How a Million-Dollar Superwatch Is Fighting Back Against Computing

A Swiss watchmaker recently announced a remarkable mechanical movement with 23 complications. The mechanism contains 514 components but measures less than 9mm thick. In addition to such picayune matters as the perpetual date, the device is geared to track, in part: the Earth’s elliptical orbit, solar time, the zodiac, solstices and equinoxes, tide levels, the position of the sun, and the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Dubbed Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, it is encased in 18 karat gold, and can be had for a cool $1 million.

It’s easy to sneer at such preposterous ostentation: a couple free smartphone apps can do all that astronomy, and more accurately too. But the Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication still does something digital devices cannot: provide delight via mechanics rather than integrated circuits. And it’s alone in that spectacle. Today, the watch has become the final resistance against the supremacy of computers.

When smartwatches appeared, some predicted they would mark the final chapter of wristwatches. To some extent, wrist computers from Apple, Samsung, Fitbit and others have displaced consumer purchases of timepieces. But the person who spends hundreds of dollars on smartwatches might not have been interested in doing the same on fine watches anyway.

The quartz disruption was largely internal, largely invisible to the user. Whether quartz or mechanical, watches still did one thing: tell the time whilst wrapped around a wrist.

This time, the watch market is changing in response to multiple factors. In part, the luxury industry has lost control over their tight distribution channels. There’s been a rise in sales among smaller manufacturers. These companies sell direct or via distribution, spurning the tightly-controlled retail jewelry channels traditional to high-end watches. They range from new, luxury watchmakers that sell exclusively online, to discount manufacturers with more modern design sensibilities, to so-called “microbrands,” often individual makers funding projects on Kickstarter or marketing them through horology enthusiast websites. Even Vacheron Constantin is trying to lure millennials by selling $45,000 timepieces online.

Some Swiss makers, including TAG Heuer, Alpina, and Frederique Constant, have introduced “horological smartwatches,” Swiss-luxury timepieces with hidden, digital features. These devices have helped keep sales flat, at least, compared to some brands. But ironically, the smart-device revolution that seemed certain to doom wristwatches altogether, no matter their movements, instead seems to be inspiring a revival of traditionalism rather than an embrace of hybridization. The variety and affordability of timepieces—including fully-mechanical ones in the spirit of that million-dollar Celestia Astronomica—are greater than ever.

Source: The Atlantic

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