Galvanised by the presentation of the Apple Watch, Swiss watchmakers are staking out their places in the next battle of the watch giants to come.
The first ‘Swiss Made’ smartwatches, produced by Festina Suisse, are expected to hit the stands at Baselworld, the world’s largest watch trade fair which opens its doors in Basel on March 19.
Other big players like Swatch Group and Tag Heuer are now also expected to release smartwatches by the end of the year, despite previous reservations about the viability of the market.
“I am still convinced that the mechanical Swiss watch that sells for more than CHF1,000 ($1,014) is not in any danger. However, at lower price ranges, smartwatches are real competition for the Swiss watch industry,” says Tag Heuer’s watch division interim CEO Jean-Claude Biver.
The sudden interest in smartwatches represents a significant change of tune from Swiss watchmakers whom just a year ago were being criticised for their lack of interest in the market by the likes of Xavier Comtesse, founder of the think tank Watch Thinking. “All, or almost all, of the bosses have changed their minds. It wasn’t a bluff. They simply realised in recent months that Switzerland has colossal technological attributes and is better equipped than California to win this market,” says Comtesse.
Competing with California
A similar view prevails at the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) of Neuchâtel, where for the last 15 years engineers have been working on miniaturised technologies destined for devices worn by people.
The Apple Watch
Apple unveiled its highly anticipated smartwatch on March 9. It will be available from April 24 in nine countries (but not Switzerland). A base model will cost $349. (The competition costs $100-500). Users will be able to make calls, read emails, control music, manage photos, pay for shopping, open hotel room doors – and tell the time. Battery life is expected to last 18 hours.
“The media and financial analysts underestimate the capacity of Swiss watchmakers to react. Switzerland has all the microtechnical and electronic experience to produce high quality smartwatches which are also aesthetically very beautiful,” says Jens Krauss, head of the research project at the CSEM.
Traditionally conservative, the microcosm that is the Swiss watch world preferred to wait and see how this new market - for the moment still a small, technophile market - would develop before diving in head first.
Comtesse, who spent two months visiting a range of watchmakers using digital technology in the United States, says he has a good idea of what the smartwatches of the future will look like. “They will be like remote controls for managing objects which are nearby, like your car, computer or home security device, but they will also be used to make payments at the bank or supermarket,” he says.
This seems to be the direction being taken by Swatch, which has announced it is in discussions with Coop and Migros, Switzerland’s two largest supermarket chains, to develop a mobile payment system.
In the face of the financial power of the 2.0 giants, the Swiss watchmaking industry has three major attributes to bring to the table, says Comtesse: energy efficiency, sustainability and expertise in the luxury industry.
Leave the 2CV to Apple and offer an internet-connected Ferrari. People are tired of objects that they have to continuously recharge and replace,” he says.
Battery life bugs
Swiss researchers are exploring several possible ideas aimed at solving the dual problem of energy consumption and battery life. Neuchâtel’s Vaucher Manufactures, a company which specialises in the production of watch movements, is focusing on associating the electronic interface of the watch with its mechanical movements.
“Like the dynamo [system for lights] on a bicycle, the movement of the wrist would, in an almost uninterrupted manner, generate power to the battery which would allow the interface software of the watch to function. This would resolve the problem of lack of autonomy in smartwatches,” says Takahiro Hamaguchi, head of development Vaucher Manufactures.
Solar energy, used on the dial of Tissot’s T-Touch, is also an option, as are long-life batteries which seem to be the preference of Swatch. But for most specialists, making sensible choices amongst the multitude of applications available and reducing energy consumption will be the keys to making autonomous and attractive smartwatches.
According to Krauss, demand for the technologies being developed at the CSEM is coming from all quarters.
“The multinationals, but also the Swiss watchmakers are showing a growing interest in our technologies and patents,” says Krauss, adding that some major companies in the electronics industry have already copied products patented by the CSEM when making their smartwatches.
“We’re not going to launch ourselves into legal battles, that’s not our role,” says Krauss. “These large companies are failing to be innovative, so they are purchasing existing technologies, small start-ups and patent portfolios. It’s in this area that Switzerland, with its tradition of innovation, really has its best cards to play.”
Background: A contentious partnership
Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer, owned by French luxury conglomerate LVMH, has teamed up with an American technological giant to develop its smartwatch. The name of this prestigious partner will be revealed at Baselworld or shortly before, Jean-Claude Biver, head of watchmaking at LVMH, tells swissinfo.ch.
“Our in-house expertise in the area of microprocessors is extremely limited. By partnering with a giant of Silicon Valley, we are guaranteed to be always at the forefront of new technologies. In Switzerland, we would have had to work with a whole series of companies. I prefer to talk to the pope rather than chase the priests in every village,” says Biver.
It is a choice which baffles Jens Krauss, engineer at Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Neuchâtel. “Switzerland is capable of developing smartwatches from A to Z, there is no reason to go to the United States,” he says.
Founder of the think tank Watch Thinking Xavier Comtesse describes the Tag Heuer decision is an “absurd publicity stunt”, and says it is a “total mistake” to take production outside of Switzerland. “As the motor of the watch will not be made in Switzerland, we can’t label it ‘Swiss Made’,” admits Biver. “But as long as the consumer remains convinced of the quality of our products, it will not be the end of the world."
(Translated from French by Sophie Douez), swissinfo.ch