here have been a large number of blockchain initiatives in recent years, some of which have been adopted by watch brands. The problem is that they’re selling us a fax in the internet age.” Vincent Perriard is very sceptical about the proclaimed inviolability of current digital watch authentication solutions.
The former boss of watch brands HYT, TechnoMarine and Concord has just co-founded Origyn with two partners: Gian Bochsler, a Swiss entrepreneur active in fintech and cryptocurrencies, founder of Archery Blockchain; and Mike Schwartz, former head of Digital Ventures at Boston Consulting Group.
“Blockchain is good. But as it stands, they’re selling us a fax machine in the internet age.”
While he recognises that blockchain – or, put more broadly, the decentralisation of data – is the key to the future, Vincent Perriard believes that current concepts do not go far enough to tackle counterfeiting: “These solutions do not allow for the complete security of original data, because they are still based on certain physical elements. The only really effective method is biometrics, thanks to the advanced photographic sensors on today’s smartphones.”
- A smartphone application makes it possible to take a photo of a timepiece (or any physical object) in order to identify and authenticate it, and to establish its provenance, origin and owner.
The power of the pixel
Biometric recognition initiatives have been launched in the past, but they have failed. Nevertheless, the technological environment has changed, with the ubiquity of smartphones, very high resolution photography apps, artificial intelligence and machine learning. But the most crucial development is the emergence of a new generation of decentralised public internet, the “Internet Computer” (on which the Origyn protocol is built), which can store a digital clone of any registered watch.
Vincent Perriard describes his solution as the Shazam of watchmaking, after the popular music recognition app: “All you have to do is take a photo of the watch with your smartphone to see immediately whether it is an original or a counterfeit.”
“No single screw is exactly the same as another. A photograph will be able to recognise 1,000 totally unique features on each watch model, even if it’s mass-produced.”
Almost everyone now has a biometric passport, but what is a “biometric watch”? The identification of each timepiece is performed on an infinitely small scale; the photograph acts as a microscopic scanner, recognising variations on models that seem absolutely identical to the naked eye. “The materials are alive. No hand, no screw is exactly the same as another. A photograph will be able to recognise 1,000 totally unique features on each watch model, even if it’s mass-produced,” explains Vincent Perriard.
Any smartphone equipped with the Origyn app can identify a watch by taking a photo of it, with the timepiece acting as its own barcode, providing valuable information including serial number, manufacturer, date of creation and transaction records.
- Gian Bochsler is a Swiss entrepreneur active in fintech. In 2014 he founded Bity.com, before joining Dfinity two years later, a blockchain-based cloud computing company whose aim is to develop the decentralised “Internet Computer”. He also created the Archery Blockchain fund.
A fantasy come true?
According to Vincent Perriard, this entirely dematerialised form of data storage is the Holy Grail to which watch brands aspire. “They have been looking for solutions to counterfeiting for a long time. The strong growth of the second-hand market is also making authentication problems ever more acute.”
But how can this authentication process be combined with data protection, a highly sensitive issue? “The protocol will apply what the brands decide,” Vincent Perriard replies. “From a technological point of view, anything is possible. But we are well aware that the customers want maximum protection and, above all, control over their data. So, we are currently seeing how each brand handles this issue today, and the protocol will follow the same trend.”
He adds: “For example, it is not at all compulsory to include the owner’s name in the protocol. The fact that the system recognises the watch as original, with its date of assembly and serial number, is in itself already essential information, without necessarily having to give the owner’s name. Once again, technology opens all the doors but it is up to the watchmakers to decide what is relevant and what is not.”
Origyn’s activities will take place not within a limited company, but as a non-profit foundation registered in Switzerland. Operations are scheduled to start in the second half of 2021. “The technology works, our team is tackling the ergonomics of an intuitive application for the user. The biggest challenge now is to succeed in bringing together the different watch brands and players around the same platform – hence the choice of an impartial structure,” Vincent Perriard points out.
