Android and iPhone technology — a Qualcomm Snapdragon 2100 processor and a high-resolution AMOLED display with multi-touch recognition. Featuring popular functions such as navigation, voice translation, multiple time zones and a fitness tracker, the watch starts at a reasonable £795 and can be customised with a range of optional straps.

Breitling — undergoing a major shake-up at the hands of its new CEO, former IWC boss Georges Kern — chose last month’s Baselworld watch show to pull the wraps off its first ‘connected’ chronograph in the form of the Exospace B55 Yachting that combines the brand’s ultra-accurate ‘Superquartz’ movement with a low-energy Bluetooth system that can enable data transfer, including regatta times, to a smartphone. Water resistant to 100 metres and corrosion resistant, thanks to a 46mm case made from titanium, the watch can be bought from £5,810 with either a matching titanium bracelet or a blue rubber strap.

Citizen Hybrid Manufacture 3.0

Perhaps the most interesting new ‘connected’ watch to emerge from Baselworld, however, came from the Frédérique Constant brand, which broke new ground in the sector three years ago with the introduction of its so-called Horological Smartwatch that combined high-tech with a quartz-powered analogue display. Featuring a 42mm steel case, its crown is used to toggle between smartwatch functions, with the data being displayed on a sub-dial at the six o’clock position. Now the brand — which was bought by Japanese electronics giant Citizen in 2016 — has taken the concept of blending classical watchmaking with wireless connectivity a step further with its Hybrid Manufacture 3.0 watch (from £2,800)which features an automatic, mechanical watch movement into which is integrated a bespoke electronic module to provide smartwatch functions.

What’s really unusual about Frédérique Constant’s creation, however, is its third function (hence the ‘3.0’ in the title). Built into the smartwatch module is an algorithm called Calibre Analytics that enables the electronic module to monitor the performance and accuracy of the mechanical movement and communicate it to the wearer’s phone. It’s certainly smart — but doesn’t it also beg the question: why?


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