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Swiss watchmakers sincerely hope that the approach most of them seem to be taking—great watches with a little tech—will be enough to see off Apple—great tech with a watch’s form factor. Photo courtesy BaselWorld 2015
Swiss watchmakers sincerely hope that the approach most of them seem to be taking—great watches with a little tech—will be enough to see off Apple—great tech with a watch’s form factor. Photo courtesy BaselWorld 2015

BaselWorld: going nuts for smartwatches

From ignoring wearable tech to embracing smartwatches, the Swiss watch industry has come a long way in 12 months

Basel, Switzerland: How things change in the space of just 12 months.

Last year, I spent a week at the BaselWorld watch fair in the charming Swiss city of Basel, mostly trying to get chief executives and brand managers to answer one simple question: Were they going to make a smartwatch?

Each time I received various versions of a single response: No, we’re not making a smartwatch. No, wearable tech is not a challenge to our business. No, we don’t think we need to worry about Apple or Pebble or anybody else. No, we are not about gadgets. We are all about timeless mechanical treasures.

Twelve months later, those responses seem ludicrous. Or just wilfully deceptive. Which isn’t unusual for this obsessively secretive industry.

On Thursday, Guido Terreni, the managing director of Bulgari Watches, stood on a stage in front of an invited audience all sipping flutes of Veuve Clicquot champagne and announced that in 2015, BaselWorld was marking the year of the smartwatch. He then unveiled Bulgari’s own interpretation of the smartwatch—the Diagono Magnesium Wrist Vault concept.

Earlier in the day, Peter Stas, chief executive of watch brand Frederique Constant, unveiled the horological smartwatch. Stas called the device a bridge between Silicon Valley and Switzerland, and spoke of his ambition to create a versatile smartwatch platform that could be used by other manufacturers as well.

Other brands are lining up to join the smartwatch party. TAG Heuer has announced a new Android device, while Tissot unveiled a new concept model that is still a work in progress. Even Swarovski, one of the more fashion-forward brands at Basel, enthusiastically talked about the Swarovski Shine, a touch-sensitive motion tracker embedded inside a crystal that can be worn in nine ways.

BaselWorld, in other words, has gone nuts for smartwatches.

What has changed so quickly? Why has an industry that prides itself on incremental innovation and abhors uncontrolled disruption reacted with such frantic energy?

All fingers seem to point towards Cupertino. The Apple Watch, once the subject of scorn and derision in the walkways and corridors of Basel, is suddenly the looming doom.

It is an impending clash of business philosophies that the watch industry will almost certainly lose.

Why? Simple. Most mainstream traditional watch brands are absolutely terrible at technology. Their websites suck, theirs apps are terrible and almost any attempt they’ve made in the past at integrating cutting-edge tech into their products have been forgettable. Indeed, it is only in the last two years or so that most brands started handing press kits on USB drives instead of CDs.

What the Swiss watchmakers sincerely hope is that the approach most of them seem to be taking—great watches with a little tech—will be enough to see off Apple—great tech with a watch’s form factor.

On the evidence of what I have seen so far at BaselWorld, this seems highly unlikely. At least for now.

The Swiss watch industry is suddenly being forced to throw off its expensive Italian shoes and pull on some sneakers. So far it has only managed to buy a few packs of towel socks.

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