Is This the Future of Wearable Tech?

The smartwatch wars have begun in earnest. On Nov. 9, TAG Heuer released its first smartwatch, the TAG Heuer Connected, a $1,500 wearable device that retains the look and feel of a traditional chronograph but allows its wearer to connect to the Internet, receive notifications, and track his or her steps. Three days later, Fossil announced that it had acquired the activity tracker brand Misfit for $260 million. And, on Dec. 16 in New York City, Breitling will unveil what the brand is touting as its “most innovative timepiece”—presumably the B55 Connected watch that was unveiled earlier this year at Baselworld.

But what if the watch industry has it all wrong? What if the real smart revolution respects traditional watchmaking so much that it doesn’t try to upstage it?

Last week, I had lunch with Mark Nichol, CEO and founder of Chronos, a San Francisco–based company that manufactures a disc that transforms a traditional timepiece into a wearable. And after trying the disc on the Shinola Gomelsky Moon Phase model I was wearing, I’m starting to wonder whether we need to bother with smartwatches at all.

“We make an invisible product,” Nichol told me—and it’s true.

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The Chronos disc (courtesy of Chronos)

When I attached the Chronos disc beneath the dial of my Shinola—no magnets are involved, just plain ol’ suction—it took about 10 seconds for me to forget about it. The $99 device is less than 3 mm thick, measures 33 mm in diameter, and feels about as weighty as a silver dollar.

Nichol, a former investment banker enamored with watches (he wears an obscure brand called Reconvilier that his wife gave him when they got married five years ago), explained the rationale for making a device that works seamlessly with—not against—analog technology:

“People love watches—they reflect style and status,” Nichol said. “But I believe a certain amount of connectivity is going to be standard in watches in the future, and we want to be part of that revolution.”

“We think technology shouldn’t change the look and feel of your watch,” he added.

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Here’s how Chronos looks when it’s attached, via micro-suction technology, to the back of a traditional timepiece (courtesy of Chronos).

With cofounder and chief technology officer Luke Fromowitz—a former member of the product innovation team at Samsung—Nichol joined the start-up accelerator program run by PCH, a manufacturing logistics company that specializes in bringing some of the world’s most popular devices from concept to consumer. (Hint: PCH’s mega-client is based in Cupertino, Calif., and is considered the world’s largest company by market cap.)

The Chronos does the same things that most smart products on the market do: It tracks your steps and activity level, like a Fitbit. It delivers notifications via colored lights and vibrations that can be programmed to correspond to specific people in your address book (“We find that people have three to five people they care about,” Nichol said). And it allows you to control your phone (i.e., tap the watch to silence a call).

But what it doesn’t do is detract from the aesthetic purity of a mechanical (or quartz) timepiece. “We designed it so it fit perfectly on Michael Kors’ bestselling watch, the 38 mm model,” Nichol said, adding that the Chronos disc fits on every watch on the list of top 20 bestsellers (from Casio to TAG Heuer).

The company is currently taking preorders on its website and is preparing a wholesale strategy. “We’re talking to retailers now,” Nichol said. “The goal is to be in stores in 2016 in time for ‘dads and grads’ season.”

“Our one objective is to be where watches are sold,” he added, noting that department stores are his No. 1 target.

Independent retailers, however, may be further down the line because of the education and training involved in selling the device, Nichol said.

Which shouldn’t dismay anyone looking to get into wearables—by the time next year rolls around, the earliest smartwatch contenders may already be outdated, making the case for a relatively inexpensive and analog-compatible device such as Chronos all the stronger.