With the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) now a memory, and with all and sundry having published their show reports, the industry is preparing itself for the BaselWorld event. If you’re new to watches – or, at least, to the watch business – the difference between the shows is easy to explain. SIHH consists solely of the brands owned by the Richemont Group, including Cartier, IWC, Montblanc, Panerai and others, plus a few “fellow travellers” like Parmigiani Fleurier and Richard Mille. The total number of exhibitors this year was 16.
BaselWorld, on the other hand, is massive for it is – literally – “everyone else” who wasn’t at SIHH. It ranges from the giants, including the whole of the Swatch Group, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard, Breitling, Hublot, the LVMH Brands of Zenith, TAG Heuer et al, and every other major house, to the auteur high-end brands, many of which exhibit in a separate hall called “The Palace”: Christophe Claret, Speake-Marin, MB&F, De Bethune and so on. Plus everyone in-between, whether it’s the big fashion brands like Chanel or smaller watch brands like Glycine, Doxa, Nomos and Anonimo.
Thus its many halls contain exhibitors in the low thousands, for BaselWorld also hosts jewellery brands and suppliers to the trade, such as manufacturers of packaging, display materials, straps, etc. It is without any doubt the most important event in the watch world’s calendar, the horological equivalent of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas in January, where all of the world’s audio, TV, smartphone, headphone, tablet … you get the idea: just about anything that runs on electricity except for appliances and power tools. But this year, CES may have been a teaser for BaselWorld, because “smart watches” are supposed to be The Next Big Thing.
While the Frankenstein creation that is the smart phone managed to combine a phone with a camera with undeserved success (dedicated cameras still blow away even the best of smart phones for picture-taking), I suspect the smart watch will go the way of 3D TV, for it is a Very Stupid Idea.
It is one of those things that nobody really wants, like the combination cassette player/electric shaver I once saw in Japan. The idiot who approved it didn’t anticipate that an electric shaver’s vibration would wreak havoc on the tape playback. It is the answer to a question no-one has asked. It is an act of desperation, because the mobile phone is the most hotly-contested consumer product of this century, and the stakes are huge.
As to why it is a stupid idea, let me put you in the mood by recounting a saucy one-liner from a stand-up comedian I’ve since forgotten, but whose joke has lasted the decades – and I adamantly will not take credit for it. It must have been in the 1970s, given that Japan is now very much perceived as a high-end manufacturing territory, thanks to Lexus, Grand Seiko, most of the world’s best cameras, Namiki pens, and the like.
At the time, it was possible to satirise the Japanese about their then-obsessive hunger to miniaturise everything. Shavers the size of matchboxes, personal cassette players no bigger than the cassette itself, radios built into earplugs. The comedian posited that miniaturisation as an end in itself is not necessarily a good thing. “The Japanese should have realised this before they marketed a miniature vibrator,” he quipped.
But he did make a valid point. Taking it away from the spicy intimations of his example, I cannot understand why anyone would want to watch an epic blockbuster film, like Iron Man 3 or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or even an episode of Breaking Bad on a screen that measures 3x5in. After years of TV screens getting bigger and better, precisely to approximate the thrill of going to the cinema in one’s home, surely the notion of wasting some director’s artistry on a palm-sized screen is regressive nonsense?
So now we have the propeller-heads trying to cram as much tech into a wrist-borne device as they have into an admittedly larger mobile phone chassis. But so far, even the most salivating of geeks writing in the various gadget magazines and sites are hard-pressed to recommend, let alone admire the smart watches they’ve tried.
Most smart watches seem to require a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone in one’s pocket, which rather makes a mockery of the smart watch without the help of a comedian. None offer anything approximating, let alone approaching the real estate needed to text with any efficiency. And I cannot imagine anyone wanting to, or even trying to watch The Life of Pi or Rush on a screen the size of a postage stamp.
While this stuff is as far removed from double-tourbillons and minute repeaters as watches can be, and while the horological casualties they’ll leave in their wake will be few (I sincerely doubt that the likes of Casio or Citizen are bothered by smart watches – they probably have their own on the boards), they are an unnecessary distraction as the world creeps back to financial recovery.
No, the only casualties will be the early adopters, those who will learn swiftly that smart watches are utterly useless toys, that they do nothing better than the smart phones they’re meant to complement or even replace, and that there’s one other thing necessary for smart watches to triumph that nobody has successfully miniaturised: the human finger.