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From Clockworks to Computers on Our Wrists

How Apple beat Swiss watchmakers at their own game

Adrian Zumbrunnen
Sep 20, 2018 · 9 min read
Image courtesy of the author.

W e Swiss take great pride in watchmaking. It’s no secret that some of the most recognizable watch brands in the world are made in Switzerland. While the notion of a product being “Swiss-made” may seem like it’s been around forever, it’s actually a relatively recent phenomenon.

The first watches that most closely resemble today’s wristwatches were conceived by Peter Henlein, a German locksmith who lived in Nuremberg during the 16th century. These so called “Taschenuhren” were early gadgets, status symbols that only the upper class and social elite could afford. For more than a century, the design of pocket watches remained relatively unchanged.

Then, a range of British innovations changed watchmaking as we know it.

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Drawings of different types of watch and chronometer balance springs. Image: Frederick J. Britten and Harry L. Nelthropp via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The invention of the balance spring, the horizontal escapement, and the chronometer led Britain to become one of the most respected watchmaking countries in the world by the end of the 18th century. They were the most precise, best-crafted watches money could buy. However, they had one critical design flaw: these early watches were too thick to wear comfortably.

The challenges of early watchmaking closely mirror the challenges smartwatch producers face today.

As fashion and comfort demanded thinner watches, watchmakers all over Europe began to investigate new ways of building slimmer clockworks. The challenges of early watchmaking closely mirror the challenges smartwatch producers face today: how to make technology smaller and more powerful.

It was the craftsmanship and vision of a Swiss master watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet, that inspired the modern wristwatch we know today — large, flat, sleek, and stylish. If the British had bet on accuracy, the Swiss would bet on style. It didn’t take long until Switzerland established itself as home to a range of high-quality watch producers, most notably Longines, IWC Schaffhausen, and Rolex with its first chronometer certified wristwatch.

From the early 20th century until 1960, the Swiss were unrivaled as the world’s top watchmakers. They began to imprint their watches with a seal. Different versions of this seal existed originally, though as longer names soon became problematic due to a watch face’s small size, the industry converged on two simple words: “Swiss Made.”

Soon, “Swiss Made” became one of the most sought-after seals in the history of consumer goods.

A 2016 survey by the University of St. Gallen found that respondents were willing to pay up to 100 percent more for a Swiss luxury watch, as compared to one with no known origin. Even the Swiss government’s website boasts about the seal: “‘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.”

The quartz crisis

While the Swiss were sticking to traditional watchmaking methods, a Japanese company, Seiko, introduced the world’s first battery-based wristwatch in 1969. This unleashed yet another revolution in the watchmaking world.

The cheap production costs of this new battery-based wristwatch drove down global prices, and the Swiss Made watch industry lost more than 60,000 jobs. At the end of 1982, over 1,000 watch manufacturers disappeared globally. This moment — after Seiko’s introduction of the Quartz Astron 35SQ watch in 1969 — became commonly known as the “quartz crisis.”

In order to survive this horological upheaval, the Swiss needed to innovate.

Through radical ideas and outrageous design, Nicolas Hayek reinvented the Swiss watch with his newly founded Swatch Group. His mantra for this new line of watches was, Innovation, provocation, fun, forever.This mantra didn’t just manifest in the product itself, 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.

Watches were no longer about their intricate clockworks — they were now an avenue for self-expression. This shift from technology to fashion would soon become even more important in the age of smartphones and smartwatches. But it would still be decades before anyone knew what a “Home” button was.

For more than 30 years after the launch of the Swatch watch, the industry remained remarkably stable as Switzerland re-established itself as the global watchmaking leader.

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

Smartwatch fatigue

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

That changed in 2012, when Eric Migicovsky launched a kickstarter campaign for his phone-paired smartwatch called Pebble. Though the campaign’s goal was to raise $100,000 to start production, 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 systems, the Pebble watch became the first commercially successful smartwatch of the 2000s.

