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Apple Watch officially hit the US market for pre-sales on April 10, selling more than one million on its first day. 

Threatened by Apple’s quick success, many small to mid-sized watch manufactures began rethinking their futures. These more traditional-type companies—fearing a tech-watch-takeover—needed some inspiration and a role model. But who had walked this path before? 

After 176 years, Patek Philippe has not only endured, but has mastered the industry with its values, fine workmanship, elegant designs, and time-tested traditions.

One of the last family-owned, independent Swiss watchmakers, Patek has earned the favor of royal families, movie stars, and the exceptionally famous—even the brilliant—such as Albert Einstein and Tchaikovsky.

Until today, Patek Philippe has remained one of the top sellers of high-end mechanical watches. According to World Watch Report, in 2014 Patek was the leading haute horlogerie brand with revenues nearing $1.2 billion, and a 23% share of the market. 

Historically, Switzerland has become synonymous with top-quality mechanical watches. The Swiss know their art well. They have been at it since the 16th century. 

So how might Swiss watchmakers view this influx of tech-savvy Apple products sweeping the world? It may not be much of a worry. Because when it comes to facing adversity, the Swiss are seasoned veterans after all.

Time Repeats 

Patek Philippe Shop (1839 – 1939)

Back in the 1970’s, the Swiss watchmaking industry took a direct hit from a new technology.

Ironically, in the 60’s the Swiss helped lay the groundwork for this advancement. The new technology used a tiny quartz crystal to regulate the gears of the watch. It harnessed quartz’s natural ability to oscillate with precision when electrically stimulated. The Japanese, at Seiko, wasted no time in applying quartz technology to watchmaking. 

Quartz watches entered the world with accuracy and a cheap price. Along with their vast popularity came a changing of the tide. What was known to the Swiss as the Quartz Crisis leapt like a tiger upon the industry.

At that time, about one third of Swiss watchmakers disappeared from the market. To survive, two major watchmakers in Switzerland, SSIH and ASUAG, merged—they sought a joint strategy to confront this economic onslaught and to turn a bad situation into a good one.

In March of 1983, Swatch was born. Swatch would not only become the largest watch manufacturer in the world, but also a supplier of parts to all high-end wrist watch companies in Switzerland, including Patek Philippe and Rolex. 

With Swatch, a strategic—and most successful—change occurred on the marketing end: the design philosophy switched from emphasizing the watch’s time-telling functions to focusing on striking at the customer’s emotional core. 

Indeed, the name Swatch was meant to stand for “second watch” and the idea was to make the watch so affordable and fashionable that consumers couldn’t help but want to own more than one.

Today, Swatch’s website says: “The sight of a Swatch excites emotion. Wearing one is a way to communicate, to speak without speaking. Heart to heart.”

Can an Apple Tick?

It’s hard to imagine the creators of Apple Watch didn’t think of Swatch once or twice as they stood at the drawing board. Likewise, they may have asked themselves: will our product excite emotionally? Does it offer a way to communicate, to speak without speaking?

To many, the answer to all of these question was “yes.” 

But somewhere down the line, a more important question came up: Is this device going to be a real watch? 

And would Apple Watch have what it takes to break into the haute horlogerie and refer to itself as a true timepiece? Or was it confined to: a mere Mac device, just a smaller one that wraps around the wrist and does a few new interesting things?

Fortunately, Apple had an answer to this question, too: It’s all in the name. Yes, in fact, it is a watch—an Apple Watch.

Not an iWatch, where the “i” connotes visions of iPad, iPhone, or even iMac, all of which by the way flash the time across their screens. No, it’s definitely a watch.  

Actually, Apple Watch is expected to span a far wider market gap than the iPhone, since Apple intends to turn its watch, loaded with artificial intelligence, into a luxury. To rival such world-renowned watches as Patek Philippe, Rolex and Cartier, Apple had to name its new product appropriately. 

Apple iWatch                                               

But could it really compete in luxury with a classical icon: the mechanical watch? To test the waters, Apple decided to try out “luxury” with its 18-karat gold “Apple Watch Edition” priced at $10,000. 

