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Where bespoke European watchmakers are focusing their smartwatch efforts

By A. Craig Copetas
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

BASEL—Among the 122,000 enormously rich watch fanatics assembled here last week, you’d have been hard-pressed to find any who didn’t think the rumored iWatch is daft and the reported Samsung watch phone is a waste of time. Anyone who believes differently, they would tell you, likely needs professional help to discover a life outside of social media.

As multimillion-dollar wristwatch deals went down at the annual Baselworld watch and jewelry fair in Switzerland, clutches of luxury watchmakers sneered at the notion that their customers would down-market themselves from a $65,000 platinum Rolex Daytona or a $350,000 Patek Philippe to a digital gee-gaw assembled in a Chinese factory and festooned with a fruitlet.

“A wristwatch is the ultimate rare status symbol, and Apple poses absolutely no threat to our market,” says Francois Nunez, product director for timepieces at Victorinox, manufacturer of the ubiquitous Swiss Army Knife. “There’s not one bespoke watchmaker who worries about wrist computer-phones.”

Easing a $40,000 “Big Bang Gold Ferrari” off her wrist, Anais Treand at Hublot advises Samsung to stay with smartphones and television sets. “We’re not going to lose one customer,” is Treand’s verdict.

But time remains relative for the folks over at Breitling’s Baselworld chalet, where fish swim in an aquarium sized in SeaWorld proportions and the cost of a watch can exceed the pricetag on a four-year college degree. As Breitling technical director Gerhard Loitz tells it, the 129-year-old Swiss watchmaker celebrated for rugged high-tech timepieces is on the cusp of out-Appling the iWatch and turning its watch phone into a relic before Samsung transforms rumor into reality.

It’s called Emergency II. It comes in volcano black, cobra yellow or intrepid orange. And it costs $15,750. The titanium watch doesn’t yet do Wi-Fi and, if you want to make a phone call, “you’ll for now need to use your cell phone,” Loitz says.

Back in 1995, Breitling launched and sold 40,000 Emergency I wristwatches, miniaturized chronometers created with the help of Dassault Aviation and equipped with a single-frequency distress beacon able to operate anywhere on Earth. Breitling’s records indicate the watch saved some 20 people, victims of airplane crashes, disasters at sea and in car wrecks and military firefights that went down in locations thousands of miles removed from the nearest cell-phone tower.

Its most famous customer was adventurer Steve Fossett, whose plane in 2007 crashed in the Nevada desert. Breitling immediately went into action, but Fossett had left his Emergency I at home. His body wasn’t found until a year later.

Breitling nonetheless went back to the workbench. The Emergency II is a 10-layered indestructible wrist chronometer fitted with a dual-frequency distress beacon micro transmitter in compliance with Cospas-Sarsat specifications at 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz. Who needs 4G when you can access the Geosar and Leosar orbiting satellite systems?

“It’s our coolest product,” Loitz says. “This is a serious watch with a distinctively useful purpose for serious people.”

But aren’t the rumored Apple and Samsung wrist phones supposed to be uber-cool, ultra-lightweight and capable of streaming movies and letting you order pizza online? ”Breitling’s customers mostly live on a different edge,” Loitz says. The next step, he adds, is to wait for the technology to catch up with what he has on the drawing board: an Emergency model that allows the wearer to make and receive phone calls.

“The miniaturization isn’t there yet,” Loitz explains. “If we built the watch now, it would be too big and heavy.”

Anyway, cell phones and Sprint mobile contracts just don’t cut it in the bespoke watch world. Indeed, a Breitling talk-watch would likely come with a direct uplink satellite phone system that precludes the need to roam for a cellphone signal.

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