Watchonista One-On-One: Dr. Felix Obschonka, Montblanc’s Director of New Technologies
In our continuing series of interviews with industry insiders, we ask the question, can a smart watch win the hearts of enthusiasts?
Smart watches have been around for ages (Citizen, Timex, Fossil and Suunto all released SPOT 'Smart Personal Object Technology' devices back in the late 1990s). Clearly, they haven’t killed the traditional watch industry.
It is correct to claim that by 2020, the Apple Watch alone outsold the entire output of traditional Swiss Watch manufacturers. But it’s also important to note that the industry is also booming. The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHH) recently reported that the first six months of 2022 saw nearly 12 percent growth in the value of exports compared to the same period in 2021 with an export value of 11.9 billion Swiss francs.
We have learned that the two can coexist peacefully, but some watch snobs still heap plenty of scorn on smart watches. Can the community build a bridge between the two? Montblanc’s Category Director of New Technologies, Dr. Felix Obschonka, thinks so.
After all of this time, luxury watchmakers are still trying to create crossover smart watches. Why not just stay in their lane? Because it is a luxury brand across the board (writing instruments, leather goods, accessories, fashion, fragrance AND timepieces), Montblanc is uniquely qualified to weigh in on the subject.
Speaking over video conference, Dr. Obschonka says his piece: “As a watchmaker, you can say ‘it’s not for us' or you can say ‘we want to have a voice in this.’ Montblanc wants a seat at the table. As makers of high-end writing instruments, jewelery, leather goods, and fragrances as well as watches, Montblanc recognizes that many customers want a more personal connection to their tech.
“A watch intersects with jewelry because we can charge it with emotions as well as ideas of history, design, and luxury,” Dr. Obschonka continues. “And for enthusiasts, an advantage that mechanical watches have over wearable tech is that they are about the joy of having an object more than efficiency.”
Montblanc’s signature smartwatch is the Summit, which was introduced in 2017 (the brand’s first foray into wearables was the E-Strap, which twinned a mechanical watch with a connected module worn on the bracelet). The company just released the newest generation, the Summit 3, a premium timepiece powered by Google’s Wear OS 3 technology.
What makes it different from most smart watches is the polish. “If you care about fine watchmaking, you want to share that passion,” Dr. Obschonka says. “To build a smart watch for watch enthusiasts, you have to bring out the emotion. The Summit 3 is hand-finished down to the brushing on the side of the case and the side of the lugs. It has every small detail you would want.”
The materials are just as luxe as the finishing, with its titanium case and the options of either fine hand-stitched leather or a rubber strap stamped with a texture that recalls the Swiss mountain that inspired the name of the brand and the Summit collection. For Montblanc, these elegant touches are essential to the Summit 3 experience.
The Next Summit
The Montblanc Summit 3 is an upgrade from earlier iterations in technology as well. Notably, the display of the watch is much crisper. Over our zoom call, Dr. Obschonka holds it up to the camera to show off the dial options. “It’s a next-level, beautiful watch. You can enjoy it as more than just an electronic device.”
The Summit 3 comes with 11 different pre-stored digital watch faces, ranging from futuristic to faithful recreations of classic Montblanc dials including 1858, Bohème, and Geosphere. These faces can be further customized with background colors, hands, complications and more.
Montblanc was kind enough to send me a Summit 3 to examine in the metal, and when the timepiece is in always-on mode, at first glance it could be mistaken for the real thing because of its new, crisp display.
Of course, a premium timepiece comes at a premium price.
The Summit 3 costs $1,290. It’s not the only luxury watch in that range — the TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45 Golf Edition costs $1,800 and the most tricked-out Garmin devices cost nearly as much. On the other hand, argues Dr. Obschonka, $1,290 is an excellent opportunity for younger audiences to get into the luxury game. “It’s important to make watchmaking something different for each new generation,” he adds.
Smart Is As Smart Does
During our conversation, I frequently found myself trying to compare the Summit 3 to “real” watches. Too often, watch fans regard smart watches as cold and disposable. After typing up my interview notes, I recognized that there are people who are just as passionate about G-Shocks as they are about Pateks. I realized that if it makes you happy, wearable tech is a legitimate form of timekeeping.
Going back to Dr. Obschonka’s concept that the Summit 3 is a smart watch designed for enthusiasts, Montblanc wants to bring joy to the wearable tech experience. Because it delivers both good looks and cutting-edge features like fitness tracking and connectivity, it is, indeed, a good investment, but it is also more than an asset-class investment.
Why You Wear It
Storytelling is also important to Montblanc’s mission. For example, adds Dr. Obschonka, if you choose the 80 Days dial, you can select a small animation of Around the World in 80 Days’ Phineas Fogg traversing the globe in his hot air balloon. “We can have an emotional play with that,” he says. “It’s the digital equivalent of an automaton. It’s not something we need, but something that offers a little piece of emotion.”
Dr. Obschonka recognizes that, amongst collectors, there is a fear of technology becoming obsolete. He offers this reassurance: “If you want to buy the latest tech, we offer a trade-in program. At the same time, if you bought a Summit 2 [previously] and don’t want to change it, we will continue to offer repair and replacement services.”
The most important part of the Summit 3 story is that Montblanc will always value its historic watches, but also recognizes that new chapters are constantly being written in timekeeping. “Technology is always evolving, but we will always connect back to the story of the mountain. Everything speaks directly to emotion,” Dr. Obschonka concludes. “If you touch it, feel it—even the smell of the leather—brings a good memory.”
Pricing & Availability
As stated above, the Montblanc Summit 3 smart watch retails for $1,290 and is available at Montblanc retailers and via the brand website as you read this. Visit the Montblanc website for more information.
(Images © Montblanc)