“#1 watch in the world.” That’s how Tim Cook opened the Apple Watch portion of the September 2018 Apple Keynote. At 2017’s Keynote, Cook explicitly mentioned that Apple was actually the largest watch brand in terms of revenue – not just units sold – surely sending chills down the spines of Rolex and other Swiss watch execs in the old boys club.
What Even Is a Watch?
Since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and became the most ubiquitous product since the Furby, there’s been a common chorus: “why do I need a watch, my phone tells time just fine?” There’s some truth to this sentiment: if we were really wearing watches primarily for their functionality, we’d all be wearing minimalist, time-only, quartz-powered pieces that cost a couple bucks to manufacture in China (oh wait, there’s one company that built a nice business selling just that, and another that was just acquired for some $100 million). But the truth is we wear watches for a variety of reasons: what they say about us (e.g. wearing a Daniel Wellington says something like “I’m a minimally aware millenial that makes most of my purchasing decisions so that I look more like a well-crafted Instagram post”), an aesthetic we’re trying to communicate to others, or an appreciation for the movement and craftsmanship that goes into a well-made mechanical piece. A watch is so much more than its functionality; it’s an item we wear daily that subtly communicates status and taste. In the old days, people bought divers to be like Cousteau, Daytonas to look like Newman, Explorers to feel like Hillary.
But in a modern world increasingly defined by the “consumerist church” of SoulCycle and Lululemon, spending time and money on your own health and fitness is the most ostentatious display of wealth. Instead of wanting to be divers, drivers or climbers, we simply want to get a bike for the 8 a.m. SoulCycle, with a watch to match that lifestyle.
Apple Watch: Flawed Genius
Any watch collector will tell you: “90% (or some arbitrary, but high percentage) of a vintage watch’s value is in the dial.” Is it an original dial? How’s the patina? This is the crux of the problem for the Apple Watch: the attribute that most limits its functionality and elegance is the lack of an always-on dial. If you’re in a meeting, you have to deliberately turn your wrist towards you to wake the screen. But by then, your boss is looking at you with that “oh is this fucking boring to you?” face.
And we can’t yet have an always on dial because of battery-life limitations. Further, there is an old-world charm to having something on your wrist that doesn’t require a battery, that relies on mechanical power alone (like the good old days!). In a world where we feel little connection to our electronics products – manufactured in a Chinese factory thousands of miles away – you can almost feel the master watchmaker toiling away on the hundreds of tiny pieces inside your mechanical watch, made to last for hundreds of years, and not until the next upgrade cycle.
Perhaps more than anyone, Apple’s designers understand the appeal of a watch. Jony Ive is a watch guy. Steve Jobs was intrigued by Patek Phillipe. In fact, the Apple Watch does contain many subtle nods to haute horology: one of my favorite is the smooth-moving seconds hand, emblematic of a mechanical watch (as opposed to the jumping seconds hand of a quartz watch). Even referring to the buttons on your Apple Watch screen as “complications” is a fun nod to horology. Ives has claimed an affection for the Patek Phillipe’s luxury sportswatch, the Nautilus; perhaps coincidentally, many of the Apple Watch’s faces mimic the hands of a Nautilus (which itself imitates the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak). And honestly, this homage makes sense. To me, the Apple Watch plays the role of “sports watch” in my rotation. I wear it to the gym (wear it has complications no $30,000 watch can match), or out when I know I’ll be having a particularly active day.
On another note, the Apple Watch re-introduced me to the idea of wrist-as-retail space. I wasn’t wearing a watch everyday until I finally bought a Series 3. Not long after, I had re-immersed myself into the world of mechanical watches. I can’t imagine I’m the only person under the age of 40 for whom this is the case. All we’ve known is a world dominated by battery-powered commodity watches; for some reason, the Apple Watch made me realize that a watch could be something more.
Health: The New Grand Complication
Which brings us to the Apple Watch. While the first three series of the Watch seemed to wander through the abyss looking for an actual purpose, the Apple Watch Series 4 has finally found its true calling: health and fitness. In 2014, Apple introduced the Watch by highlighting its various functionalities, without focus on any particular one. Four years later, Apple’s focus is decidedly on the Watch’s fitness capabilities (just look at the main page for Apple Watch). Additionally, Apple has clearly been putting its R&D money where its marketing mouth is: two of the Watch’s biggest technological leaps – the ECG and fall detection – are health focused.
In a world where watches tell the world (and ourselves) what type of life we lead, wearing an Apple Watch says something like “I can afford to spend $35 on a SoulCycle class; yes, that’s why I look so damn good in these $110 yoga pants”. And if it’s good enough for Kobe to wear to the Oscars, shouldn’t it be good enough for you? As Kanye himself recently rapped “hospital band a hundred bands, fuck a watch”. This from a guy whose 2011 album Watch the Throne is dripping with references to Hublot, Audemars Piguet and Rolex (mostly from noted watch aficionado Jay-Z, granted).
Taking care of one’s self is the newest status symbol, and the Apple Watch might just be the best way to communicate to others that you live a life worthy of such status. Sure, Apple has always made beautifully designed, elegant products – and the Apple Watch is now designed about as good as it can be – but much of an Apple product’s value is also tied up in the intangible status one gains by owning an Apple product. Usually, it’s a symbol that you own the nicest product in that given category (as John Gruber deftly put it in his review). The Apple Watch though, is something slightly different: it’s a symbol that you’re living the nicest life possible. You’ve got time and money to spend on your own health and fitness, which, in the end, is the ultimate luxury. Yes, more than that New Patek, Mr. Uzi Vert.
So yes, an Apple Watch might technically not be a watch. Call it a small computer on your wrist or whatever. But you’re not wearing that $200,000 Patek just to tell time either (look at you, Uzi).