Watches in 2030 and stepping stones

When a new product disrupts an industry it tends to not gain mass market appeal until such time as the benefits are seen by a decent proportion of society. It is like herd immunity for a virus and the higher the number of satisfied users, the more likely the product is to go on to dominate an industry or at the very least become a mainstay going forward.

The problem with the Apple Watch is that it is not only disrupting the traditional watch industry, it is transforming what people can do with a device that is attached to them. We joke about people being attached to their phones, but actually wearing a product is a world away and so much more convenient and personal. This is one reason why watches have continued to be admired, enjoyed and purchased in huge numbers for close to a century.

It is following this long and influential history that the success of the Apple Watch is remarkable in just 5 of those years. Look around when you go out and check how many people are wearing an Apple Watch. I would bet good money that you see more Apple Watches than any other brand and in my experience it seems to be becoming more popular, and mainstream, every month.

If you clear your mind of prejudices and view it for what it is the appeal is not hard to understand, but discuss it with someone who has even a slither of an alternative view and the rabbit hole soon comes in to view. I have discussed this subject with three people in the past week and even though we have largely agreed, the number of reasons for the Apple Watch success and what we see happening in the future grow in every chat.

This is not the Quartz Crisis from the 1970s all over again for a number of different reasons. As to if the Quartz Crisis was a crisis at all is debatable, but I will cover that in a future article and for the purposes of this article I will refer to it as such.

When quartz arrived the world was mechanical and so were our watches. Tuning fork watches were causing a stir and when quartz arrived it had an exponential effect over time as the technology became more efficient and prices dropped to a level that was unheard of at the time. The fact is, however, that quartz watches improved on what mechanical watches did in terms of accuracy, daily maintenance and for many they brought a cool factor to watches that was not there at the time. Let’s face it, your grandad wore a mechanical watch and that was not cool to replicate in the 1970s. If you ignored the gimmickry that came with calculator and gaming watches, they simply changed how we tell time.

The Apple Watch does not merely change how we tell the time and as much as Apple would have us believe that it is a watch in the classic sense, that would be folly to believe. It is a watch, of that I have no doubt, and I completely disagree with those who deride it as not being a watch while at the same time bestowing the virtues of the Casio G-Shock. The Apple Watch is akin to a quartz watch, but is one that covers so many areas that it can be hard to fathom what it does at times.

I should add that I do not currently wear an Apple Watch and that I am firmly in the mechanical watch camp, but I refuse to keep my mind closed and ignore what is happening today and potentially over the next decade.

If someone told you in 2015 that you would be wearing a watch that told the time with microsecond accuracy and that this accuracy worked by using not just your phone, but through other Apple Watches that are close to you it would have been hard to believe. If they followed this up by adding that it could monitor your heart rate 24 hours a day, that it could track all of your movements and exercise, that it could pay for goods in a store, make phone calls, take an ECG, play music and podcasts, receive and send messages, wake you up with an alarm, control your TV, navigate you to locations, check the ambient noise around you and your hearing, check the weather, monitor your sleep (through an app) and on and on you would have laughed in their face.

This is why the Apple Watch is not quartz and why it potentially could damage sectors of the watch industry greatly in the very near future and the wider industry in the next decade. I write this with the average potential watch purchaser in mind. They decide they want a watch, of even that I am not convinced, they see an Apple Watch with all of the above features selling from £199 and they look at a quartz watch for the same price. What would you do if you were not into watches in a big way?

No matter how much I consider it, I simply cannot see why people would choose a quartz watch over a smartwatch, despite their battery limitations, and that is on top of the fact that increasing numbers of people go bare wristed. I know so many people, from the age of 20 to 70 who wear no watch at all and in the case of the younger group, they actually seem to prefer using their phones as a digital clock than going through the hassle of lifting their wrist and immediately seeing the time.

I am starting to wonder if time is not the commodity it once was and if we are becoming a race of people who are trying to avoid restrictions and the pressure of time every day, but that is an entirely different conversation.

As watch people we tend to view the industry and the individual models with a lens that matches the brand’s intentions. We marvel as the finishing, the craftsmanship in the movements, the fascinating complications and how the watches make us feel. This is all perfectly normal to us, geeky to the rest, and completely ignores the wider industry.

If we are not careful there will be no stepping stone and that is potentially a big problem.

By that I mean that there could be a gap between very low-end quartz watches / smartwatches and luxury watches. If people see lower end watches as not offering value thanks to their single feature they are less likely to spend £400 to £1,000 on a Hamilton, Tissot, Longines etc etc. Why would they look to spend more money if they are not feeling the emotions that have made us the way we are?

Without these ‘stepping stone’ brands there is a limited path up to Tudor, Omega and the rest. If only one stone is missing this potentially knocks the entire industry because, believe it or not, the likes of Patek actually need Seiko and the rest to keep a decent number of people in orbit.

Yes, it is very true that many who buy Patek, Rolex and higher up have the funds readily available and would likely continue to buy them, but it is also true that many have moved up from budget timepieces as their finances improve and their passion for watches increases. Many of you will recognise the irrational feeling of value in a product that costs thousands and the way you justify it to yourself. The finishing (which you do not always notice because your eyes are not a macro lens), the movement etc. They push us into believing that the watch is worth the money in a tangible sense, it obviously isn’t and we are all buying a dream that 99% of people do not understand.

I discussed this with a man who really knows his watches at the weekend and he believes that tangibly all watches should be selling for a quarter to a third of their current pricing. I agree. Imagine if you could buy a Black Bay 58 for £950- it would feel worthy of what many consider to be an extraordinary amount of money to spend on a watch. £2,600 seems ridiculous to them and I remain to be convinced that the industry culture of ‘luxury’ in how it is marketed is the right way for the future.

Don’t get me wrong, in many ways the current marketing obviously works and mechanical watches have had a revival in the past decade, but I’m concerned about the rise of the Apple Watch, the number of people no longer wearing watches, the prospect of ever more personal tech that does it all and of course the future after COVID-19.

There are many young people wearing mechanical watches for a variety of reasons. A statement maybe, fashion or generally just being a hipster. This is positive, but it could also be an indicator that with the advent of smartwatches, the mechanical watch has dropped one more generation back in how it is viewed by the majority.

Just like vinyl and cassettes are viewed as trendy and cool, the CD will likely follow and at that point it ceases to be a business for multiple huge organisations. Vinyl is perceived as having had a resurgence recently, but don’t be fooled. The number of vinyl records sold is still under 1% of the industry- it is a niche indeed and will remain so.

I worry that mechanical watches may become niche because of all of the reasons above and if you disagree I would be more than happy to read your comments. If you think I am being pessimistic I get that, but you don’t get anywhere by expecting the best in a potentially bad time and looking at it through your own world view.

I have stepped outside of my beliefs here to write this and the more I think about it the more I see mechanical watches struggling to compete in a world that has changed so much in such a short period. I hope I am wrong, I really do.

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