All eyes on the wrist again with the Apple Watch

All eyes on the wrist again with the Apple Watch
An Apple employee demonstrates how to use an Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is upon us. Maybe not yet officially in Singapore. However, if you are lucky enough, like me, you can buy one off the shelf while overseas. Or through eBay.

I wore mine on a recent media trip.

The other journalists, all of whom are lifestyle or watch-industry specialists, turned up their noses at Apple's first smartwatch.

They are not alone.

Most watch connoisseurs scoff at smartwatches as "gadgets" which should not even be mentioned in the same sentence as any handcrafted mechanical work of Swiss genius.

However, they all seem to have forgotten the "Quartz Crisis", which ambushed the Swiss watch industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

Until that happened, Swiss mechanical watches had the post-World War II market sewn up. Then, in 1969, came the introduction of the battery-powered quartz watch which the United States and Japanese watchmakers promoted aggressively on the market.

It was much more affordable and sales soon gathered momentum.

Entrenched in a mechanical movement craft which had been honed and polished for centuries, Swiss watchmakers were slow to react and paid dearly for it. Their exports crashed - estimates put the drop at more than 90 per cent - in the decade after 1973 and the Swiss watch industry reportedly shrank by two-thirds.

The 1983 introduction of the affordable and splashy Swatch brand - powered by quartz movements - spearheaded a Swiss comeback.

Will there be a reprise of the "Quartz Crisis"? The parallels are deliciously irresistible.

This time, the vanguard of the smartwatch revolution will be tech giants, such as Apple, Google and Samsung. They will take aim at watchmakers - from Switzerland to Japan, and from quartz to mechanical.

However, for now, the smartwatch is certainly not a threat.

Only 6.8 million of them were sold last year, according to independent research company Smartwatch Group. By comparison, Japanese watch maker Casio alone sold 70 million watches in its last financial year.

However, if there is one company which can ignite the fledgling smartwatch industry, it is Apple. It has that sort of track record. On its own, it disrupted the music industry and created new industries around digital music and media, as well as smartphones and tablets - with iPods, iPhones and iPads as its weapons.

Many watchmakers - the Swiss included - are not taking chances this time. IWC and Montblanc have already announced "smart add-ons" to their mechanical watches. Tag Heuer is rumoured to be working on a real smartwatch.

Ultimately, the Apple Watch might have an even more far-reaching effect than merely adding excitement to the nascent smartwatch industry.

Could it make more young people aware of this quaint device called a watch?

According to international online market research agency YouGov, more than 60 per cent of people in the US between 16 and 34 years old use their mobile phones as their primary timepiece. Not very encouraging for the watch industry.

Mr Seiki Maeda, editor-in-chief of Japanese watch magazine Udedokeiou, said: "If you look at the younger generation, they are not wearing watches. This (Apple Watch) might be a trigger for them to pay attention to their wrists."

I agree with Mr Maeda.

Never before had I been quizzed about a watch I was wearing - whether it was a handsome Casio G-Shock or a classic Tag Heuer.

Until the Apple Watch arrived.

That commanded attention - and questions - from colleagues, who would stop at my desk, and acquaintances whom I bump into.

Like it or not, the Apple Watch has drawn attention back to that timekeeping device on the wrist. That can only benefit everyone in the watch industry.

trevtan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 13, 2015.
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