Can the Apple Watch Take on Rolex?

Luxury timepiece makers have survived smartwatches before. Here’s who should be scared of this one.

The Apple Watch lets you make and receive freaking phone calls. Your Rolex doesn’t.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Reuters.

The new Apple Watch is a different flavor of product than we’ve grown used to from the Cupertino cabal. In many of its incarnations, the device will compete less with Samsung, Google, and Microsoft than with Seiko, TAG Heuer, and Rolex. So should the watch industry—like the personal computing and smartphone industries before it—be scared that Apple’s about to eat its lunch?

It’s worth noting that watchmakers have seen techie timepieces come and go for decades with little effect on the marketplace. Joe Thompson, editor in chief of WatchTime, wrote a cranky column in 2013 in which he recalled a bunch of meh smartwatch launches over the years: the Seiko TV watch in 1983; Microsoft SPOT watches in 2003; the Pebble Smartwatch and Samsung Galaxy Gear in 2013. Smartwatches have “consistently flopped,” wrote Thompson, noting that one major reason they’ve failed is that they just look way too geeky.

The kind of person in the market for an elegant Rolex would be repulsed by the clunky lines of a Galaxy Gear. The question now is whether a $17,000 Apple Watch Edition, outfitted with an 18-karat gold case and leather band—and sprinkled with magical Jony Ive design dust—can tempt this sort of buyer. And what about the stainless steel Apple Watch, with prices ranging from $549 to $1,099—can it lure people who otherwise might have bought a comparably priced Seiko or TAG?

The clear comparative advantage of a smartwatch is functionality. The Apple Watch lets you make and receive freaking phone calls. Your Rolex doesn’t do that. But it’s been a while since functionality was the reason anyone bought a mechanical watch—meaning one that uses a spring and gears, as high-end luxury watches do, instead of a cheaper quartz crystal. For one thing, the crystal is more accurate. Did you know that a $75 quartz Swatch will keep more accurate time than a $5,000 mechanical watch ever could?

And no one buys cheap dumbwatches merely for their functionality anymore, either—aside from a few specific cases, like a runner who buys a Timex digital because he doesn’t want a phone jouncing in his pocket. If the need is a device that lets us keep track of time, set alarms, and make sure we don’t overcook our pasta, well, these days we all have cellphones for that.

I’ve never bought a Rolex. But as I see it, the main reasons to buy one are:

  1. You want people to know you’re rich enough to afford a Rolex.
  2. You appreciate the brand’s noble century of tradition, and its place of honor on the wrists of various famous people through the decades. You want to be a part of that.
  3. You are tickled by the notion of wearing a perfect little machine on your wrist—teensy gears, and a tiny spring that if well cared for will still oscillate when you hand off the watch to your granddaughter 60 years hence. You hanker for, as legendary watch executive Jean-Claude Biver has described it, “eternity in a box.”

So how does Apple’s top-end product compare to Rolex on these axes?  

  1. Those in the know will clock the golden hue of your Edition and will be hip to its price tag. It will be thus be impressed upon them that you are rich. Mission accomplished.
  2. I guess some people venerate Apple’s place in history the way others venerate Rolex’s. But it’s not like Pablo Picasso and Martin Luther King wore the Apple Watch. These days, in particular, wearing a mechanical watch has become a statement about the buyer’s appreciation for classics. Wearing a spanking new space-age Edition doesn’t tick quite the same box.
  3. There are those who worship at the temple of Apple design. They will no doubt be early buyers of the Apple Watch out of sheer admiration for its sleekness and utility. Wearing it will let them signal their affinity for Apple’s aesthetics. But that’s a very different impulse, I think, from yearning to watch the gears spin through the window on your watch. Digital and analog wonderment are not the same. And it’s no small thing that digital technology becomes obsolete. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the use of precious metals will make all the difference, but it’s hard to imagine stylish people slobbering over vintage Apple Watches in 2065 the way those people now slobber over a 50-year-old Rolex. Tell me, how much did you get on eBay for your first-generation iPhone?

In sum, don’t expect someone who’d buy a $14,000 Rolex, or a $17,000 Audemars Piguet, to be dissuaded from that purchase just because the Apple Watch Edition is now on the scene. If anything, Apple’s arrival might be accretive. For instance, my impression is that most women are left sort of cold by expensive mechanical watches (the kind where the point is that they have complexly engineered guts), but I could imagine rich women who are addicted to their iPhones falling in love with both the look and the functionality of, say, the 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition with the bright red leather band. A lot will depend on whether she feels comfortable talking to her wrist in public. But people in this stratosphere of wealth can afford his and hers luxury watches—maybe Rolex for him and Apple for her. Or haute de gamme watches and Apple Watches for both.

As for slightly less expensive watch brands, some might be in profound trouble. Imagine a young, up-and-coming professional—the kind of person who might stretch to buy a Tudor for a few thousand dollars, or an entry-level TAG Heuer for $900. Will he consider that hard-earned cash better spent on an of-the-moment, super-functional Apple Watch? Is that a more potent status symbol for his crowd? If so, a brand like Citizen or Seiko selling watches in the $500 range should be positively terrified.

Back in September, the aforementioned Jean-Claude Biver (the head of the watch division at LVMH, which includes brands like Hublot and TAG Heuer) gave an interview to Forbes in which he pooh-poohed the coming Apple Watch. Biver said that on first look Apple’s watch “lacks soul” and is “not sexy at all.” He said he “wouldn’t call it a watch” but rather an “information tool to be worn on the wrist.” Biver concluded by declaring “at present, the Apple Watch cannot compete at all with European watches.”

A few months later, in December, after he’d also become interim CEO of TAG and perhaps gotten a clearer look at the writing on the wall, Biver announced plans for a TAG smartwatch. Around the same time, Movado hired Jo An Lawson, formerly of Apple, as its general manager of wearable devices. Montblanc stuck an ugly digital device into its watch straps. And the co-inventor of the Swatch said, “Anything in the price range of 500 francs to 1,000 francs is really in danger.”

The very bad news for these companies is that in terms of aesthetics, Apple seems to have knocked it out of the park. Benjamin Clymer, founder of the influential watch publication Hodinkee, writes “The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything—digital or analog—in the watch space at $350. There is nothing that comes close to the fluidity, attention to detail, or simple build quality found on the Apple Watch in this price bracket.” We’re talking physical stuff here, not just the amazing software. Clymer was especially impressed with Apple’s straps and bands. He raved, for instance, over the meshy, metallic “Milanese loop” option, which makes it look like you’ve got a watchband made of chainmail.

Still, Clymer thinks there’s a silver lining for the watch industry. He says there are “millions of us who would never trade a Rolex in for an Apple.” He says the old kind of watches “are so timeless, so lasting, so personal.”

I myself sometimes wear a Seiko 5 automatic, even though it’s a $70 analog watch with a fabric strap and it only tracks the date and time. Why do I (and many others) love this watch? Because I cherish the idea that, for less than $100, I can strap a whirring precision device onto my wrist, packed with gears and wheels and a pivoting rotor. Did I mention it’s self-winding, powered solely by the motion of my arm? It’s so simple yet so astonishingly complex. How cool is that?

Cooler than an Apple Watch, in some ways. Not nearly as cool as an Apple Watch in lots of other ways. My Seiko 5 won’t take photos, measure my heartbeat, or let me check Facebook. But those aren’t the only things that make me tick.