From Clockworks, to Computers on our Wrists

The Silent Rise of Apple Watch

We Swiss take great pride in watch-making. It’s no secret that most mechanical clockworks and some of the most recognizable watch brands in the world are all made in Switzerland. While the notion of Swissness might seem like it’s been around forever, it is in fact a pretty recent phenomenon.

The first watches that most closely resembles today’s archetype were conceived by Peter Henlein, a German locksmith who lived in Nuremberg during the 16th century.

These so called Taschenuhren were early “gadgets” and status symbols that only the upper class and social elite could afford. For more than a century, the design of these early pocket-watches remained relatively unchanged. It was a range of innovations by the British that ultimately changed watchmaking as we know it.

For the first time in history, watches became accurate enough to show both, hours and minutes at the same time.



Different versions of balance springs

The invention of the balance spring, the horizontal escapement, followed by the Chronometer lead to Britain becoming one of the most respected watchmaking countries in the world. And by the end of the 18th century, it looked like the Brits would emerge as the sole producer of high quality watches. ¹

All of this changed in an unexpected turn of events.

While British watches were the most precise and best crafted watches money could buy, they had one critical design flaw that would ultimately lead to the Royal Giant’s demise: the watches were too thick.

As fashion and comfort demanded thinner watches, watchmakers all over Europe started investigating new ways of building clockworks. The challenges of early day watchmaking closely mirrored the challenges smartwatch producers still face today: to make technology smaller and more powerful.

It was the craftsmanship and vision of Swiss master watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet who refined the design of his French contemporary Jean-Antoine Lépine that inspired the modern wristwatch we all know today.

The Brits bet on accuracy, the Swiss bet on style.  It didn’t take long until Switzerland established itself internationally with a range of high quality watch producers, most notably Longines, IWC, and Rolex with its first chronometer certified wristwatch. ²

From early 20th century till 1960, Switzerland was the unrivaled watchmaking country in the world.

The high quality of watches soon led to the infamous “Swiss made” label. This seal of approval, consisting of just two words, became one of the most sought-after seals of its time.

A 2016 survey by the University of St Gallen found that respondents were willing to pay up to 100 per cent more for a Swiss luxury watch, as compared to one with no known origin. ³ Not surprisingly, the label has become of utter importance in and outside the watchmaking industry. This notion is perhaps best captured on the Swiss government’s own website:

“Swiss made” is more than a simple label of origin. It is a sign to customers that they are buying a product of outstanding quality and reliability.

There were originally different variations of the seal, but as longer names soon turned out to be problematic because of a watch’s limited space, the industry somehow magically converged on the term “Swiss made”.

“Swiss Made” Watch

The Quartz Crisis

Life was good for the Swiss. But while they were resting on their laurels and sticking to their traditional watchmaking methods, the Japanese company Seiko introduced the world’s first battery-based wristwatch in 1969. This unleashed a revolution unlike anything seen before in watchmaking history.

The cheap production costs drove down global prices and cost the Swiss Watch industry more than 60’000 jobs. At the end of 1982, over a thousand watch manufactures disappeared. The time after Seiko’s introduction of the ‘Astron’ watch in 1969 became commonly known as the Quartz Crisis.

In order to survive the horlogic upheaval, the Swiss needed to figure out a way to beat the Japanese at their own game.

It was through radical ideas and outrageous design, that Nicolas Hayek re-invented the Swiss watch with his newly found Swatch group. His mantra for the new line of watches was “Innovation, provocation, fun, forever.” This didn’t just manifest in the aesthetic of the product, but also in how it was advertised.

All of a sudden, plastic watches were cool. This led to a completely different product positioning. Perhaps even more profound was the fact that the Swatch delinked the watch from its core timekeeping function and turned it into a fashion statement. 5

Rather than watches being about their prestigious clockworks, they were now about ways for people to express themselves. This change of the watch’s primary function is an important milestone that would soon become even more important in the age of Smartphones and Smartwatches. But this was still decades before everyone knew what a “Home” button was.

For more than thirty years, the industry remained remarkably stable and Switzerland re-established itself as the infamous watchmaker it is known for today.

It would take the vision and marketing powerhouse of another giant, to disrupt the industry once more.

The Smartwatch fatigue

Smartwatches aren’t a new phenomenon. Since the Seiko TV watch and James Bond wearing it in Octopussy, we’ve been dreaming about putting screens on our wrists. Unfortunately early attempts all ended up with bulky designs and short battery life. Not surprisingly, none of them became  commercial successes.

That changed when in 2012, Eric Migicovsky launched a kickstarter campaign for his phone-paired smartwatch called Pebble. The campaign’s goal was to raise $100’000 to start production, but they ended up with a staggering $10 million instead. With its unique user experience, long battery life, and its ability to seamlessly connect to both iOS and Android, the Pebble watch became the first commercially successful smartwatch of its time.

The Pebble Smartwatch Kickstarter Campaign

Ironically, it was also Pebble who would soon suffer the most from the new player who was about to enter the ring.

In early 2014, news started to surface that Apple had reached out to Swiss watchmakers for potential collaboration. One of smartwatches fiercest opponents was no one else than Swatch CEO Nicolas Hayek who famously told the press:

We see no reason why we should enter into any partnership agreement.

