On the Edge: Pushing the Boundaries of Watchmaking
We visit watchmaking at the literal edge of what is possible, including the LAB at Watches and Wonders, blockchain, NFTs, Web3 and the Metaverse.
In this final stretch of our look at innovation in watchmaking, we get to truly new things for brands and collectors alike, which are generally new for everyone. We are talking about the curious world of Web3 and the Metaverse, of course, but also the Foundation de la Haute Horlogerie’s own showcase of innovation, the LAB event at Watches and Wonders Geneva, and the sustainability journey. Web3 here includes blockchain and NFTs, as well as overlaps with the Metaverse. Unlike most things watchmaking, this is where collectors and watchmakers alike might scratch their heads in confusion, largely because both Web3 and the Metaverse are entirely nebulous.
This is unsurprising for purely digital technologies, but also relate to key issues in the development of these new digital tools. Never mind who will actually use these tools, and how they will be used, because you can fairly ask if these new ideas will not have been replace by newer and better (ostensibly) ones by the end of the year, or in the next couple of years. In fact, proponents of the Metaverse and Web3 are actually excited by the uncertainties here, because they see them as opportunities. Given that most watch brands struggled mightily for years with digital adoption – that means right down to making useful websites – we were surprised by how enthusiastic they are about the Metaverse and Web3. Maybe things have really changed from the days of the Quartz Crisis.
Before we get into it, a few caveats are needed on the digital narrative in particular. First, this story is not an introduction to the big technology ideas covered here. Leaving aside our lack of pages for this, we are also not domain experts so we should not attempt to provide basic education. We will therefore be using the most mainstream definitions (i.e. Wikipedia and major players such as Meta and the Ether blockchain) while relying on prominent explainers from major news outlets, including CNBC, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and others.
Secondly, we will be leaning heavily on comments by key figures in luxury about the digital world and its opportunities. While we intend to sound out more brand executives about this, the most recent statements on the record will suffice for this story. Finally, Heart Media, the publisher of this magazine, is a proponent of the Metaverse while the editor of WOW (also the author of this entire section) is a freelance digital consultant who is highly critical of Web3 and its constituents, aside from the blockchain foundation. In other words, here be biases so be warned.
Laboratory of Ideas
We begin this story with something a lot less controversial, which is the LAB event, which was like the Cliff’s Notes of what we have covered here. The FHH, in its own presser on Watches and Wonders, declared with astonishing confidence that the event “has just demonstrated that watchmaking know-how, artistic craftmanship and NFT (Non-Fungible Tokens) can coexist harmoniously.” Audacity aside, the release does not do the LAB event justice — just look at the pictures from the event, and ask yourself if your interest has been piqued.
The Rebellion Robot, for example, is portrayed as a sideshow and a curiosity, but it is in fact something Rebellion have been working on for years now. The brand says that the robot is being developed to assist watchmakers on the production floor, by taking on specialised and repetitive tasks. That message is both intriguing and disturbing so perhaps it is no wonder that the FHH does not know what to do with it. True innovation has a cost, but it almost always results in even more employment for human beings. Well, that is a summary of what the aforementioned experts say.
For our part, we think robots such as this are not so different to the ones already in use at various industrial powerhouses, including Rolex and the Swatch Group (who are of course conspicuously absent from Watches and Wonders Geneva). The Rebellion Robot, not a small or cuddly object by any means, does pose the question to collectors: how much do we value the inefficiencies that produce hand-made beauty? The robot was just one of 15 displays and we are certainly not going to cover all of them. Fortunately, some of them offer good entry points to certain key areas.
Take Louis Moinet and the creation of its own NFTs, for example, which the FHH again devotes just one line to. While the brand touted the successful sale of all its initial 1,000 NFTs on its website, it also planned to offer two owners the chance to win a Super Moon model; the Louis Moinet Super Moon debuted at Watches and Wonders Geneva, and we see what the brand did with the watch’s name!
Louis Moinet worked with digital artist Tafi on its NFTs, which were sold on the Exclusible platform, based on the Space Revolution model. We see this as part of the ongoing shift towards contemporary aesthetics in watchmaking. The manner Louis Moinet made the NFT announcement and handled the sale were notable for being completely alien to watchmaking, although we will look to another brand for a truly novel approach to NFTs a little later. For now though, we must distinguish between Louis Moinet and other brands that have famously embraced Web3. This includes big names such as Vacheron Constantin and Bvlgari.
The former is part of a raft of Richemont brands adopting blockchain technology to secure supply chains and ensure a measure of transparency, and to turn out what are effectively certificates of authenticity. This year happens to be Vacheron Constantin’s target to issue digital passports, secured by the Arianee technology for all its new watches, and the brand reports that it has managed it. Vacheron Constantin is thus in a new era of ownership privileges, but it is not alone. IWC and Panerai are also partnering with Arianee to explore Web3, but we will reserve that for another story.