If Apple’s agenda were to fail, it would mean consumer impressions would not change; instead, they would see Apple Watch simply as a wrist-Mac, like a little iPhone that you wear—that as a side note—yes, tells the time. 

But the final test would be the hardest. Would the high-end watch market be willing to trade in a multi-century old tradition—the craftsmanship of hand-made gears and mechanical movement—for a handful of flashy apps?

Enduring Values

Patek Philippe has a beautiful slogan: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” 

And it’s true. The reason why a high-end watch is treasured is not only because it wins over its wearer’s heart, but because it is a treasure to pass down to future generations—a family heirloom.

Patek Philippe watch

To be exact, a mechanical watch is one of the few objects that will not lose its original functions with the passage of time, particularly one emblazoned with the Patek Philippe Seal. Patek Philippe watches often achieve cult status and are known to fetch record-setting sums at auction. 

For the Chinese, who are the top consumers of luxury goods globally, Patek Philippe has been the watch collector’s top choice for over 7 years. Only recently, ancient calligraphy surpassed luxury watches as the most collected item among the Chinese. 

Which leads to the next question: if a luxury market giant like China were to reconnect with traditional cultural values, would there be a lasting demand for the voguish Apple Watch? 

But this actually fits perfectly in line with Patek Philippe and other Swiss watches’  respect for tradition, and the understanding that many Swiss watches are actually works of arts too.

Consider the Patek Philippe Seal for a moment. The company website explains, “This new emblem of horological excellence goes beyond any existing standards of the Swiss watch industry… In conjunction with these standards, the Seal represents a commitment to lifelong servicing and restoration for all timepieces created by us since 1839.”

And so, it becomes more and more apparent, when looking at Apple Watch and Patek Philippe, we are not comparing apples to apples. We are comparing Apples to timepieces.

Time’s Test

Perhaps the answer lies in a sort of poetry: it is not so much how Apple Watch will play its role as timekeeper, but rather a question of if Time will choose to keep Apple Watch. 

It’s anyone’s guess if in five years it will be the norm to find the $10,000 list-price “Apple Watch Edition” posted across eBay and Craigslist for $750.00 (or whatever the meltdown value is for the gold). 

Not to be harsh, there are many great qualities and uses for Apple Watch—the obvious is its knack for fitness tracking. But the point is, Apple Watch is something that will not last for years. No, it will have versions. Not versions to pass down to future generations, but versions to upgrade to.

Unlike a Patek Philippe, Apple Watch will not maintain its original value, nor like an antique heirloom, will it increase in value, nor will it be appreciated for its aging (and ageless) qualities. 

This doesn’t mean Apple Watch is a bad product. It just calls it like it is: a small computer, dressed for the occasion, and worn on the arm—and like an iPhone, subject to a near-future fate of possible trade-in.

On the other hand, a mechanical watch is free of any software and energy, and its original value and functions are kept for the long haul. 

Tradition Inspires—It Remains

Time marks a cycle. When one moment ends, the next begins. 

Passing fads are here and gone, one minute to the next. But traditions that are cherished and handed down for generations—they endure. Only traditions can reach out to touch the realm of timelessness.

Why do the super-rich in China collect ancient calligraphy and timepieces? And why do people place value on classical art and historical emblems?

Each Patek Philippe watch has been processed by careful human hands. It has been refined and tempered by time itself. The company has withstood the whims of the marketplace, only to find itself remaining true to tradition, quality and values throughout its journey. 

Event for watch industry

And so it is a sure thing—the success and running tradition of Patek Philippe should inspire the middle and small-sized watchmakers to redefine their watches. And these companies, as Swatch did, should add emotion; and speak from the heart.

It’s up in the air if Apple Watch will make it through to the next hour, or the hour after that. But companies that work hard, respect tradition, and embrace a true luxury culture—they should last.

In the end, a Patek Philippe offers the opportunity to travel back in time—to a place somehow better, to a place where people associate long-term value not only with the products they make, but also with the products they choose to keep. 

Article : Adam Miller
Translation : Yoyo Chiang
Photo : New San Cai

 

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