“When Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, announced the Apple Watch in September 2014, the Swiss watch industry shuddered,” writes the New York Times in an article surveying the past, present, and future impact of the Apple Watch.
It’s already the self-proclaimed "#1 watch in the world." That's how Tim Cook opened the Apple Watch portion of the September 2018 Apple Keynote, just four years after the Watch’s arrival. A year earlier, Cook explicitly mentioned that Apple was actually the largest watch brand in terms of revenue – not just units sold – surely sending chills down the spines of Rolex and other Swiss watch execs in the old boys club.
But if Apple really is the number one watch manufacturer in the world, it may not feel like it. The Swiss watch industry is healthy as ever, as we report in our monthly export reports. In the first quarter of 2019, exports were up 2.9% over Q1 2018, which was a strong period of sales to begin with.
But, as we also highlight each month, the demand for watches at the low end (under 500 swiss francs) is drying up. Here’s what I wrote at the end of Q1 2019:
As has been typical, watches on the low end of the price spectrum saw a decline, with those priced less than CHF 200 down 24.9% in value exported. Meanwhile, pieces above CHF 3,000 had a particularly strong month, with total export value up 13.2%. These numbers help explain why total export value was up while total number of timepieces exported was down (apparently people love their expensive precious metal or bimetal pieces right now).
In the space of the last three months, export volume has fallen by nearly 800,000 pieces.
This is off a 2018 that saw a 5% decline in exports of watches priced at less that CHF 500. So there it is: even as the value of Swiss exports has risen, the volume has dropped considerably, driven by the fact that no one buys watches under CHF 500 anymore.
Except for one watch, that is. The Apple Watch — coming in at a price point right at $500 — saw 51% year-over-year growth in Q1 2019.
One thing the Apple Watch’s success did do was bring about a new category of watches from the Swiss: the “luxury” smart watch. Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer, and others have all introduced smart watches at $1,000-plus prices, which they proceeded to sell to pretty much no one. To be fair, Apple also made the same mistake, at one point offering a $10,000 18k gold Apple Watch. Nowadays, the most expensive Apple Watch you’ll find offered is a $1,500 Hermes Edition Series 4, and honestly it does look sexy. Not 3x the cost of a normal Apple Watch sexy, but hey, if you can’t get your hands on a Birkin Bag, I supposed this is a worthy consolation.
While the luxury smartwatch category stumbled out of the gate, interest in traditional mechanical watches has remained high since the Apple Watch’s introduction. Perhaps the smartwatch and mechanical watches categories are more complementary than previous contemplated. After all, one will never replace the other, for any number of reasons. And while the Apple Watch may have more functionality than a traditional mechanical watch, we still wear wristwatches primarily to express something about who we are. Whether the watch is mechanical, electronic, or something else is just a means to that end.
Read the New York Times’ full report here.