The Emperor Has a New Watch

The emperor has no clothes—and no watch. For all the buzz about smartwatches at Baselworld, there were almost no tangible smart devices to speak of at the fair. We saw plenty of presentations, press conferences, and prototypes, but very little in the way of actual salable products. (The big exception was the suite of horological smartwatches powered by the MotionX platform developed by Switzerland’s Frederique Constant in partnership with Silicon Valley’s Fullpower Technologies.)

Instead, watchmakers used the show as an occasion to unveil their newest concept pieces—or, in some cases, just concepts—to compete with the Apple Watch, many of which struck me as half-baked.

Much has been written about TAG Heuer’s splashy announcement that it is teaming with Google and Intel to produce an Android-based smartwatch later this year—but less so about the strange, off-kilter press conference at Basel during which they unveiled their respective company logos against the backdrop of TAG’s dramatic multistory booth. The logos hovered above a black-and-white shot of the actor and iconic Heuer fan Steve McQueen, serving only to muddy the message: Was the brand looking back to its vintage heyday, moving forward into a brave new digital future, or straddling the present in an awkward attempt to do both?

It was tough not to snicker while watching Jean-Claude Biver, the president of LVMH’s watch division, speak in exclamation points as he introduced his colleagues from Google and Intel—before having them pose for a symbolic “cutting the cheese” photo op. Not only was the cheese metaphor lost on the Swiss, the awkward expressions on the faces of the Silicon Valley reps suggested that numerous cultural barriers would likely litter, if not block, the road to becoming a bona fide threat to Apple.

At a brief press conference following the announcement, Biver parried questions from journalists. “What is the difference between the Apple Watch and the TAG Heuer watch?” someone asked.

“One is called Apple and the other is called TAG Heuer,” Biver replied.

The comment was probably intended to be snarky-cool, but Biver’s facetious remark only drew attention to the fact that there is no TAG watch—and judging by the watch industry’s track record with introducing concepts before they come to fruition, there may not be one—at least not how the watchmaker has envisioned it.

But TAG Heuer wasn’t the only brand that committed its resources to hopeful technology in Basel.

At the Bulgari booth on Baselworld opening day, CEO Jean-Christophe Babin—formerly the chief executive of TAG Heuer—unveiled the brand’s first concept watch, the Bulgari Diagono Magnesium (with the “e” styled to resemble the @ symbol).

Courtesy Bulgari

Bulgari unveiled its new Diagono Magnesium timepiece at Baselworld, but it will be at least another year before the watch is available for purchase.

Unlike the Apple Watch and its smart cohort, the Bulgari timepiece is, Babin said, “intelligent.” Powered by a mechanical movement, the watch also contains an NFC-enabled microchip that allows users to unlock a digital vault app on their smartphones, where they can store all their secure documents, from passwords to bank accounts. The timepiece is the product of a partnership between Bulgari and the Swiss data storage firm WISeKey.

“We thought about the Swiss culture of precision and security, and we decided the watch of the future would not be a smartwatch—which raises issues of obsolescence,” Babin said. “Smartwatches are nice, but they’re surely not compatible with Swiss-made.”

After the press conference, I sat down with Babin in his office. He described the Diagono Magnesium as a “very advanced concept.” To demonstrate its functionality, he placed his smartphone against the watch on his left wrist, and I could see the app screen engaged in an authenticating process.

Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin demonstrates how the Bulgari Vault app works with the company’s new “intelligent” Diagono Magnesium watch.

“Usually, there is one year of development for industrialization,” he said, indicating that the timepiece would be available for purchase in 12 to 16 months, “when most smartwatches will not be in the market and this will have outdated them.”

A year is an eternity in tech-speak. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Babin’s prognostication is accurate. Meanwhile, the Swiss are carrying on.…

Breitling’s new B55 Connected quartz-powered pilot’s timepiece is another not-quite smartwatch. Vice president Jean-Paul Girardin said the companion smartphone app, which connects with the chronograph using Bluetooth technology, is designed “to improve the functionality of our watches.” By way of example, he said the app automatically syncs with the watch to record exact flight times for a pilot’s digital logbook—an obligatory, and quite tedious, task that’s automatically taken care of by the two instruments.

Courtesy Breitling

Breitling’s new B55 Connected watch remains a concept watch for the moment.

Alas, the model isn’t available yet either. “It’s not yet ready to go on the road,” Girardin said.

Finally, there was Gucci’s big reveal: The brand staged a press conference at its booth with the rapper Will.i.am (whose last smartwatch project, the much-ridiculed Puls, seems to have fizzled before it even started).

“Gucci Timepieces is fully embracing the future of wearable technology that is now ahead of us, with the objective of launching a wearable device concept that is a fashion accessory, incorporating the most comprehensive and advanced technological functionalities,” said Stéphane Linder, the new president and CEO of Gucci Timepieces (most people know Linder from his last stint at—wait for it—TAG Heuer).

Note the hopeful—but far from definitive—use of language: “with the objective.”

Will.i.am continued in that optimistic vein: “In creating a device that is both fashionable and technologically advanced, we aim to define this category.”

Courtesy Gucci Timepieces

Rapper Will.i.am and Gucci Timepieces CEO Stéphane Linder at the Basel press conference announcing their smartwatch collaboration.

The device Gucci is aiming for will operate as a stand-alone smartband. It will, according to the press release, be able to make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages and emails, play music, show maps and a calendar, track fitness, and summon “a sophisticated personal assistant activated by voice command.”

But the final line of Gucci’s press statement was the kicker: “Details regarding pricing, distribution, and launch timing will be announced in due course.”

I can’t help but read that through a cynic’s lens: Maybe never.