The digital transformation of watchmaking


Mechanical smartwatches

CONNECTION

July 2018


X-One and Frédérique Constant both recently presented mechanical smartwatches.

In rapid succession, starting with an advance announcement, the start-up X-One and Frédérique Constant both recently presented mechanical smartwatches. A new and important stage in the hybridisation of watches has been attained. Here is the background.

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ou’re familiar with the purely digital watch – or “smartphone for the wrist”, the undisputed leader today being the Apple Watch. And of course you’ve heard of the TAG Heuer Connected. You are also acquainted with Internet-enabled quartz watches, such as the Horological Smartwatches from Frédérique Constant. Well, here is the latest step: the mechanical smartwatch. The “sanctum” of horology now exists in a hybrid form, coupled with a phone. And quite naturally, the announcement was made in the United States – by Swiss watchmakers.

The quickest on the draw were the newcomers at X-One –although they are not as new as all that, since this start-up includes some veterans of the Swiss watchmaking industry. The designer is Pierre-André Finazzi, who has worked for names such as Ebel, Corum, Piaget, Arnold & Son, Graham, as well as Montblanc (among other things, he designed the forms of the Meisterstück Sport). Guaranteeing the mechanical integrity of the project is the experienced Jean-François Mojon from Chronode. And representing the new, “connected" generation is Douglas Finazzi, the son of Pierre-André, who is in charge of the business side of X-One.

The trio began communicating on their product in December of last year, before launching a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter that raised more than 100,000 dollars. They showcased the X-One H1 at the CES in Las Vegas, the most important get-together of the year for new technologies. The market launch is scheduled for October. Europa Star met Pierre-André Finazzi, who came along to talk about the watch.

Then in February, on the East Coast of the United States, in New York, Frédérique Constant presented the “natural” evolution of his quartz Horological Smartwatch: the mechanical Hybrid Manufacture. This is being introduced as the first connected “manufacture” watch or “3.0 watch”, since the title of “first mechanical smartwatch” had already been claimed. It took several years to develop. Again, Europa Star gained access to this innovation that was presented at Baselworld and the CoutureTime trade show in Las Vegas, among others.

But beyond the semantics, what distinguishes these two models from one another?

The all-mechanical smartwatch does not yet exist...

But there is an important nuance. In addition to the automatic calibre, the watch is also equipped with an electronic module composed of modular micro-motors – requiring regular recharging – that provide its basic power. In other words, the mechanical calibre does not power the smart modules.

“Our module has a power reserve of one week and takes one hour to recharge. At the moment it’s hardly feasible to have a purely mechanical watch (without a battery) that would power smart features,” explains Pierre-André Finazzi. So the final frontier – that of the entirely mechanical smartwatch – has not yet been crossed! The mechanical technology provides the time, the electronics the data – but ne’er the twain do meet, for the time being.

The Swiss response to the American smartwatch

So what is the objective of the entrepreneurs at X-One? The designer goes on: “We want to reproduce the spirit of the Swiss response to the Japanese during the quartz crisis. At the time, the Swiss produced a number of revolutionary responses based on the Swatch: technological innovation, with a case back that served as the base plate, innovation in terms of materials with the use of plastic and, above all, outstanding value for money.” So, the idea is to be the Swiss response to the American smartwatch…

Douglas Finazzi, responsable for business and product développement at X-One, and his father, Pierre-André Finazzi, responsable for design
Douglas Finazzi, responsable for business and product développement at X-One, and his father, Pierre-André Finazzi, responsable for design

We want to reproduce the spirit of the Swiss response to the Japanese during the quartz crisis.

A vast project! But the entrepreneur is confident: “Switzerland holds unique know-how when it comes to mechanical watches. The digital revolution is happening. We want to marry this revolution with our centuries-old savoir-faire. Today, digitalisation is helping raise the performance of mechanical movements thanks to additional modules. So our watch still looks like a traditional, mechanical Swiss watch, but it’s smart. It’s a durable product, of high quality and affordable."

