As exciting as it is to experience all the new watches at the Baselworld watch fair, there is always the risk of “watch overload” setting in, which is why the occasional, rare foray into Accessories Land is often a welcome diversion. Usually, these items are limited to devices such as winders and clocks, but I found this year’s most intriguing accessory gleaming under a spotlight behind one of the porthole-shaped vitrines of Ulysse Nardin’s nautical-themed booth: namely, the company’s new Chairman Smartphone.
Watch companies’ expanding their scope to lifestyle accessories is, of course, not a new development. Numerous watch brands have their name on pens, jewelry and other luxury items, and some are truly clever offshoots of their core product. BRM, for example, has a very cool leather belt with an automotive-inspired buckle derived from the trademark closure on its watch straps; Milus has eye-catching cufflinks made from actual mechanical movements with moving rotors. At Cartier’s recent celebrity-packed New York party, guests toasted the brand’s 100th anniversary in the U.S. with Cartier-branded Champagne.
Of course, there’s also the inverse phenomenon, namely the many prestigious lifestyle brands that are now itching to make noise in the luxury-watch business: leather-goods gurus Hermès and Louis Vuitton; men’s-fashion powerhouse Ralph Lauren; crystal purveyor Swarovski; grand piano king Steinway; and so on. Meanwhile, the various crossover projects between watches and automobiles have been well documented, and appear to have no end in sight. Brand building is definitely in vogue, and watch companies are right in the thick of it.
The association of watch brands with high-end mobile phones is one of the newer branding trends. Last year, TAG Heuer announced the launch of its Meridiist luxury phone, with its crystal displays and ultra-long-life battery. The British company Vertu, while not associated with a particular watch marque, has made a point of targeting watch aficionados with its growing line of exclusive phones made with watch-inspired aesthetic touches and materials, even marketing them through high-end jewelers.
The Ulysse Nardin Chairman Smartphone, however, is the first of these products that can truly be called a hybrid of a high-tech mobile phone and a high-mech automatic watch. The phone is the product of a partnership between Ulysse Nardin, the Le Locle-based maker of marine-chronometer-inspired watches, and SCI Innovations, a new-on-the-scene tech firm. Much like a hybrid automobile — which has an engine that runs on gasoline and electricity — the phone has a battery that is charged both by electricity and by the kinetic energy of a working rotor. Yes, part of the Chairman’s energy comes from the same source as that of your watch.
Other horologically inspired details abound on the phone, including the analog time-and-date display that mimics the distinctive dial of a Ulysse Nardin, down to the numerals and hands; a screw-mounted crown on the side to manually wind the rotor for extra battery power; and chronograph-like pushers on either side of the crown to control the volume and other functions. There is a sapphire crystal viewing window on the back of the phone that showcases the rotor, adorned with the familiar UN “anchor” logo. A light illuminates the rotor and tells others you’re using a very special phone. The materials and colors used in the phones even echo Ulysse Nardin’s watches: the style options are steel, all-rose-gold or a combination of steel and rose gold. Color choices include black-and-gold, blue-and-gold, or the predominantly black “stealth” version.
Despite the mechanical-watch adornments, the Chairman is most definitely not for Luddites. A 21st-century cell phone in every regard, it is compatible with most GSM networks around the world and features a 2.8-inch touch screen; e-mail and Internet applications; WiFi for network connections; and a five-megapixel, high-resolution digital camera that also can shoot digital videos. It uses materials such as anodized aerospace-grade aluminum alloy, carbon fiber and marine-grade stainless steel. According to the company, only a limited number will be produced each year — 1,846 of each model, to be exact; the number refers to the year of Ulysse Nardin’s founding. Set for a fall 2009 release, their prices start around $12,000 and reach about $70,000 for the all-gold versions.
So why the interest from watch brands in the cellular phone arena? A pessimist might say the companies are simply responding to media doomsayers who continually predict the demise of their primary product — mechanical watches — due to the increasing number of young people using their phones to tell them the time. An optimist, however, might see it differently. Perhaps luxury electronics makers are instead discovering the romance and exclusivity of a fine mechanical watch.
For more information visit www.unchairman.com
Click the images below to view larger versions.
The Chairman in rose gold and blue:
Rose gold and steel:
In stealth black:
The rose gold and blue model from the back: