Tradition, timepieces, and the scourge of the smartwatch
How watches became art
The chaos of the shops in Manhattan's Diamond District is something to behold.
From historic luxury brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, and Rolex, to family-owned shops like Masters of Time and Sullivan & Sons, just about any watch can be had and any issue repaired. Walk into an emporium on 47th Street and a salesman will quickly offer to find you "the best watch money can buy." They will relentlessly attempt to sell you on everything about it, from the dial to the band, telling you how it will become a family heirloom for your children.
When it's your job to sell someone a watch — the main function of which has been rendered unnecessary by technology — being persuasive is a prerequisite.
Any watchmaker or watch dealer will tell you that a watch is much more than a timepiece; it can be a fashion statement or the mark of an accomplishment, a signifier of taste, or worn in remembrance of a loved one. Getting that same watch dealer to merely discuss the existence of smartwatches is where you run into trouble.
There's a very real fear within the traditional market that theirs will slow or dissolve with the incoming onslaught of smartwatches. At the same time, many shop owners I spoke with in New York didn't want to speak out on the record against these new devices, though a rather infamous one sarcastically said, "I only work with dumb watches."
The watch industry took a hit when cellphones became commonplace in the early 2000s, and many of the people who experienced that downturn are still around, fearing the next decline will come at the hands of the latest form of technology.
Even with the media hoopla surrounding the new Apple Watch, that fear may be misplaced, at least in the short run. Over 1.2 billion wristwatches were sold in 2013, exceeding the 967 million smartphones that were sold in the same time period. Even as smartphones have replaced the need for a watch, sales have increased over 3 percent in the last year.
While many in the traditional watch industry are apprehensive about smartwatches, there are some who see their merits, and others who believe that everyone won't want an information hub on their wrist in addition to the one in their pocket.
Martenero is an independent watchmaking company that isn't afraid of what the future holds. Founded by John Tarantino and Matthew O'Dowd, CEO and creative director, respectively — two Americans who had a chance meeting in Madrid, Spain — Martenero is blending technology with classic watchmaking to provide a unique experience for those who purchase a watch from the New York-based company.
On Martenero's website, you can customize the dial, hand, and strap of the watch you choose (they offer two distinct, automatic watches, with more to come), giving the company an advantage over competitors who choose uniformity and production speeds over personalization — a trait deeply valued by the current generation of consumers. The company, which launched earlier this year, has gotten off to a strong start with sales of its watches and has been well-received by the watch community.
"We think [smartwatches] are cool, and clearly a big deal. It's a promising platform with a ton of potential, and we're excited to see how they evolve in the coming years," O'Dowd told The Kernel.
"Because its something consumers are expected to wear, a smartwatch has to double as a fashion item. Most of the early models have a futuristic techie look that's not going to work with a lot of people's style. We'd like to see more classic design influence."
The founders believe that a round design is key to success for smartwatches. The current stable of square watch faces won't intrigue the public-at-large.
"In my experience people tend to prefer circular watches, and so smartwatch producers should, at a minimum, experiment with circular designs," Tarantino said. "There are certainly exceptions, Cartier's square watches come to mind, but circular watches seem to have more universal appeal."
"People much prefer round watch cases, but because of screens, smartwatches tend to be square," O'Dowd continued. "The Withings Activité is an exception with some really nice classic elements, although it's not a true smartwatch."
O'Dowd and Tarantino believe that while some sections of the traditional watch industry may take a hit with the expected proliferation of smartwatches over the next few years, the depths to which the industry will struggle largely depends on how productive smartwatches actually are for their users.
"'Wrist real estate' is now something to think about," O'Dowd explained. "If you can only wear one, which are you going to pick? It depends how useful smartwatches become. My smartphone is so vital that I won't leave my apartment without it.
"The current vision for smartwatches is they're supplemental control surfaces for your phone with personal fitness monitoring. While this is interesting, is it indispensable enough to make me ditch my watch collection? Siri was the futuristic killer feature for the iPhone 4S, but how often do you see people using it?"
While new entrants have come and ended the run of longtime staples in a number of industries, O'Dowd and Tarantino do not believe the traditional watch market will suffer the same fate, at least not anytime soon.
"We've seen many examples of a new technology making an older one disappear almost overnight. Computers replacing typewriters. Cars replacing horses. Steel replacing bronze. For utilitarian objects this is almost always the case," O'Dowd said.
"But for objects appreciated for other reasons — aesthetics, tradition, artistry, style — the classics tend to endure. Like the appeal of wood and leather over plastic and nylon. Lasik and contacts have yet to take down glasses. Velcro is superior to shoelaces in almost every way, but most people over the age of five still lace up."
He doesn't think everything is safe, though. "Certain watch categories are going to be more vulnerable. Lower end quartz watches and casual fashion pieces are likely to take a bigger hit. But people who enjoy mechanical watches and classic timepieces have a different kind of appreciation that is likely to endure."
How do you market against smartwatches as a traditional watchmaker? According to O'Dowd and Tarantino, you can't.
"From the standpoint of functionality, there is no comparison," O'Dowd stated. "But a mechanical watch isn't a tool. It's a work of art. While a watch does tell time and is useful for doing so, that is not its primary purpose. Just like the primary purpose of a fine tailored suit is not keeping you warm, the primary purpose of a Ferrari isn't getting you from point A to point B, and the primary purpose of a $50 million penthouse is not shelter from the elements.
"Your phone tells time. Your laptop tells time. Your $10 Casio tells time very accurately. Even your microwave tells time better than the finest Swiss mechanical watches in existence. And now smartwatches are here with all their functionality. Traditional watches should have been killed by a number of threats. The 'quartz crisis' in the 70s, when cheap and accurate battery powered watches began to flood the market. Or when digital LCDs threatened analogue displays. Your Nokia with a clock. Your smartphone.
O'Dowd paused the kicker. "In spite of all this, mechanical watch sales have been growing every year."