Notifications: what no smartwatch should be without?

Unlike the features offered by the Frédérique Constant watch, which are basically tracking features (activity, sleep, sport), the initiators of the X-One also want to build into their mechanical offering what is probably the most sought-after feature in smartwatches – the famous notifications.

So how does that actually work? Notifications cause the watch to vibrate. When a call or a text message comes in, the hand moves to the pre-defined figure corresponding to the person who is calling or texting.

MyKronoz ZeTime
MyKronoz ZeTime

One fundamentally important question has yet to be dealt with: how to marry a durable mechanical movement with the more fleeting functions of a smartwatch? In short, what evolutionary capacity does the watch have? “We’re responding to that with the patent we’ve filed for a plug-in module that will let us update features regularly,” explains Pierre-André Finazzi. “Users will send in their watch periodically and we’ll replace the module. After all, Tesla uses a similar system with a plug-in update!”

One fundamentally important question has yet to be dealt with: how to marry a durable mechanical movement with the more fleeting functions of a smartwatch? In short, what evolutionary capacity does the watch have?

The watchmaker compares it to the automotive industry: “Hybridisation is already widely practised in the automotive industry: it makes it possible to optimise the performance and raise the value and functionality of a mechanical object at minimum cost. We want to do the same thing for watches”. Not surprisingly, behind the development of the electronic module is EPFL technical university in Lausanne, in return for a grant from the Swiss innovation agency, CTI. The company VNS, founded by Fabien Zennaro in La Chaux-de-Fonds, developed the software. This was part of the entrepreneurs’ desire to work with local industry.

Mechanical smartwatches

Frédérique Constant Hybrid Manufacture

This is the mechanical smartwatch that occupied centre-stage during the first six months of this year. The Hybrid Manufacture comprises an automatic calibre and an Internet-enabled electronics system with functions geared to monitoring sleep and activity and managing the precision of the actual watch. This electronic system is autonomous thanks to a battery that recharges by induction. The movement and modules are supplied by MMT, a company founded by Peter Stas following the acquisition of Frédérique Constant by Citizen.

The idea is also to associate the best of traditional mechanical Swiss watchmaking, which is all about the long term, with the new, smart technologies that play such a predominant role in everyday life. And to set the parameters. Compared with the X-One H1, the Frédérique Constant Hybrid Manufacture has a less sporty look; rather one of great formal elegance. As our fellow journalist Stephen Pulvirent at Hodinkee wryly remarks, it is a “smartwatch for people who hate smartwatches”!

Other players are lining up

X-One and Frédérique Constant are not the only ones to be taking an interest in this promising new segment of mechanical smartwatches.

For example, the start-up Sequent raised more than a million dollars on Kickstarter for their self-recharging smartwatch solution based on kinetics. The Supercharger system functions without batteries!

As for the brand MyKronoz, they have merged a tactile screen and mechanical hands in a model baptised ZeTime. Last year, they achieved the feat of raising more than 5.3 million francs through the inevitable crowdfunding and say they have already sold more than 2 million models since its creation.

Developing a whole new segment

But behind the effervescent creativity among both engineers and designers, a genuine market has yet to be developed for mechanical smartwatches. This is still in its infancy. The question is: how to create a viable ecosystem? Will these hybrid models, of uncertain identity, interest sufficient numbers when in every other respect people are returning to the purely mechanical watch with an added vintage touch or, inversely, seeking total connectivity within the ecosystem as it currently stands and a brand with which they are already very familiar, via the Apple Watch?

But behind the effervescent creativity among both engineers and designers, a genuine market has yet to be developed for mechanical smartwatches. This is still in its infancy.

Will a new market come into being, just as the smartwatch market, which had been stagnating, really came into being with the Apple Watch? And who will provide the impetus? “In one way, the presence of watchmakers who are well-established in the smartwatch niche, such as Frédérique Constant or TAG Heuer, will help build this product typology,” Pierre-André Finazzi hopes. No doubt about it, this is just the start of the long march to horological hybridisation.