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Connected watches gatecrash Baselworld
Baselworld

Connected watches gatecrash Baselworld

Thursday, 19 March 2015
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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4 min read

Baselworld, the world watch and jewellery show, officially launched its 43rd edition on March 19th. With 1,500 exhibitors, of which close to 300 Swiss brands, there’s a lot to take in. Connected watches, however, were the main item on the menu on this opening day.

No-one can say Apple hasn’t done a good job. Only a fool would have imagined that the tech giant could allow itself the luxury of ignoring Baselworld, the premier event for watches and jewellery, described by managing director Sylvie Ritter, speaking at the opening press conference, as giving “the pulse of the industry”. The Cupertino firm didn’t go as far as to swamp the aisles with its wearables – something no smartwatch-only company has done so far – but it did fire some carefully aimed shots in the days leading up to the show as it continued to push its Apple Watch, billed as the product that will knock chunks out of Swiss watchmaking. Is the industry to be dealt another crushing blow, akin to the quartz crisis that decimated the branch in the early 1980s? Who’s to say?
A drop in the ocean
Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, took time out to share his view, declaring that the connected watch is nothing new and that results have so far been less than conclusive, with last year’s smartwatch sales struggling to reach the five million mark. This is a drop in the ocean of the roughly 1.2 billion watches that are produced each year. Apple’s power of persuasion is such that its arrival in the segment will doubtless open up new opportunities. So far, however, the Apple Watch’s battery life, water-resistance and applications have all been singled out as caveats… a new experience for a firm that is more accustomed to receiving a pat on the back than a shot across the bows. Even so, smartwatches were at the centre of debate on this first day of the show, which takes place in a more difficult climate than previous years.
“This has been a busy time for the watch and jewellery sector,” noted Sylvie Ritter, quoting the Swiss national bank’s decision to unpeg the Swiss franc against the euro, tensions between Russia and Ukraine, protest movements in Hong Kong, and the slowdown in growth in China. Putting this into figures, François Thiébaud, who presides the Swiss Exhibitors’ Committee at Baselworld, said that exports of Swiss watches had entered a slower phase, growing by 1.9% in 2013 and again in 2014 in the wake of double-digit increases the previous three years. Jean-Daniel Pasche predicts a period of stabilisation for Swiss watchmaking. Figures announced by François Thiébaud took on a triumphant note nonetheless. Over the five years from 2009 to 2014, the value of Swiss watch exports rose from CHF 13.2 to CHF 22.2 billion, setting another record. Better still, over the same period exports of mechanical watches almost doubled in value to CHF 16.5 billion.
“We’re ready”
And we’re meant to believe that Swiss watchmaking has reached the end of its run? At least this statistical reminder put the debate back on track. “Swiss timepieces and smartwatches are two fundamentally different worlds,” commented Sylvie Ritter. “One is about expertise, emotion and enduring appeal. The other focuses on the technological aspects of marketing-driven products with suspicions of planned obsolescence. Two very different worlds then, but also two approaches that can cohabit.” Swiss watchmakers would indeed be making a big mistake were they to ignore the opportunities that come with the connected watch, even if these are still very much early days.
“We’re ready,” promised François Thiébaud, who is also at the helm of Tissot, a Swatch Group brand. “We mastered the technology to produce our own smartwatch a long time ago. For the moment though, we can only wait and see how the market responds, and whether this type of product will reach a new clientele of people who don’t usually wear a watch, as we’re hoping it will.” Based on announcements made at the opening of the show, a dozen or so Swiss brands, Tissot and TAG Heuer among them, will use Baselworld as a launchpad for their own ventures in the connected watch market. For the moment though, plenty of people are still wondering why they would want to walk around wearing a miniature version of their smartphone which, without said smartphone, amounts to not much more than just another digital watch.

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