It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced the world to the Apple Watch. The new-age wearable promised to revolutionize the way we communicate, provide intimate health tracking, and streamline the way we interact with technology. Its introduction was hailed in Silicon Valley as the vanguard of a new era in wearable tech; however, within the closed doors and hallowed halls of the conservative Swiss watch industry, its introduction took a decidedly different tone.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt soon after the Apple Watch was announced, then-LVMH Watchmaking Head Jean-Claude Biver said the Apple Watch “was too feminine and looks like it was designed by students.” Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek Jr. also had words for the technology company when he dismissed the Apple Watch merely as an “interesting toy” in a 2015 interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.
While those industry luminaries acted with indifference during the initial rollout of the Apple Watch, Peter Stas, the Dutch CEO of Frederique Constant, the company he founded in 1988 with his wife, took a different approach.
He sprang into action by quickly partnering with Philippe Kahn, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley-based Fullpower Inc., to establish MMT (Manufacture Modules Technologies), a smartwatch technology platform that was meant to act as “the bridge between Silicon Valley and Switzerland.” The result of their collaboration was the Horological Smartwatch, a series of quartz watches that incorporated electronic “smart” modules into their movements that offered a range of basic functions from step counting to sleep monitoring. The initial run took direct aim at Apple by hitting stores almost immediately after the Apple Watch did in 2015.
This wasn’t the first time that Stas appeared as a champion of change in the Swiss watch industry. In the 1990s, he identified an opening in the market for accessibly priced timepieces when much of the industry was headed upmarket; in the 2000s, he adopted silicon parts into his movement production earlier than a majority of the Swiss industry; finally, in the early 2010s, he was a leading proponent in the pushback against the Swatch Group when the conglomerate sought to limit the number of movement parts it sold to third-party companies.
When Frederique Constant was purchased in late Spring 2016 by Japan’s Citizen Group, MMT spun off into its own independent company with new leadership, although it continued to work with Frederique Constant in building out the Horological Smartwatch series.
This brings us to the Hybrid Manufacture, which was announced by the brand in February 2018 as not only the world’s first 3.0 watch, but also the first timepiece to claim the title of being a true “hybrid,” with a mechanical movement infused with the technology found in the Horological Smartwatches.
A New Approach
The Frederique Constant Hybrid Manufacture is noteworthy for a number of reasons with one standing out in particular: It’s the first time a luxury Swiss watch company has provided a concrete sign of approval of the value of a mechanical watch as an indicator of fitness and health. The Hybrid Manufacture is, by and large, simply a mechanical watch with never-before-seen complications, rather than a smartwatch masquerading in a traditional watch’s body. This line of thinking should counteract several problems that many watch “purists” have with preexisting “hybrid” watches that blend a quartz movement with smart technology. It’s the inclination of many enthusiasts to dismiss anything based on electronics as horological heresy, but if a watch is approached through the empirical lens that Frederique Constant is attempting, it should open up the watch’s potential to a whole new demographic of collectors.
We’re already seeing a shift in how people wear their wristwatches. The Apple Watch and other smartwatches are reaching corners of the globe that were never previously penetrated by luxury timepieces. We’re even beginning to see people who previously wouldn’t wear a watch use a smartwatch as the launching point to a greater collection of more expensive, mechanical timekeepers. The Hybrid Manufacture exists on the highwire that connects these two disparate sides of the industry: It can keep collectors intrigued by smartwatches in the fold of the Swiss watch industry as well as potentially lure smartwatch wearers to upgrade to the more luxurious – and longer lasting – “hybrid” arena.
On the Wrist
The Frederique Constant Hybrid Manufacture comes in four different iterations. The model we tested over multiple months had a silver-plated dial with blue accents. It features the same 42-mm case and onion crown found in the Manufacture Worldtimer series and uses annular lines to segment the dial into the different indicators. Breguet hands glide over stretched Roman numerals between the guilloché-inspired detailing that provides the watch with its formal feel that doesn’t give away the technological capabilities underneath the dial.
Inside the Hybrid Manufacture is the in-house developed, produced and assembled automatic Caliber FC-750. This movement controls the main timekeeping functions, such as the analog display of hours, minutes, seconds, in addition to the date wheel at 6 o’clock. It boasts a 42-hour power reserve and features traditional decoration like perlage and côtes de Geneve that is visible through the sapphire exhibition caseback.
The “smart” technology comes from an electronic module (also developed, produced and assembled by the brand in-house) hidden within the movement and controlled by the intuitive pusher that extends out from the left side of the case between 9 and 10 o’clock. The module connects to a smartphone app developed by MMT via Bluetooth and provides a number of functions like sleep monitoring and activity tracking. What’s most interesting for mechanical watch fans is that this module provides the opportunity to continuously test the accuracy of your watch through a dedicated setting that will automatically analyze your watch’s rate, amplitude, and beat error once a day at 4:00 a.m. This is another area where the Hybrid Manufacture offers tangible and built-in benefit for the contemporary enthusiast that can’t be found elsewhere.
While the information provided by the module can be easily accessed through the smartphone app (available on iOS and Android operating systems), this information does not update automatically; wearers must quickly press the Bluetooth-connected pusher to update the data readout in the app. What the Hybrid Manufacture does offer in terms of immediate access to data comes via the 12 o’clock subdial. This subdial is split into two compact informational scales. The outer scale will display a second time zone in a 24-hour display while the inner scale will show either the percentage of your daily activity goal that you’ve completed or act as a power reserve for the remaining battery life of the module that promises to last up to seven days between charges. You can set which display you prefer in the app and then check the remaining options with either one or two quick clicks of the pusher.
