Ian Parker has a magisterial profile of Apple design chief Jonny Ive in the current issue of the New Yorker that's largely built around the forthcoming Apple Watch. But it also contains a fascinating tidbit about what really scares the Switzerland-based luxury watch industry. It has nothing to do with Apple or gadgets at all:
Sebastian Vivas, the director of a watch museum maintained by Audemars Piguet, the Swiss manufacturer, recently described his industry as unperturbed by Apple's plans: "We're not afraid; we're just a little bit smiling." It would be a greater threat, he told me, if men widely accepted that they could wear gemstones without a time-keeping pretext.
While watches have always been accessories, once upon a time they really were about timekeeping. A really good watch was, fundamentally, a watch that was really good at keeping time.
But starting in the 1980s, the combination of quartz and microprocessors turned extremely accurate timekeeping into a totally trivial task. That could have destroyed the high-end watch industry. But the industry survived by essentially reconceptualizing itself as jewelry.
In particular, watches serve as a form of jewelry that fits within conventional social ideas about masculinity. But fashion is fickle and gender norms change over time. Vivas' view is that the real threat to the watch industry isn't that some new product will "disrupt" it, it's that different ideas about masculinity might render the watchmakers' expertise at building mechanical timepieces entirely irrelevant.