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Fairground Advances

Smart innovations from this year’s international watch fairs at Geneva and Basel

The mechanical watch once faced a life-and-death challenge in the shape of the quartz watch. Against a high tech foe that offered greater precision, lower prices, and a hardier constitution (at the very least, for the lack of tiny, delicately poised moving parts), the mechanical watch prevailed despite the odds against it, and has since carved for itself a definite space in how “well dressed” is defined.

Four decades on, a new challenger has surfaced that threatens to damn the wristwatch into obsolescence, mechanical and quartz alike: a new generation of all-singing, all-dancing smart watches, most visibly fronted by the Apple Watch. Even for those who think a mechanical watch and an electronic smartwatch should not be weighed on the same scale, the way Apple revolutionised the smartphone as a then-outsider is not lost on punters.

It’s anyone’s guess if this will happen in the watch industry. But going by the notable innovations unveiled at this year’s watch fairs in Basel and Geneva, the industry is gearing up for the challenge.

Old School, New Ideas

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Industry stalwart Rolex takes fundamentally important steps to bolster the bulletproof build quality of its timepieces. This year, the most interesting piece of news to come out of the manufacture has to be the self-winding Calibre 3255. Debuting at BaselWord 2015, it is a major revision comprising more than 90 per cent new components, and boasting 70 hours of power reserve and twice the precision of a COSC-certified chronometer, deviating between -2 and +2 seconds a day (COSC requirement is -4/+6 seconds variation in daily rate).

This has been achieved by measures including thinning the walls of the barrel to fit a larger mainspring and modifying the geometry of the escapement. Besides enhanced resistance to magnetic fields and shock, and greater winding efficiency, Rolex has also engineered out the traditional grouses of living with mechanical movements: the date can be set on the Calibre 3255 at any hour without risk of damaging the movement and the time can be set precisely without play in the hands.

Eschewing radical designs and ideas, but achieving significant performance gains through targeted improvements of the traditional escapement and movement, Rolex takes the purist’s approach to making a very strong case for the mechanical watch. At present, the Calibre 3255 equips the new Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 40, in 40-mm cases of white gold, Everose gold, platinum and yellow gold.

Bio Control

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There isn’t a LCD screen with changeable wallpapers in sight. Indeed, the Helvetica No.1 Smart from Mondaine, most noted for its watch collections based on the design of the Swiss railways clock, looks just like a workday watch: elegant, discreet, practical, telling time with clarity without calling undue attention to itself. Yet it’s a connected smartwatch and one that aims to impact your daily routine more deeply than the most engaging smartphone game download.

At 6 o’clock, the subdial is neither a running seconds or GMT display. Instead the two hands display the date and percentage of physical activity achieved (walking steps) as defined by the wearer for the day. An app on smartphone or tablet completes the circuit, compiling, charting and even storing statistics on the cloud. These relate to physical activity and very detailed sleep information—duration, deep sleep, light sleep, number of times woken up in the night—with alarms and adaptive coaching thrown in, all to nudge the wearer towards achieving the optimal balance of activity and quality rest.

The know-how is based on MotionX technology that was formulated through years of research and development analysing some 100 million nights of sleep patterns. The Helvetica No.1 Smart is among the first wristwatches to utilise this technology. (Frederique Constant and Alpina have also released products based on this technology.) In brushed matte steel case, the Helvetica No.1 Smart has a battery life in excess of two years.

At Arm’s Length

The advantages offered by smart/connected watches are compelling and will get even more so as the technology matures. But there is a point in the evolution of the watch beyond which it can no longer be considered a mechanical wristwatch. With this fork in the path comes the loss of the very factors that attract wearers to mechanical timepieces in the first place.

Montblanc’s proposal is not a hybrid of any sort, but a digital sensor/display module that’s cradled within a NATO-like pass-through strap. In a 9-mm thick stainless steel case with DLC coating and a 0.9-inch monochrome OLED touch display, Montblanc’s e-Strap is a relatively unobtrusive accessory for its host timepiece, the TimeWalker Urban Speed Chronograph. The latter is a bona fide mechanical chronograph in 43-mm micro-blasted steel case with ceramic bezel and which can be worn with a conventional strap. With the e-Strap however, wearers can view notifications beamed from their mobile phones via Bluetooth Low Energy, including incoming calls, messages, emails and social media. There’s also a basic activity tracker that works like a pedometer, monitoring the number of steps the wearer has walked and calories burned, with statistics viewable on the mobile phone. Armed with a five-day battery life, the e-Strap also has limited remote controls on the phone, such as playing music and triggering the camera.

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