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Deep inside the smart Swiss watches that challenge Apple Watch with analog panache

Jon Phillips | April 24, 2015
Philippe Kahn is a big man with a big personality and big feelings about Swiss watches. He's got a massive Alpina model on his wrist, and he's bragging about how the watch is water-resistant down to 100 meters, and can last more than two years on its built-in battery.

Philippe Kahn is a big man with a big personality and big feelings about Swiss watches. He's got a massive Alpina model on his wrist, and he's bragging about how the watch is water-resistant down to 100 meters, and can last more than two years on its built-in battery.

He hands me a different Alpina. This one is for women. It's smaller and more delicate with hand-set diamonds. Next Kahn celebrates a trio of watches from Frederique Constant, another Swiss brand. Their aesthetic is more deliberately urbane than a snifter of brandy. The fanciest of the three models has rose-gold plating that's been polished to a concours-level shine.

Kahn didn't design the watches, but he's helping to bring them to market — and he's very, very eager to explain what they represent. He's the CEO of Fullpower, the company that developed the MotionX activity-tracking algorithms for the Nike Fuelband and the first three Jawbone UP wristbands. And now Fullpower is aiming to bring that same step- and sleep-tracking technology to real Swiss watches.

Wait, what?

The race to luxury smartwatches

These watches look absolutely nothing like "traditional" high-tech wearables. They're resplendent with textured dials, raised hour markers, and polished hands. They look like classy Swiss watches. They are Swiss watches. Nonetheless, the watches I demoed at Fullpower's Santa Cruz, CA headquarters are, feature for feature, much like the Jawbone UP24 — except clad in finely tailored suits instead of gaudy Lycra unitards.

First revealed at a posh violin recital in February, the watches are the initial offerings of MMT (Manufacture Modules Technologies), a joint venture between Fullpower and various Swiss watchmakers, including Frederique Constant, Alpina, and Mondaine (whose watches were still sitting somewhere in Zurich when I visited Fullpower). When the first Frederique Constant and Alpina specimens go on sale in June at prices ranging from $1,000 to $2,600, they'll represent a key plot point in a triangulation of competing luxury watches imbued with smart features.

First out the gate will be the Apple Watch Edition, which arrives this Friday and costs between $10,000 and $17,000. Perhaps you've heard of it. But soon we'll see the Swiss watches from MMT, and by the end of the year TAG Heuer, one of the world's most famous Swiss brands, will release an Android Wear watch. All these companies are chasing the aspirational customer who's smartwatch-curious, but just won't suffer gauche design. But unless TAG Heuer surprises us with an analog-digital hybrid, only the MMT watches will look like traditional timepieces with moving parts.

So what do the watches from Frederique Constant and Alpina actually feel like, and what do they actually do? Follow along for what I hope will be the deepest dive you've yet read about the new Swiss timepieces.

 

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