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Look, but don’t touch? The watch industry’s old guard needs to smarten up, and soon

The Baselworld 2017 watch show is a concentrated look at a glamorous industry steeped in history. Visitors get a glimpse of some astonishing innovation, incredible quality, and truly exciting timepieces. Except they mostly do so with their noses pressed up against glass cases, like school children outside a sweet shop. For some of the world’s best watchmakers, Baselworld’s motto should be “look, but don’t touch,” which coincidentally is exactly the response it has to technology and the rise of the smartwatch.

It’s a worryingly archaic approach, but it perfectly illustrates a growing split in the industry — where some watch makers are evolving, adapting, and embracing smart technology while the rest stick with how things have always been done, showing little desire to change. If there was a trend at the show, it’s that watch companies who are embracing technology (or are prepared to in the near future), are more open, more social, and better understand the benefits of engaging with people.

If your name’s not down …

“I’d like to see (insert name of new watch here) please, just to take a few pictures. I’m with the press.” I repeated this line on many occasions at Baselworld 2017, a watch trade show that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. It was almost always to a helpful gatekeeper sitting behind a desk, holding the masses back from seeing all the wonderful new products that are contained within some stunning, closed-off booths.

You’d think I would be ushered right in, given the chance to take pictures, perhaps even try the watch on, and eventually sent on my way. Nope. The vast majority of the name brands needed an appointment, almost none had any available — they’re made many months in advance — and there was nothing they could do for me. The rules, it was clear, were the rules.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

However, this wasn’t a universal problem. Tag Heuer, for example, had the Connected Modular 45 out on display and people on hand to talk about them, all without — shock — an appointment. Guess employees were happy to explain the new Connect Touch watch range, and did everything they could to accommodate me, even though I had no prior booking. You could walk right up to Samsung’s booth, and eagerly fondle the Gear S3 and associated one-off concept devices. Casio and Tissot, two more tech-forward watch makers, were also far more open. Visit the independent watch brands, and watches could be photographed, tried on, and discussed at great length.

Do you see the trend?

Communications Manager for Graham Watches, Jessica Jacquot, explained why this happens, and how independent watch makers are different. At least 70 percent of a major brand’s annual business deals are made at Baselworld, she said, therefore having private space to do so is important; but that’s no different for an independent firm. “We want to meet new people,” Jacquot told Digital Trends, “and not just secure old business.”

Traditional watch makers may be more narrow minded, and some see smartwatches as a threat.

This open way of thinking continues when it comes to technology. Although Graham doesn’t produce a connected watch at the moment, Jacquot believes there’s space for everybody in the industry. She said traditional watch makers may be more narrow minded, and some see smartwatches as a threat.

Bizarrely, even brands that have already put out a smartwatch sometimes distanced themselves from the technology, Visiting Porsche Design’s booth, I hoped to get a better look at the new Porsche Design Huawei Watch 2, which was unveiled at Mobile World Congress, but hardly shown at all. Strangely, it wasn’t brought along to Baselworld either, and in a conversation with one representative, I was told it “wouldn’t sit right” with attendees interested in the brand. Odd, given it’s a watch.

Dissent in the ranks

When you do get behind the scenes with a major brand, actually see watches in person, and talk to people, one thing is clear:  everyone is so passionate, so knowledgeable, and so committed to the watch industry as a whole, they deserve to be talking to everyone who will listen. These are people who adore what they do, and there’s nothing more intoxicating than that.

It was interesting to hear what was said about smartwatches behind these closed doors. There was frustration in Cirille Bonini’s voice. He works on public relations and digital marketing for Montres Edox, and was very interested in smartwatches. “I don’t see them as competition,” he told us, and saw their potential for introducing new people to the brand. He even presented an idea for a smartwatch to the company owners, but it was rejected. The company said, “it’s not the right time, and we should concentrate on what we know.” Bonini understood, explaining the family-run business’s history, but did add that he “didn’t want to miss the boat.”

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

We suspect the phrase, “we should concentrate on what we know,” is uttered by a lot of the established watch makers pondering wearable technology. The watch industry loves to talk about history, how long a brand has been going for, and past watches are constantly being re-imagined and reissued as limited editions. Honoring the past is one thing, but sticking rigidly to tradition just for the sake of it is another.

Pressure to change

More than once, major brands like Rolex, Hublot, Patek Phillipe, and Graff were referred to as having a snobbish approach to the show and its visitors. Spending millions on the ostentatious booths — which are really multi-story buildings, with everything from luxurious living spaces to restaurants inside — was essential in maintaining the brand’s exclusivity and status. Inviting in the great unwashed wouldn’t fit in with any of this.

Baselworld is open to the public though and many people visit, so what do they think about the look-but-don’t-touch policy? One attendee told us she didn’t care about going into the major booths, and was content looking at the products through the glass cabinets, just like in a shop. She likened the experience to visiting a museum, where she could spend time absorbing the art on display. In what may not have been a coincidence, she wasn’t a fan of smartwatches either.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s hard to agree. We form relationships with products, especially highly evocative ones like watches or other items of jewelry, by cradling them in our hand or wrapping them round our wrist. Just like caressing the touchscreens on a Tag Heuer, Fossil, or Micheal Kors smartwatch, there are legions of new fans keen to touch, stroke, and wear these watches — and a percentage of them may become buyers in the future.

Why not let them? Where’s the harm? It’s the same thinking that stops major brands from seriously investing in smart technology. It’s not the way things have ever been done. But as the industry is shaken up by Tag Heuer, Montblanc, Casio, Fossil, and other big-name players all taking smartwatches seriously; the pressure for the old guard to change will only increase.