At The Heart Of A Watch, Tested By Time
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Apple Watch went on sale today, mostly in big-city fashion boutiques. More than a million preorders have also been placed online, according to analysts. And this led NPR's Laura Sydell to ask, what happens to traditional watch sales when people start wearing computers on their wrists?
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Shreve and Co. is a jewelry shop in downtown San Francisco that sells high-end watches like Rolex and Patek Philippe.
I'm curious if you are at all worried about smartwatches taking business away.
GLEN ROSS: No.
SYDELL: This confident-sounding man is the store's general manager, Glen Ross. Ross says people aren't buying these watches to tell time.
ROSS: I think if it was going to have happened it would already have happened, because the cellphones would have already have damaged the fine watchmaking industry.
SYDELL: But it hasn't at all. Globally, Swiss watch sales were up about two percent between 2013 and 2014. And in San Francisco, with all the newly minted tech millionaires, Ross's business is booming.
ROSS: It's something that may have been coveted for years and years, and I've always wanted to, when I found myself at the level of sort of success financially, that I'm able to afford to buy a Rolex or an IWC or a Panerai.
SYDELL: Or a Vacheron Constantin, A. Lange & Sohne. Some of the watches in this shop have price tags in the several hundred-thousand dollar range. That makes Apple's high-end watch addition, which can go up to 17,000, look cheap. Interest in high-end Swiss watches is sustaining Ariel Adams. He founded a website focused on the industry called A Blog to Watch. Adams says the Swiss have also done a great job advertising to emerging markets where there's new money, like China.
ARIEL ADAMS: It really fit in to how the Chinese like to portray their own status in something that they very much enjoy. So you had this wonderful accumulation of factors that came together that made China so ripe for luxury watch-buying.
SYDELL: And while this has changed somewhat in China, Adams thinks the Swiss will find other wealth to tap.
JEAN-CLAUDE BIVER: The attraction of a traditional Swiss watch is the love that has been put in it. It's the art. It's the passion.
SYDELL: This is Jean-Claude Biver, a man many say is partially responsible for the rebirth of the luxury Swiss watch industry. He's the head of the LVMH Watch Division, which includes Tag Heuer, Zenith and Hublot. To say he's passionate about Swiss watches might be an understatement.
BIVER: To buy eternity in a box and to pay - I say anything now - $10,000 for eternity, it's not so expensive because in thousand years, the watch will work, which means you're going to pay $10 per year for thousand years.
SYDELL: Whereas a smartwatch, which is a computer on the wrist, will be obsolete like your laptop or your phone, though Biver isn't taking his chances. His Tag Heuer brand is releasing its own smartwatch in October with help from Intel and Google. And this isn't the first time the Swiss watch industry, which goes back centuries, has faced a challenge. In recent history, the Japanese watchmaker Seiko released the world's first quartz watch in 1969. It was cheaper than Swiss watches and kept better time. Michael Clerizo is the author of two books on watches.
MICHAEL CLERIZO: During the '70s we saw a huge decrease in employment in the Swiss watch industry and we saw a lot of brands close.
SYDELL: What eventually brought the industry back was the introduction of the fashionable Swatch by a Swiss entrepreneur named Nicolas Hayek. It was more expensive than a Japanese watch, but cheaper than a high-end Swiss watch.
CLERIZO: What Hayek knew was that people would pay more for anything that said Swiss-made, because Swiss-made means quality.
SYDELL: And the Swiss are counting on the same reputation to get them through the arrival of the smartwatch. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.