By the end of the decade, smartwatches from Apple Inc. and others might elicit guffaws rather than envy. At least that’s the view of Montblanc’s Alexander Schmiedt, who’s developed an electronic watchband for Swiss luxury timepieces that tracks steps, reads emails and even helps take selfies.
The speed at which gadgets evolve poses a design challenge to the four-century-old Swiss watchmaking industry, Schmiedt, Montblanc’s managing director for watches, said in an interview. High-end wristwatches are made to last, while electronic devices become disposable within years, as seen in the demise of the 1980s calculator watch.
“Our products should have very long life cycles,” Schmiedt said at Montblanc’s watch factory, housed in an Art Nouveau villa in the rural Swiss town of Le Locle. “In modern technologies the life cycle is exactly the opposite. It may be the hottest thing today, and in one year it’s already outdated, and in two years you’re made fun of for still using it.”
Montblanc, owned by South African billionaire Johann Rupert’s Richemont, has created a luxury item with high-tech appeal by putting the electronics in the watchband rather than the timepiece. Montblanc’s $390 “e-Strap” goes on sale next month and accompanies its TimeWalker watches, which cost $3,700 to $5,800. Richemont will probably only embed technology in watchbands, Rupert said on a conference call about full-year earnings announced Friday.
Rupert owns almost every product Apple Inc. has made and was the first agent selling Apple devices in South Africa decades ago, he said.
“I love Apple, but just when I’ve gone and set everything up for an iPhone 5, the iPhone 6 is coming out and the cords change,” he said. “That is not to say the Apple Watch is not a great product. I predict it will do very well, but I don’t think that customers are going to be ecstatic to throw away watches in one to two years when the technology is obsolete.”
The device is the first luxury Swiss product to directly compete with the Apple Watch, which costs $349 for the most basic version and $17,000 for an 18-karat gold model. The e-Strap and compatible timepieces will appear in Montblanc boutiques and retailers such as Bloomingdale’s in the U.S.
“The pricing is reasonable,” said Patrik Schwendimann, an analyst at Zuercher Kantonalbank. “If it turns out to be just a fad, at least the consumer still has a nice, normal watch they can continue to wear.”
The e-Strap consists of a stainless steel display attached via a leather strap and designed to be on the backside of the wrist when the watch is on the front. A two-line touchscreen displays e-mails when they arrive.
When connected to a smartphone, Montblanc’s device can select songs and jump through playlists. It has an activity tracker that allows users to set targets for calories burned and steps taken. The e-Strap can also trigger the phone’s camera, facilitating easier “selfie” shots and group photos.
The watchband is compatible with phones from Samsung, Apple and others. The e-Strap also has a function to help the wearer find the watch or smartphone as long as they’re in a 30-meter (98-foot) range. It needs a recharge every five days.
While it does make a Swiss watch smart, the e-Strap isn’t flawless, according to Mario Ortelli, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in London.
“There are also disadvantages: fewer functionalities, smaller screen, less integration with other devices,” he said, although those issues will probably be addressed. “It will probably evolve significantly in the future.”
Swiss smartwatches are on the way, with LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE’s $1,400 TAG Heuer smartwatch slated to reach consumers this year. Swatch will introduce a New Gent timepiece with mobile payment functions for less than $100 by August. IWC Schaffhausen -- another brand owned by Richemont, whose full name is Cie. Financiere Richemont SA -- also plans an intelligent watchband.
Schmiedt has said he hopes the Apple Watch will succeed because it boosts consumer interest in timepieces. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.
A second-generation e-Strap could include GPS functions, more elaborate activity-tracking and a more interactive touch screen, Schmiedt said. Montblanc will provide free software updates for at least two years.
With a flick of the wrist, the e-Strap can disappear to the other side of the cuff, keeping it discrete, the executive said: “They can decide when and how to use it, instead of it always being in their face.”