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Watch What’s Trending in Luxury Timepieces: Swiss or Apple?

April 17, 2015
luxury timepiece

As Apple prepares to debut its Apple Watch on April 24, the five-figure price tag on its high-end model—running at $17,000—is raising eyebrows about the electronic giant’s efforts to edge into the luxury watch market.

“That is the hope for Apple,” says Chad Taylor, a technology expert at Abt Electronics, the nation’s largest single-store retailer of electronics and appliances. Prices are expected to start at $350 for the entry-level Watch Sport and run in the $10,000 to $17,000 range for the Edition, which will be available in 18-karat gold or rose gold with a choice of six bands. “This watch will be made of the best materials, and in very, very limited quantities,” Taylor adds.

That doesn’t worry luxury Swiss watchmakers. Apple’s top-end Edition pales in comparison to other high-end luxury timepieces, says Joe Thompson, editor in chief of WatchTime magazine. The mid-point price for a new Patek Philipe watch, the Swiss ultra-luxury brand widely considered the world’s best, runs $10,000 to $20,000. Models like the Calatrava come with fine alligator leather straps, yellow or white gold, and complicated mechanics.

It’s the mid-market watchmakers, who sell timepieces in the $200 to $1,000 range, who should be fretting.

“Eighty percent of the Swiss watch sales come from mechanical watches, which are adored by many … around the world,” Thompson says. Mechanical-movement watches, unlike quartz watches that are usually battery-operated, are what collectors pursue, he says.

That, along with the rapid pace of technology innovation, makes smart watches an iffy investment.

“There’s a fair amount of skepticism,” Thompson says. “[The Edition is a] lot of money for a watch that in two years will certainly be obsolete because of the dynamics of smart watches and the dynamics of Apple.”

Meanwhile, wristwatches are taking on new life. Because every phone now tells the time, consumers purchase wristwatches as jewelry accessories and status symbols, says Tony Barilich, timepiece expert for Abt’s Time Boutique.

“People under 40 have never seen a watch without a battery, so there’s a certain mystique about mechanical watches,” he says.

The market for wristwatches as a collectible is only a few decades old, and it exists thanks to the debut of quartz watches, Thompson says. It was assumed that quartz watches would push mechanical-watch technology into obsolescence. That prompted the wealthy to collect mechanical timepieces as they do works of art, which led to a significant revival in watches with intricate mechanics.

If you’re thinking about heirlooms, start with handmade, mechanical-movement watches, says Thomas Steinemann, chief executive officer at DuBois et fils. At 230 years, it’s the oldest Swiss watch factory.

“Mechanical watches equipped with a special vintage movement are always a good decision, because they tend to retain their value,” says Steinemann, who looks for companies with “a long and successful history.”

Although undaunted by the competition, fine watchmakers look to the Apple Watch to increase  consumer interest in wristwatches.

“I think the Swiss hope that the Apple Watch will focus people’s attention more on the wrists, [with the idea] that even Apple thinks [a wristwatch] is a cool product,” he says.

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