Vincent Perriard describes his solution as the Shazam of watchmaking, after the popular music recognition app.
A unique system of governance will be put in place within the foundation: the watch brands themselves, as members of the foundation, will have access to at least 50% of the voting rights, according to a weighting system based on their financial status; the remaining 50% will be allocated via “tokens” to any potential shareholder.
“The gradual scarcity of available tokens will increase their value,” says Vincent Perriard. For the time being, the three co-founders, who met at a World Economic Forum session on virtual currencies, are financing the activities of the team setting up the Orygin protocol, comprising some fifteen people, out of their own pockets. The head office is located in Neuchâtel and an R&D structure has been set up in California, in Silicon Valley.
- Vincent Perriard is a brand strategy specialist in the luxury sector. During his career in the watch industry, he has been CEO of HYT, Concord and TechnoMarine, and has held various positions at Audemars Piguet and Swatch Group.
From authentication to client relations
At the table, we find a financier with excellent knowledge of virtual currency projects, a specialist in watchmaking issues and an expert in algorithms and artificial recognition. “It was natural to start with an application in watchmaking, but one can only imagine the potential of Origyn for other industries where authentication is as important, such as leather goods,” adds Vincent Perriard.
The start-up’s field of action goes far beyond the issue of counterfeiting alone. “Our technology makes it possible to put people who don’t necessarily talk to each other today in direct contact; for example, a watchmaker with the owner of one of their models, recent or old, anywhere in the world. In addition to authentication, we can imagine creating interactions that make it possible to track a watch as it passes through after-sales service, to add additional information, and even to report a timepiece’s theft or loss. There are no limits to what we can do.”
Any smartphone equipped with the Origyn application can identify a watch by taking a picture of it. The timepiece acts as its own “barcode”, providing valuable information.
In an age of direct-to-consumer marketing, brands dream of getting their hands on customer data. Vincent Perriard defends the advantages of this “virtuous system”: watch companies have access to their end clients; customers benefit from the authentication of their watches; and even second-hand watch sales platforms would be able to obtain certifications from the brands themselves (currently, most of these sites carry out their own certification, not approved by the brands). This, however, would rely on all these different players in the global watch ecosystem agreeing to rally around the same solution.
With the emergence of a start-up like Origyn, which joins a cohort of innovative solutions that appeared in 2020, we can see that the pandemic crisis is as creative of resilient proposals as it has been destructive to trade. While the technology seems to be on point, its fate will ultimately depend on the willingness of the major decision-makers in the watchmaking ecosystem to stand united in the face of the crisis. This principle is as valid for this start-up as it is for all “unifying” initiatives in the making.
- Mike Schwartz is a pioneer of the decentralised Internet Computer Protocol (ICP). He is one of the founders of 55 Foundry, and led the Digital Ventures division of Boston Consulting Group in Asia.
ORIGYN: HOW DOES IT WORK?
- Through specific tools and a dedicated interface, a manufacturer or authorised agent “mints” each luxury product at its birth. Manufacturers (and in the future also certified pre-owned retailers) are established as the authority of provenance and authenticity by possessing the exclusive ability to generate a product’s unique digital twin – i.e. a digital certificate – that can also guarantee title to a product by irrefutably binding its owner to this tamperproof, uncounterfeitable digital twin.
- Such digital certificates are transferable from manufacturer to boutique to consumer; and from consumer to consumer, notarising the exact lineage and history of a product.
- Anyone can authenticate a watch directly, using no more than a smartphone and the Origyn software, ‘skinned’ (branded or personalised) by participating industry stakeholders, without any barcodes, microchips, engraving or other proxy.
- The Origyn protocol leverages cryptography and a combination of hybrid technologies (AI + Machine Learning) in watch recognition which prove the watch’s authenticity and guarantee irrevocability, incorruptibility and transparency of information.
- From the Internet 1.0 of the 1990s to the Internet Computer of the 2020s (source: Origyn)