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Pebble Smart Watch

Unfortunately, Pebble would soon lose to a new smartwatch player about to enter the ring.

In early 2014, news surfaced that Apple had reached out to Swiss watchmakers for a potential collaboration. Swatch Group’s CEO Nicolas Hayek told the press, “We see no reason why we should enter into any partnership agreement.”

Hayek, stigmatized by a previous smartwatch failure in a collaboration with Microsoft, firmly believed that technical constraints would ultimately doom this category of device.

Just a week before Apple’s product launch in 2014, Jonathan Ive told the New York Times that the Swiss were in trouble. A few days later, people would get a chance to see for themselves.

On September 9, 2014, right after presenting the iPhone 6, Tim Cook took the stage and told a packed audience that Apple had one more thing to present. He went on to unveil not the iWatch as expected, 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 Heuer’s 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 for Biver to revise his statement.

The critical feedback didn’t stop Apple from moving the industry forward. Shortly after launch, the first version of 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.

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Tim Cook — from Apple’s Special Event 2017

And for all of my Swiss friends who’re possibly still in denial, in September 2017 Cook was kind enough to remind everyone that their smartwatch is the best selling watch, period.

But there was something fundamentally different about the Apple event that year: The Apple Watch was presented before the new iPhones.

Apple’s homage to traditional watchmaking

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, combining it with the Apple design language they’d successfully established with iPod and iPhone.

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Apple Watch (Copyright Apple Inc.)

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. You either have an Apple Watch or you don’t. Whether it’s series 1, 2, or 3, it doesn’t matter. By sticking to its initial design, Apple bet against consumer culture’s neomania, which religiously replaces tech gadgets on an annual basis.

Apple went a step further and adopted traditional horologic terms to describe parts of the user interface.

The Apple Watch is almost an homage to traditional watchmaking. Through the enduring nature of the Apple Watch’s design, Apple is perhaps saying that smartwatches should be a bit more timeless than their smartphone counterparts.

Apple went a step further and even adopted traditional horologic terms to describe parts of the user interface. Many computer designers find the term “complications” awkward, but watchmakers called things for what they were. Essentially, “complications” — in watchmaking terms — do just what the word suggests: they make watches more complicated by adding the date, chronographs, winding mechanisms, etc. But while complications in mechanical watches are mostly designed to show off craftsmanship, complications in smartwatches aim at delivering relevant information at the right time. Apple adopts the term “complications” to describe app data on the watch face. They’ve also adopted another traditional watchmaking term, “crown,” to name the “digital crown” on the side of the device.

By using the same language and basic principles of watchmaking, Apple ensured their product was distinct enough to feel innovative, yet familiar enough to find its place on our wrists.

A change in perception

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’re buying pieces of history and craftsmanship. People who buy smartwatches aren’t buying a better way to look at time, they’re buying the idea of a healthier and better connected self.

Steve Jobs was deeply convinced that the Phone app was the iPhone’s “killer app.” And indeed, the first version of Phone app was a brilliantly designed piece of software that truly 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 today.

Watches are evolving from nice-to-have tech gadgets for geeks into life-saving tools for ourselves and the people we love.

Smartwatches are redefining their own category just like Swatch did in the late 1980s. Whereas smartwatches used to be about staying connected, they’re now packed with habit-forming technology aimed at making you a healthier you. They’re evolving from nice-to-have tech gadgets for geeks into life-saving tools for ourselves and the people we love.

The evolution of Apple Watch has been so gradual that most of us haven’t even realized what’s happening. 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 electrocardiogram, we can expect a lot of exciting new developments in this space.

Looking to the future

Wristwatches have always been an extension of our bodies. With smartwatches becoming more powerful, and technology effectively merging with our bodies, we’re at the forefront of a new era of computing.

Today, technology is not just used, but worn. This augmentation of our senses is paving the way for new types of experiences that simply haven’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 remarkably poor predictors of the future.

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

Written by

Leading A.I. based efforts @Google on Lens and Assistant. Creator of Mindful. Formerly @iA .

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