It was meant to be a “debate “over whether the Apple Watch would impact the Swiss watch industry, but even the futurist on a Watch Collectors’ Roundtable panel assembled at the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York confessed to being a Rolex man.
Jason Alan Snyder, chief technology officer at global branding agency Momentum Worldwide, says he has tested out many versions of wearable tech, but tells time with a Swiss-made Rolex Datejust his father gave him which, combined with his smartphone screen, he considers to be “ample” for his day-to-day activities.
“The sort of capital you derive from wearing a timepiece is different from the sort of capital you derive from wearing a smartwatch.” Snyder said Tuesday night during a roundtable at the midtown Manhattan jewelry and vintage watch gallery. “Right now it’s the difference between luxury and utility and they’re very different ideas.”
According to a report just out today from Slice Intelligence, utility is selling to the tune of 2.8 million Apple Watches sold so far, with multiple bands being a popular add-on. Apple itself has never shared sales results on the watches, but yesterday it began allowing customers to actually buy the watches in store through a “reserve and pickup” service versus ordering them online.
The roundtable for watch enthusiasts, moderated by Randy Brandoff, founder and CEO of luxury watch subscription site Eleven James, was assembled to hash out concerns among collectors, retailers and others in the watch industry about the disruptive new entrant in a watch industry dominated by traditional players. Before the Apple Watch was released, the company’s design chief Jony Ive reportedly predicted the Apple Watch would mean trouble for the Swiss watch industry. Indeed, Apple stole a marketing page from the industry when stars like Beyoncé were shown wearing them. She posted a selfie of the gold version on Instagram.
Snyder pointed out that the functionality of the Apple Watch, particularly its ability to let people pay for items without out a credit card via Apple Pay would appeal to consumers seeking convenience. The health-related functionality is another lure. Wearables, in general, will evolve to become more incorporated in our lives, he said.
“I think the things we wear will become a part of ourselves in ways we can’t imagine,” he said. “The form it is taking now is a wristwatch, but it could also be something else, like a [miniaturized computer screen that you wear as a] contact in your eye.”
Some brands exhibiting in Switzerland at this year’s Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewelry show, met the Apple Watch challenge by saying they would be rolling out their own smartwatches. TAG Heuer, for instance, is partnering with Google and Intel on its version.
“I think it’s a huge over reaction, I don’t think there’s a place for it,” said Jeffrey Hess, CEO of Ball Watch USA. “There are a lot of watch brands that are afraid to not be on the boat.”
Hess, who ran an ad for his watches in Wired magazine, said he got a great response, which he interprets as proof positive that tech geeks like luxury watches too.
Others on the panel seemed similarly skeptical that the Apple Watch would actually eat into their sales. Among them was the roundtable’s host Edward Faber, co-owner of Aaron Faber Gallery, who said Millennial customers seek out the unique and collectible vintage mechanical watches that he sells.
“People want to distinguish themselves whether they’re in a business environment or social setting,” said Faber, author of American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design. “Soon, the Apple Watch will be everywhere but the luxury watch will continue to stand out.”
Milton Pedraza, chief executive officer and founder of the Luxury Institute, said he wouldn’t “discount the possibility of a surge,” in sales for the Apple Watch, but the first version didn’t seem like something that could compete with a Swiss timepiece. He sees it more a subcategory within the industry.
“The Apple Watch will evolve into something compelling. Today, it is not,” Pedraza said. He also predicted that Millennials, as they age, would become watch collectors, just like their Baby Boomer parents, even if they also own a smartwatch.
“It won’t be this or that, it will be this and that,” Pedraza said. “I see an opportunity to make this luxury [category] larger and I’m not worried about the watch industry at all.
But if the fears of Apple Watch competition have the Swiss watch brands concerned and reacting defensively, he sees it as good thing.
“If TAG Heuer fails, so be it,” he said. “They’ll be better off for it because they tried.”
Teresa Novellino is entrepreneurs & enterprises editor at Upstart Business Journal in New York.