- READ MORE: Louis Moinet: The Masters of Time and Space
Back at LAB and with IWC, we were intrigued by the concept of the Cyberloupe, a specially designed and digitally enabled version of the watchmaker’s magnifier. It has an integrated camera and a network connection, meaning collectors can potentially get virtually up-close-and-personal with movement assembly and other watchmaking activities. This is one expression of the Metaverse idea of immersive experiences powered by networks and hardware; it might very well be the first from a high-end watchmaker. Here is what IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr had to say about this, from the official press release:
“With these newly developed virtual tours, visitors will go on an interactive, personalised and memorable journey of discovery, bringing them as close as possible to our home in Schaffhausen, no matter where they may be. Not only will they gain exciting insights into our history and the complex engineering behind our timepieces, but they will also be immersed into the world of IWC in a completely new way.”
If the experience is as enriching as IWC promises, we have no doubt that more brands will follow suit, just as lots of brands are already onboard with their own sustainability ventures. This formed the last and potentially most significant bit of news from LAB. Panerai and Baume & Mercier were showcasing their recycled PET straps, and the former had plenty of news to announce with regards to its sustainability journey, which now includes staff-driven actions and a variety of climate-positive actions at the manufacture. This all follows on the brand’s recycled materials push, both in cases and straps, in recent years.
“As a company, we have the responsibility to be active and support the urgent need for change and help protecting our Planet, empowering everyone to take direct action to take care of it. The more we can work together, the better,” states CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué. Panerai is also working alongside Cartier in the Watch and Jewellery Initiative 2030, which has to do with the sustainability and transparency of the supply chain.
This allows us to neatly transition out of Watches and Wonders, and address the Metaverse. When it comes to this expansive concept, which is an enormous spectre looming large over the wraith of Web3, there is much to say, although it is mostly speculative. This is particularly germane given that Bvlgari has just announced a partnership with Naver Z’s Metaverse platform Zepeto, which has 300 million users. Reportedly, 80 per cent of these are teens. Bulgari’s virtual world launched 31 August and includes a pop-up store with online and offline experiences. There are also games in this virtual world, where users or visitors complete quests and receive rewards. In this case, these are items from the Bvlgari Resort collection, and signature accessories. No watches are in play yet.
In the Metaverse, such rewards are meant to transfer across platforms, meaning your avatar should be able to bring its items anywhere it goes. This part is not a reality yet, no pun intended, and no one knows yet exactly how it will work. If you think this reminds you of Second Life, you will not be alone, although Bulgari has gone one better than anyone else we can think of. The brand made Web3 a part of the real world of haute horlogerie with the Octo Finissimo Ultra bearing a laser-engraved QR code (pointing to an NFT) on its rachet wheel.
We contrast this upbeat note with a word of caution, delivered by Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron. He made this remark in an interview published by World Tempus, and it had nothing to do with any specific move by any specific brand.
“The Metaverse is a complementary virtual world, which can also be likened to playing at not being yourself, which already exists: it’s called carnival. Humans have long enjoyed pretending to be someone different, so it’s not a revolution. When I was a teenager, I read The Lord of the Rings and we played Dungeons and Dragons: we were already enjoying escapist-style entertainment, so let’s see in ten years what it becomes. As far as NFTs are concerned, this results in purely virtual luxury products… Why not? Yet our main job is to make tangible products for intangible feelings. I feel the watch on my wrist, like a ring or a bracelet, gifted for a memorable date, I prefer to feel it against my skin rather than displaying something on a computer. If I go home with a bouquet of flowers, it will give more pleasure than if I offer a QR code with the symbolic value of NFTs, it’s not the same thing.”
Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to use Web3 or NFTs in particular in a fun way to drive commercial results, as demonstrated by Nimany Club. The brand touts itself as the world’s first NFT-native watch brand, and it launched with the promise of offering NFT watches that could be ‘redeemed’ for actual watches. The entire process is randomised, with buyers being entered into a lottery, which is meant as a measure of fairness, just as MB&F demonstrated with the last MAD watch. For Nimanyclub, the idea is to promote the buying and owning experience as a journey, which also leads to the establishment of a community.
To close this story and this entire section, we feel it should be noted that innovation in watchmaking is a developing story. What will actually come to your wrist may not match up well theory, even after years and possibly decades of development. For example, the story of silicon in watchmaking is perhaps most amazing in that it actually worked, and was implemented in actual watches that some
of you might actually be wearing. This is not a given, even in the most famous of instances. For example, John Harrison’s marine chronometer never made it into production, amazing as it was, because it could not be industrialised.
In the end, we may look upon some of the innovations covered here with a fair degree of scepticism, and that is only to be expected. It seems impossible to view anything Metaverse related as experimental at best, and you would be wise to think of it that way. There is no inherent benefit to getting aboard the digital transformation train early, as far as watches go anyway. Just bear in mind that watch brands want to innovate because watchmakers want to make better devices. That said, we will be revisiting new techniques, materials and perhaps even fundamental research in our issues over the next few years. It may very well turn into a long-running series, like our eight-part escapement adventure that concluded last year.
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