High-end watchmaking has long had an uneasy relationship with new technologies. Now that traditional watchmaking is faced with perhaps its biggest existential crisis since the 1970s – smart technology – it has spawned a wide range of solutions testing just how far this traditional sector is prepared to adapt to survive.
At one end, there are the luxury brands that have dipped their toes in the water by lending their names to tech giants, such as Hermès’ partnership with Apple. There are those, including Louis Vuitton, with its Tambour Horizon, that have introduced their own fully fledged smart offerings. There are the hybrid smartwatches, which appear to have a normal analogue dial, but conceal a number of tech-enhanced features. And then there’s the likes of the Tag Heuer Connected Modular, with its clever mechanism allowing you to swap between mechanical and digital timekeeping systems. But while most have been focused on the end goal of moving features normally found in phones – calling, messaging, activity trackers or internet browsing – onto the wrist, a small handful of watchmakers are taking a more holistic approach.
For Benoît Mintiens, founder of Ressence (ressencewatches.com), there’s a fundamental contradiction in how we treat timepieces. Just as a quartz watch is likely to be more accurate than the mechanical equivalent, so too will be the clock on a smartphone. ‘The empathy for mechanics is something that people relate to but we have a notion that’s a little bit lost when you talk about mechanical watches: trust,’ he explains. ‘When you have to catch a plane you don’t check your watch, you check your phone. And so it means that you trust your phone more than your watch. And your watch has one function – to give you the time.’
His solution is the Type 2 e-Crown, which harnesses technology to automatically monitor and correct the time of the mechanical movement, ensuring accuracy. It achieves this through the use of an embedded digital system, powered both through kinetic energy generated by the wrist and via light gathered by a photovoltaic cell on the dial, which does not rely on external signals such as GPS. Instead, the wearer ‘teaches’ the watch the correct time once, and with a double-tap of the dial, the e-Crown checks the position of the hands of the mechanical watch, compares this to the internal, digital clock, and adjusts accordingly – even if the power reserve has been wound down completely. As an additional feature, the time can also be set via an app on your phone, making it especially easy to switch between time zones.
For now, it is largely the smaller or independent brands leading the way in regulating mechanical movements using digital means. In 2013, Urwerk (urwerk.com) released the EMC, allowing the wearer to gauge the performance of their watch, and this year, Frederique Constant (frederiqueconstant.com) has revealed its Hybrid Manufacture, combining smart functions alongside analytics reporting on the health of its mechanical movement.
For Mintiens, sticking to what the industry knows best – mechanics –is the key to its survival. ‘Programmed obsolescence was something that we were really avoiding in this project, and that is really differentiating us from smartwatches,’ he says. ‘We don’t have an external technology that we rely on – that’s very important. Now we have smartphones but in 10 years maybe nobody will have one anymore, we will have something else. So if we rely on that, the functionality will fail. People change their smartphones every six months or so. We are in a completely different logic in fine watchmaking and we have to respect that.’