When Samsung unveiled its much-buzzed-about Galaxy Gear smartwatch — which will hit American electronics stores later this week — executive JK Shin flashed his at the audience and declared: “I believe it will become a new fashion icon throughout the world.” Considering the Gear’s $300 price tag, Shin’s claim made me wonder what experts on pricey, fashionable wristwatches make of Shin’s claim. After all, despite what you’ve read about how nobody wears watches anymore, the market for high-end, stylish, luxurious watches remains surprisingly robust.
The experts I contacted are all paying attention to the smartwatch phenomenon — but nobody sees evidence that it’s close to producing anything that disrupts the top-end watch market. And the bit about the Gear as a fashion-icon potential? “That’s a stretch,” says Benjamin Clymer, founder of Hodinkee, an online magazine that covers “watches of particularly high caliber.” (Recently reviewed: The $4,425 Tudor Heritage Chrono Blue and the $1,900 Ball Night Train DLC.) Clymer and the other experts I checked with converged around a handful of points.
1. Really, it’s not very stylish. So far, the Gear and other smartwatches like Sony’s SmartWatch and the upstart Pebble all “still look like cellphones on your wrist,” says Mitch Greenblatt, co-founder of Watchismo.com, which both sells and reports on top-end contemporary and vintage watches. As Greenblatt notes, high-end watches still act as methods of self-expression. In fact, Clymer points out that some of the most desirable and prestigious watches are only recognizable to other collectors, and “live under the cuff.”
Smartwatches remain more in line with the “I’ve got the thing everyone’s getting!” aesthetic of gadgetry. If anything, they suggest the cliché of the flashy gold Rolex — an overt attention-craver than can be off-putting rather than impressive.
And because the category is in a very early stage, the objects still feel ephemeral, in contrast to lasting classics that timepiece collectors crave — “something you could give to your kid,” Greenblatt continues. In contrast, the Gear and Pebble and their ilk already appear vaguely dated. “A screen on your wrist,” he summarizes, “just isn’t that fashionable.”
2. Serious watch collectors take technology very seriously. It’s just that they’re entranced with the technology of Swiss timing and related mechanical processes, rather than operating systems and apps.
That doesn’t mean they’re a bunch of luddites — quite the opposite. Clymer bought the original iPhone the day it came out; Greenblatt backed Pebble’s Kickstarter campaign. But, Ariel Adams of A Blog To Watch, which also includes pricey timepieces in its broad-ranging watch coverage, explained the old-school appeal of many high-end watches: “Tech guys are used to being around devices that they can only understand operationally in theory … but you can never see it with your eyes,” he said via email. “Traditional mechanical watches have moving parts you can see and appreciate. It helps remind gadget guys on a daily basis of what they love.
“When it comes down to it,” Adams continued, “the simple quality and design of high-end watches makes all the smartwatches that have been released thus far look like a toy.”
To put this slightly differently, Greenblatt says the best traditional watches articulate “the art of the machine.” In fact, he adds, Watchismo is currently planning a Kickstarter campaign to launch its own watch — a mechanical one.
3. Smartwatch hype is good for traditional high-end watches (for now). “It’s getting people interested in the idea of putting something on your wrist,” Clymer says. Smartwatches may have some effect on, for instance, the already somewhat gadget-y side of the digital watch category. But really, Greenblatt suggests, “smartwatches are for people who don’t wear watches.” Perhaps when their wearable gadgetry starts to look kitschy or crashes, its wrist-space will be taken by something more classic.
That said, all of these experts are tracking the new smartwatch category closely, and expect their readers are, too. “We like smartwatches,” Greenblatt insists — but more for the potential than any current reality. Clymer says he’s looking forward to whatever Apple (long rumored to be working on an iWatch of some sort) comes up with, and his Hodinkee site will review the Gear. A Blog To Watch covered the Gear’s announcement, and assessed the broader smartwatch market earlier this summer. (That piece noted in passing that the mechanical-watch enthusiasts who sometimes write to the site for advice are a number of … Apple designers. Make of that what you will.)
But for now, Adams told me, most high-end watch lovers aren't even close to being ready to give up their mechanical timepieces. “When it comes down to it, smartwatches have leaps and bounds to go in terms of utility and especially style,” he said. “We love the segment. But we’re still really waiting for it to mature.”
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