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This is what luxury watch executives think of your 'cheap, plastic-designed' smartwatch

Jon Phillips | July 8, 2014
If Apple's new watch guru feels the same way about smartwatches as his former TAG Heuer boss does, then he knows he'll face serious challenges in positioning the iWatch as a sophisticated wrist accessory with mainstream appeal.

Thierry Casias, the creative director at Bulova, is a bit more kind to Samsung's smartwatches than other watch industry VIPs are. He says the original Galaxy Gear did a good job in marrying a tech aesthetic to details that are already familiar to wristwatch customers — for example, a textured wristband. Still, Casias has doubts about the crossover appeal of most of the smartwatches he's seen.

"Most favor the streamlined, clean aesthetic made popular by Apple, but this look will only appeal to gadget geeks," Casias says. "The average person who already carries at least one device at all times — a smartphone, an MP3 player, etcetera — probably wants to downplay this piece of equipment. No one wants to wear a Star Trek prop."

Linder was the harshest smartwatch critic I interviewed, but still concedes that the Samsungs, Motorolas and LGs of the world are at an immediate disadvantage because their operating systems don't allow them to leverage analog dials, "the one component that says luxury" to prospective buyers. "If you go for purely digital, you don't have the feeling of the mechanical instrument," Linder says. "So maybe the question will be, Can you make a dial that looks like a dial, with hands like a real watch?"

Circling the path of least resistance

In fact, besides Citizen's Proximity, we've already seen analog-dial wristwatches with rudimentary smart functions from Martian and Cogito. But these models definitely don't bear dials, cases and straps that scream a luxury aesthetic. The next best option, it seems, is to go with a round LCD display, so at least your digital watchface will resemble the majority of luxury watches sold today. That's the Motorola approach, and it's a design choice that works for Citizen's Wolfe and Bulova's Casias.

"I think they're going down the path of least resistance," Wolfe says of the Moto 360's circular display. "Ninety percent of the watches that we sell are round. So if you're immediately starting off with a non-round shape, that's not a winning strategy." Wolfe praises the Moto 360's "clean look" and chamfered bezel. He says, overall, Motorola has done the best job as far as pure design aesthetics, but wants to reserve final judgement until he can feel the Moto 360's materials, and put the watch on his wrist.

Casias gives the Moto 360 his top smartwatch design honors as well. "It's by far the best looking one of the bunch," he says. "The aesthetic is minimal and modern, and really conveys the upscale feel of some popular brands on the pricier end of things."

Beyond the Moto 360, only the Pebble Steel was singled out among the wristwatch traditionalists for successful design. Wolfe says Pebble has "done a very nice job" by incorporating traditional leather and steel straps, and noted that the Pebble Steel's barrel shape provides a small though notable point of interest in a field of smartwatches defined by rectangles. Casias, meanwhile, says the Pebble Steel "isn't exactly attractive," but is the second most wearable smartwatch of the ones he's seen.

 

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