The Faustian Bargain: Are We Moving Towards Intelligent Mechanical Watchmaking?
Technology is supposed to make existing products better. Watchmaking cannot escape this fact. And the convergence between watchmaking and technology is truly upon us. Is the industry capable of embracing this Faustian bargain without losing its soul?
For a few years now, attempts by brands to bridge these two universes abound. Fueling this quest is the industry-wide belief that the younger generations crave evermore interconnected technology. A striking example is the Alpiner X from Alpina.
It shattered previous crowdfunding records by raising $1,530,000 for its launch at the beginning of 2018. The sales numbers since then have confirmed Alpiner X’s success. Peter Stas, CEO of Frederique Constant and Alpina, explains this enthusiasm: “Alpiner X creates the possibility to add more and more functions to interact with your watch while keeping the Swiss Made watch spirit with its hours and minutes hands.”
A Real Challenge
Here is the real challenge: integrating the connectivity and all its attendant features while preserving the mechanical heritage which remains the ultimate know-how of Swiss watchmaking, its real USP. Douglas Finazzi, CEO of Conex Watches, brings to the table a mechanical Swiss Made answer to the smartwatch with its X-One: “Our goal is to create a digital tradition marrying the mechanical craftsmanship and electronics. The timekeeper offers a non-traditional display of digital information thanks to a mechanical linear counter powered by micro-motors, among the smallest in the world.”
Is this really a successful selling point for the end consumer? Well, the successful financing of the X-One on Kickstarter last year, its appeal at last year’s CES show in Vegas and its current deliveries shows the interest is here. Famous Swiss motorist, Jean-François Mojon of Chronode, who developed the mechanical part of the X-One, goes further: “It is first of all a mechanical watch with a traditional movement. The goal was to introduce relevant and useful functions like a GMT or a QP with the precision of digital technology but a mechanical transcription with watch wheels.”
A new watch segment?
Is there a new, hybrid segment emerging? J-F Mojon hedges: “It is too early to say but considering the number of inquiries of the various brands who contact us we can see they are ‘testing’ the market. They are trying to understand what the consumer wants, to determine the useful features beyond the pure ‘gadget’.”
Alpina’s CEO is more definitive: “We see a strong demand from younger generations and a huge potential for the future.”
A risk for traditional mechanical watchmaking?
Our three innovators agree on this point: There will always be a place for mechanical watchmaking, especially in the high-end segment, but digital is unavoidable and a combination of both worlds is possible. Peter Stas goes further still: “For me, it is a mistake to ignore the birth of a hybrid segment. Many traditional models will become redundant, especially for quartz”.
One cannot fail to observe that even the high-end world is starting to explore this lead. Thus, Ressence, the most Belgian of Swiss Made brands, decided to use the available technologies to heighten the customer experience of their purely mechanical timekeepers. Benoit Mintiens, CEO of the brand, unveils his philosophy behind the creation of his Type 2 e-crown: “The aim is to increase trust in mechanical watchmaking, so that traditional watches remain relevant in our time. The new generation is digital, we need to take that into account.” He adds: “We are looking for ergonomics in the larger possible sense. Ressence brings forward a completely autonomous timekeeper which can be wound either manually, either automatically through kinetic energy that charges a generator linked to a battery, or by solar energy. An unprecedent comfort and ease of use. Add the unequaled digital precision of automatic time setting to the mix and you obtain the 21st century watchmaking.” But aren’t we on the verge of losing the profound emotional attachment sought-after in mechanical watchmaking? He simply answers: “This new ergonomics will create a strong relation with the object. Exactly as with traditional timekeepers, the more you get to know it, the more you will love it”.
What about emotions?
Herein lies the real question: The birth of quartz in the 70’s was a major technological revolution which almost obliterated the mechanical watch industry and, by weakening traditional mechanical watchmaking’s capacity to make the consumer dream, will the introduction of technology succeed where quartz failed?
Peter Stas draws an encouraging comparison between the Quartz Crises and the looming connectivity revolution: “Quartz revolutionized the precision function of watches. Connectivity alters the global relation to the object. Adding new functions to the watchmaking object makes it so much more interesting for the consumer!”
In the end, the soul of the watch industry is borne in its propensity to create an emotional link with the mechanical object - to which a living human imbues meaning and a kind of life by the strength of their wonderment and fascination alone. This is what saved mechanical watchmaking from the Quartz Crisis. If the convergence with technology manages to instill a double meaning to the object; if it offers a real enhancement of the customer experience while preserving its irrational appeal, this seemingly Faustian bargain may turn out to be a positive change in the industry. Ultimately, the future will tell but until then the industry will continue to dance with the devil and hope Mephistopheles won’t demand its soul.