A “Smart” Contradiction
The question of magnetism is something that weighs heavily in the minds of both watchmakers and collectors and provided a significant challenge in the conception of the Hybrid Manufacture. To counteract the effect that the electronic module might have on the balance of Caliber FC-750, Frederique Constant developed a proprietary anti-magnetic shield that wraps around the minuscule electronic gearbox.
Another issue came from the fact that the average smartwatch, with its constant stream of updates, becomes obsolete in a matter of years, while mechanical wristwatches can be passed down through generations with periodic servicing. How does Frederique Constant apply its background in mechanical timekeeping to perhaps the most important question when considering the virtues of mechanical watches with their “smarter” counterparts?
To answer this, we went directly to Stas himself:
“We have a technology called OTA (over the air), which can upload new firmware via the app and will update the software on the watch,” he says. “If there is a change in iOS, we can make sure that the smartwatch will continue to work. Sometimes we even add new functions to the watches, like countdown, and we update the app as well. If we can no longer update the watch with OTA, we have the chance to change the PCB inside the smartwatch during a revision. PCB is the black circuit printed that can be exchanged with a new one, which will have a new chip (hardware can be updated). This can be done as a revision and costs $50 at most.”
The anti-magnetic shield and OTA updating procedure are direct contradictions to the common issues that cause mechanical watch enthusiasts to recoil when smartwatches are discussed. Magnetism is a mechanical watch’s natural enemy and being disposable is the antithesis of why collectors love watches in the first place. With the Hybrid Manufacture, those two vital questions have been put to rest and provide a reason to reconsider what were once foregone conclusions about “smart” watchmaking.
However, the Hybrid Manufacture is not without its flaws. While many of the complications are intuitive, the sleep monitoring left something to be desired. Unlike other smartwatches that start tracking sleep automatically after a certain motionless period, the Hybrid Manufacture’s sleep monitoring must be started through the app, which isn’t always easy to remember when you’re drowsy. The classic dress watch styling of the Hybrid Manufacture also presents an issue with the activity tracking concept. While it’s great to be able to track your daily steps throughout your day at the office or while running errands, it’s hard to imagine wearing the watch, which comes on a leather strap, during a serious workout. The modernist font used for the Hybrid labeling on the watch at 3 o’clock does nothing to complement the timeless Frederique Constant logo at 9 o’clock. It’s difficult to balance the competing urges of the classic dress watch styling with the dynamism of the “Hybrid” label, but its current integration provides a mixed message. Finally, while the wooden winder box that comes with the Hybrid Manufacture is suitably luxurious, the plastic portable USB charger is somewhat flimsy. This may seem trivial, but when you’re competing with highly functional smartwatches priced under $1,000 and the terrain of extravagant mechanical watches, details matter.
The Hybrid Manufacture is a juxtaposition of what have become the two worlds of contemporary watchmaking. No matter how separate they may seem, mechanical watchmaking and smartwatches will be in an endless competition for wrist time for the rest of our lives. Frederique Constant has taken the applause-worthy first step in bridging the gap between the two with its focus on bringing the greatest amount of information to the wrist without sacrificing the sanctity of mechanical watchmaking.
As lovers of watches, it can be tough to look down at your wrist and see a black screen that, despite its informational value, turns worthless when it runs out of power. This is where the true value of the Hybrid Manufacture comes into play. It’s not only a reminder of the value of innovation but also of the importance of the enthusiast, because at the end of the day, no matter the price point or complication inside, we want our watches to perform their primary function of displaying the passage of time independently.
Bruce Lee once famously said that a branch that does not bend in the wind will break. Nick Hayek and Biver were ignorant and arrogant to dismiss the Apple Watch as not being a threat.
If things are going so well for The Swatch Group why did they pull out of Basel this year ?
Last year Apple sold more watches than Rolex in terms of dollar value. This was done in just 4 years. I feel that the Swiss are on the verge of a major onslaught just like the 70’s quartz crisis, possibly even worse this time around for simply dismissing smartwatches as an appliance.
The world is moving fast, and the Japanese and Germans have already beaten them at their own game and the might of the Apple Watch is still to reach its full potential….
Why couldn’t Rolex do a Smartwatch or even bring back the Oysterquartz with an advanced feature set ?
Even Benz the oldest carmaker on the planet has an EV SUV about to be released to the global market….
Innovate or face the consequences of extinction (yet again)
From Gerry Dimatos in Melbourne Australia.
Thanks for your article. You point out challenges for the industry which will no doubt be points of differentiation between luxury watch brands at one point or another.
One just needs to look at the introduction by Tag and Mont Blanc of smart watches into their catalogue.
I have a modest collection of luxury brand mechanical watches, but having a strong interest in technology I am also drawn to the concept of a time piece that integrates the two.
The reality is that it is only with time (no pun intended), that customer demand will influence the luxury brands into directions that result in “hybrid” models.
It wasn’t quite clear how you sync the mechanical time to your smartphone with the button. Can this be done at anytime?
FC also owns Alpina which has an interesting array of smart watch hybrids worth mentioning that are great looking in their own right. And functional.