Hayek, stigmatized by previous smartwatch failures in an unfruitful collaboration with Microsoft, firmly believed that technical constraints will ultimately doom this category of device. This might have very well been a decision the daring CEO would come to regret.

Just a week before the upcoming Apple event in 2014, Jonathan Ive told the New York Times that the Swiss were f**cked. A few days later, people would get a chance to make their own opinion.

On September 9, right after presenting the iPhone 6, Tim Cook went on stage and told a packed audience that Apple had one more thing. He went on and didn’t unveil the iWatch, but the Apple Watch instead. Cook called it the next chapter in Apple’s story.

We believe this new product will redefine what people expect from its category.

Many experts were skeptical about the Apple Watch’s industrial design. Tag Heur CEO Jean-Claude Biver told the press “To be totally honest, it looks like it was designed by a student in their first trimester”. It didn’t take long until Biver revised his statement.

The critical feedback and looming Smartwatch fatigue didn’t stop Apple from moving the industry forward. Apple, just like the Swiss, isn’t shy about talking about their achievements either. Shortly after launch the first version, the Apple Watch became the bestselling smartwatch of all time. With the announcement of Series 3, Tim Cook went a step further and clarified Apple Watch’s position within the watch industry once and for all.

Apple Watch Series 3 Keynote — Apple’s wrist-computer surpasses Rolex

And for all of my Swiss friends who possibly still in denial: Cook was kind enough last week to remind everyone that their smartwatch is the bestselling watch, period.


There was something fundamentally different about last week’s Apple event though. It was almost too subtle to notice, but too significant to ignore: this year, Apple Watch was presented before the new iPhones.

While the new iPhone line met everyone’s expectation, the watch came packed with a feature that might change what smartwatches stand for altogether. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

The early Apple Watch

What differentiated the first Apple Watch from earlier devices of its class wasn’t just the seamless interplay of hardware and software but Apple’s unique ability to make new technology feel familiar. Unlike their early competitors, Apple had another critical ace up their sleeve: they built upon the familiarity of traditional wristwatches and combined it with their very own design language they had successfully established with iPod and iPhone.

Looks familiar? Variety and colors reminiscent of early Swatch watches

Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that for over three years, Apple barely made any changes to the watch’s industrial design. This rather slow update cycle is perhaps part of the reason the watch’s design was able to become iconic in its own right. You either have an Apple Watch, or you don’t. Whether it’s series 1,2, or 3, doesn’t matter. By sticking to its initial design, Apple bet against neomania consumer culture that religiously replaces tech gadgets on an annual basis.

It’s almost an homage to traditional watchmaking: perhaps smartwatches aren’t supposed to be timeless, but perhaps they can be just a bit more timeless than their phone counterparts.

Apple went a step further and even adopted horologic terms to describe parts of their UI. Many designers find the term ‘complications’ awkward. But watchmakers weren’t fucking around. They called things for what they were. Essentially, complications do just what their name suggests: they make watches more complicated by adding date, chronographs, winding mechanisms, etc. But while complications on mechanical watches are mostly designed to show off craftsmanship, complications on smartwatches aim at delivering relevant information at the right time.

By using the same language and basic principles of watchmaking, they ensured their product was distinct enough to set it apart, and familiar enough to find its place on our wrists.

A change in perception

More than three decades ago, Swatch did something that was unheard of for traditional watchmakers at the time. They altered the watch’s raison d’être from telling the time to being a fashion accessory.

It was Swatch that gave its mechanic siblings their significance they have today. New products don’t replace one another as much as they change what those other products stand for. People who buy automatic watches aren’t buying an accessory, they are buying pieces of history and craftsmanship. People who are buying a smartwatch aren’t buying a better way to look at time, they are buying the idea of a healthier and better connected self.

Jobs was deeply convinced that the Phone app was the iPhone’s killer app. And indeed, the first Phone app was a brilliantly designed application that helped establish the iPhone as a “phone”. But the expectations of iPhone have evolved ever since. The Phone app became a side-product of what iPhone stands for. How much time do we spend in the Phone app as opposed to other apps today?

Smartwatches are about to redefine their own category just like Swatch had done years before. Whereas smartwatches used to be about staying connected they are now packed with habit-forming technology aimed at making you a healthier you. They are evolving from nice-to-have tech gadgets for geeks, to life-saving tools for both ourselves and the people we love.

The evolution of Apple Watch has been so gradual and silent, that most of us didn’t even realize what happened. Beating the entire Swiss watch industry in their own game is no small feat. But that’s exactly what Apple did.

And by making their watch the first commercially available mass-produced end-consumer EKG, we can expect a lot of exciting new developments in this space.

Outlook

Wristwatches have always been an extension of our bodies that gave us a sharpened sense of time.

With smartwatches becoming more powerful, and technology effectively merging with our bodies, we’re at the forefront of a new era of computing where technology is not just used, but worn. This augmentation of our senses, is paving the way for new types of experiences that simply hadn’t been possible before. And whereas the Apple Watch might be the biggest upset in the Watch industry since the Quartz revolution, the history of watches has taught us that past successes are a remarkably poor predictor of the future.

My grandfather Peter Werner Jenny who invented the first 1000m Swiss dive watch would have followed the recent upheavals in the industry with great interest. So do I. And I can’t wait to see where it’s taking us next.

Thanks for reading.


Let's talk on Twitter @azumbrunnen or check out some of my other writings.