The Apple Watch is no threat to the Swiss
Prior to the arrival of the Apple Watch earlier this year, there was a lot of hand wringing about how this new device was going to lay waste to the Swiss watch industry.
The Swiss endured a close call in the 197os with the so-called "Quartz Crisis," when cheap, highly accurate quartz-powered watches from Asia caused numerous traditional Swiss manufacturers of mechanical timepieces to go under.
The Swiss bounced back and have enjoyed decades of uptrending sales, as the world's consumers have become more affluent and sought to define themselves through luxury goods.
But the Apple Watch was expected to put the Cupertino colossus' massive influence in direct conflict with the Swiss. If you want the best smartphone, it's the iPhone. If you want the best watch for modern life, it has to the Apple Watch. Design, functionality, connectivity, Apple-ness — all on your wrist!
Plus, the thinking was that all the people who don't currently wear or watch or who've never worn a watch would inexorably gravitate toward the Apple device.
Apple, Apple, Apple, must get, must get, must get!
Look out, Switzerland.
Well, so far the threat has utterly failed to materialize. According to the Swiss Horological Federation, which tracks how the Swiss timekeeping industry is doing, there was no significant drop off in sales from April 2014 to April 2015. Sales were up in tech-early-adopting America, as well as in China, a critical market for Swiss luxury watches.
Okay, a decline ahead of a crisis could still happen. But the initial panic that preceded the Apple Watch's debut has rapidly mellowed.
My feeling is that this is due to Apple Watch buyers and potential buyers realizing how complicated the device is, relative to a traditional watch, Swiss or otherwise. This was my reaction to the Apple Watch, in the short time I got to sample it at Business Insider's offices. The thing is fiddly. Well made and well designed, but fiddly. It takes time to set up. And unlike a traditional watch, it doesn't make you want to look at it again and again. It's a black glass square most of the time. Yes, it's an incredible conversation piece, for the moment. But it isn't a luxury conversation piece.
There was some commentary before the Apple Watch hit that it would gut the lower end of the Swiss watch industry. Rolex and Patek Philippe would be fine. But TAG Heuer would have problems. $10,000 timepieces would still sell. $500-$1,000 ones would be crushed by the Apple Watch.
I took this argument seriously at first, but now I think it's not that relevant. If you want a decent watch to wear, for telling time or signaling your membership in a certain stratum of adulthood, a $500-$1,000 TAG could still be the way to go. An Apple Watch, while a very curious thing, might signal that you're a little too tech-y. It is, after all, a digital watch.
And there's one other factor: The Apple Watch wants to be a 24/7 device. You have your iPhone with you at all times. Likewise, your Apple Watch. It banishes everything else from your wrist.
This is just impractical. The Apple Watch isn't going to be tough enough for that kind of duty — unlike many, many traditional watches. It's also a downer for anyone who likes to change up the look of their wrist every few days. Much of the fun of collecting traditional watches, be they inexpensive or not, is creating a rotation for wearing them.
It's like changing clothes every day, freshening the outfit, stimulating the sartorial imagination.
The Apple Watch, by contrast, aims for uniformity, even thought one can swap out straps and change the design of the face. The move from thin, leather-strap dress watch to stainless-steel sport watch to simple, fun weekend watch with a colorful band isn't in the cards with the Apple Watch.
Could this be a major problem for Apple? Maybe, if watch sales aren't as massive as expected. Frankly, I figure that Apple will sell lots of watches, and maybe sell plenty to traditional watch buyers. But I think those buyers will use the Apple Watch on a part-time basis and favor their traditional watches mush of the time. The Apple Watch has great potential as a fitness-and-wellness device. And plenty of younger consumers who don't now wear watches could favor the Apple Watch.
But that's a good thing for the Swiss — those younger buyers weren't going to be luxury watch customers ever, without the Apple Watch coming along to get them into wearing something one their wrists.
So there you have it. The Apple Watch — an anticipated threat to old-school watches that, so far, isn't.
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