UAE salivates as Swiss race for ‘smart bling’ chasing Apple Watch

Automatic dial mechanisms for luxury wristwatches sit ready for assembly by hand at the Montblanc luxury watch factory in Le Locle, Switzerland. Montblanc, owned by South African billionaire Johann Rupert's Richemont, has created a luxury item with high-tech appeal by putting the electronics in the watchband rather than the timepiece. Photographer: Philipp Schmidli/Bloomberg

It is no big secret that the UAE has a love affair with the watch, writes Scott Armstrong, the more expensive the better.

So much so that when UK comedian Michael McIntyre played in Dubai last month he poked fun at Dubai’s bling culture, painting the picture of the man falling out of his Lamborghini being dragged to the earth by the weight of his massive watch.

And, it is also fair to say that your average UAE consumer loves a gadget, and so begins the battle for ‘smart bling’, with the Apple Watch much coveted.

So what happens when you cross ‘latest’ with ‘luxury’? A world away from the deserts of the UAE, in the mountains of Switzerland there is a race going on that’s sure to interest more than a few shoppers here.

Swiss watch shops will be stocked with a whole new range of smart watches in coming weeks as producers look to combat Apple to get a lead in Switzerland, the home of brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe.

Montblanc showcased last month an “e-Strap,” which can make a watch receive emails and control music playlists, . The device, which is clipped into the band of a watch, that should already be on sale by the time Benchmark went to print.

The Apple Watch was due to enter Switzerland on June 26, and Swiss watchmakers are scrambling to add electronic functions to their products. Elmar Mock, one of the inventors of the Swatch, said in March that the Californian company’s device may cause an “ice age” for the Swiss watch industry. Other experts feel it will take time before tech companies pose a threat.

“Swiss players depend 50 percent on the Chinese, and about 70 percent of Chinese want their watch to be Swiss-made,” Luca Solca, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas, wrote in a note Friday.

“High-end watches are passed down to future generations. But Apple’s move puts the pressure on.”

Frederique Constant’s smartwatch started reaching stores in the US and Switzerland last month (surely it can’t be long until they hit the UAE?). Mondaine’s first Helvetica Smart model will be available for pre-order online this month, while four other models will go on sale by October, according to Chief Executive Officer Andre Bernheim.

Movado Group Inc. plans to introduce wearable technology in its namesake brand ahead of the Christmas gift-buying season, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Efraim Grinberg told analysts on a May 27 conference call.

Swatch Group AG will start selling a namesake timepiece that can make mobile payments sometime this month or next, while LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE has said it will introduce a $1,400 TAG Heuer smartwatch later this year.

Montblanc’s e-Strap accompanies the brand’s TimeWalker watches and will also allow users to track physical activity. The brand is owned by Cie. Financiere Richemont SA, whose chairman, Johann Rupert, has said it will probably only introduce electronic functions into straps and not the case of a watch, so the timepiece doesn’t become outdated. Richemont’s IWC brand also plans an intelligent watchband device.

Whoever wins the race, you can bet is won’t be long before some of the world’s most expensive smart watches start appearing on wrists in the UAE.

*With Corinne Gretler, Bloomberg,  and  assistance from Andrew Roberts in Paris.