THE Apple Watch is tipped to shake up the global watch industry when it is launched later this month, but it is likely to leave the heart of the watch industry untouched - at least for the moment - thanks to a Singapore businessman.
William Leong, the managing director of Leong Poh Kee, a regional distributor of luxury timepieces based in Singapore, is said to own the "Apple Watch" trademark in Switzerland, home of the luxury watch business.
The trademark's direct owner is Leonard Timepieces, a Swiss watch company which Swiss media has reported as being owned by "William Longe" - a mis-spelling of William Leong, a source close to Leong Poh Kee indicated.
The trademark gives Leonard the exclusive rights to use the word "Apple" on jewellery, including watches; it also covers the use of of apple images on jewellery, precious stones, watches and timepieces of any kind, Swiss local TV media has reported.
When contacted, Mr Leong's son Ken said his father wished to "reserve comment" on the matter. Sources say this is because the matter is now in the hands of lawyers in Switzerland.
The US-based Apple is set to roll out the Apple Watch priced between US$349 and US$10,000 on April 24 in nine markets - Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, the UK and the US.
Switzerland is not one of them.
Customers reportedly flocked to Apple stores around the world last Friday for a peek at the smartwatch, which Apple expects will be its next runaway hit.
Switzerland, which has a population of eight million, is not a big market, but a presence there would be significant for any company aspiring to be a big player in the watch business.
The issue with Apple Watch in Switzerland would not have surfaced if Apple had called its smartwatch Apple iWatch, following the naming convention for its other products - the Apple iPhone, Apple iPad and Apple iPod.
But Apple did not use the iWatch name because a company called OMG Electronics had applied for the iWatch trademark in September 2012, said a report on Sunday.
OMG was trying to raise US$100,000 to produce a smartwatch through crowd funding, but managed to raise only US$1,434.
An earlier attempt by a New York-based company called M Z Berger & Co to file the iWatch trademark in Europe in 2007 was successfully shot down by Swiss watch-making giant Swatch on the grounds that the name would cause confusion with Swatch buyers.
Leonard Timepieces filed the trademark for watches and watch parts bearing an apple insignia in 1985 - long before Apple started toying with the thought of creating an intelligent watch.
The 30-year trademark expires this Dec 5, clearing the roadblock for Apple, and the speculation is that Leonard Timepieces could try and renew the trademark.
Intellectual property lawyers say, however, that Apple could challenge it, arguing that the mark has never been used in trade.
No Swiss watchmaker is known to have sold an "apple watch" since the trademark was granted - and companies cannot "squat" on trademarks indefinitely. If the case goes to court, lawyers think Apple is likely to prevail because it commands huge financial and legal resources.
Meanwhile, traditional watchmakers in Switzerland have more time to bring their own smartwatches to the market; many of them, including Swatch and Tag Heuer, unveiled smartwatch plans recently.
Apple has reportedly declined comment on the issue.
This article was first published on April 14, 2015.
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