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Inside Apple’s Failed Attempt To Become Rolex


On our recent podcast, I asked JCK’s editor-in-chief Victoria Gomelsky if there was any talk of smartwatches at the recent Watches and Wonders Geneva show. She responded, “Not really.”

For a brief moment seven years ago, it seemed like smartwatches would totally upend the Swiss watch business, similar to how tech businesses have basically destroyed—I mean “disrupted”—other industries. Apple’s decision to enter the smartwatch category seemed a possible game changer: The company was just coming off an incredible run of products, including the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, and its famous stores.

Things got especially interesting when Apple announced it was entering the high-end watch business, with an 18k gold model, which would carry a $10,000–$17,000 price tag. Not only was the company producing watches, it seemed, but it also appeared to be going head-to-head with Rolex.

And yet, while Rolex is now mega hot, the 18k gold Apple Watch barely lasted a year.

A new book, After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, by Tripp Mickle, sheds some light on why Apple never became the next Patek Philippe. According to the book, the idea to make the watch into a fashion item was the brainchild of Apple’s then–design guru Jony Ive, who thought it needed to be “perceived as a personal accessory, instead of a computer on the wrist.”

He became “adamant” that Apple make a gold watch, the book says. But that idea “frightened” Apple’s engineers, who knew that gold could be easily damaged and feared a steady stream of customers demanding refunds for their scratched timepieces. As a result, Apple came up with a new kind of gold that engineers claimed “was twice as strong as traditional gold”—even if not all experts agreed.

Ive thought selling the watch “require[d] the endorsement of cultural tastemakers”—the same way iTunes’ success stemmed from its careful courting of the music industry. Ive arranged special showings for Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and designer Karl Lagerfeld. But the fashion industry proved wary: “Decades of disruption made whole industries shudder each time a tech company launched a new category,” the book says.

The 18k model was briefly sold at Los Angeles boutique Maxfield, where “the line outside the store reflected a culture clash where Apple fanboys in fanny packs brushed shoulders with fashionistas carrying Burberry bags,” according to the book.

Internally, some “worried that Ive was using the watch as a wedge to push the company in a direction that personally interested him. They considered his focus on fashion vain and self-serving,” Mickle reported.

When the Apple Watch was finally introduced, reviews were mixed, and even the company didn’t seem to know what to do with the gold model, which was largely ignored in its launch event. The book quotes a Verve writer who tried on two of the gold watches and complained they didn’t “feel like a luxury timepiece, they just felt like gold versions of the Apple Watch.”

In its first year, there was much debate over whether the Apple Watch had “flopped.” According to the book, it was seen internally as a “ticking time bomb,” and the company “cut the number it planned to produce by 70% after launch, and cut it by another 30% a few weeks later.” Sales of the gold watch were in the “low tens of thousands,” according to a 2019 report.

Eventually, Apple started repositioning its creation as a fitness tool, rather than a fashion object. Ive decided to leave, saying he was “drained” from all the fights over the watch—including his battle to erect a fashion tent on the Apple campus, which required the removal of two dozen trees.

Despite rumors of a comeback, it appears the gold Apple Watch edition is dead. (For one, the original 18k gold model no longer works with Apple’s current software.) The price of the highest-end Apple Watch is now about $800, and there is talk of that going away too.

The Apple Watch has since become a solid seller, though not a must-have. And the Swiss watch industry—which once feared it would be wiped out by the Silicon Valley marauders—just enjoyed its best year ever.

Why is that? Let’s ask The Verge.

“It always seemed unwise—allow me to just say downright stupid—to spend that much cash on a gadget that would become outdated the very next year,” said one writer. “A traditional watch costing thousands is something you might hand down over generations. An Apple Watch? Not so much.”

(Photo courtesy of Apple)

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By: Rob Bates

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