PARIS — The smartwatch category may have yet to live up to its immense hype, but it is still attracting megabrands. The latest is Louis Vuitton, which is entering the smartwatch race with the launch of its first connected watch.
The Tambour Horizon, which hits Louis Vuitton stores today, is the fruit of a partnership with Google and offers extensive opportunities for customization, in addition to exclusive travel-related functions.
“We don’t know where the industry of connected objects is going. But we know it’s going to be massive. We have to participate,” said Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton.
“We have to be audacious. We have to be risk takers. We have been risk takers for 160 years. But, in addition to that, time and travel are intimately linked. Our DNA is inscribed in travel and travel cannot exist without time and timekeeping,” he added.
The luxury brand’s move reflects the growing importance of connected devices, at a time when sales of mechanical timepieces are steadily eroding. Vuitton becomes the second brand within luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to collaborate with Google, after Tag Heuer in 2015.
After experiencing the breathless expansion of a new category and the buzzy 2015 introduction of the Apple Watch, smartwatch growth fizzled late last year.
Research from Strategy Analytics showed that global smartwatch shipments expanded by just 1 percent last year to 21.1 million units as consumers and manufacturers alike waited for updates from Google and Apple.
Cliff Raskind, director at Strategy Analytics, noted: “The smartwatch industry is showing tentative signs of recovery this year, but it is not fully out of the woods just yet and there remain several barriers to growth that must be addressed.”
He said vendors need to launch more exciting or cheaper models and that Apple needs to work with mobile operators to stock or subsidize its products while component makers have to develop more accurate sensors for health and fitness trading.
Still, connected devices have taken significant share from traditional watchmakers, particularly at the lower end of the price spectrum.
UBS equity analyst Helen Brand, noted recently: “The Apple Watch is now bigger than any Swiss watch brand bar Rolex. The wider wearables market is now likely 30-40 million [unit] volumes in total with Swiss watches industry volumes at 28 million. Market share may be further eroded for the Swiss industry as smart watches improve in functionality.”
All the more reason for brands such as Vuitton to get in on the game with its own take.
Vuitton is launching its smartwatch in tandem with a new mechanical watch, the Tambour Moon, signaling its intention to position the connected watch as an item every bit as luxurious as its existing models, with prices starting at 2,300 euros.
The Tambour Horizon, which functions on the Android Wear 2.0 platform, features a case made by Louis Vuitton’s manufacturer in Switzerland and a sapphire glass with a 24-hour display on the rim of the dial, preserving all the codes of Vuitton’s signature Tambour line, launched in 2002.
“They share the same case, and this is unique,” Burke said in an exclusive interview. “It’s identical lugs, identical straps. It required us talking to our Silicon Valley suppliers and telling them, this is our requirement. We’re first and foremost a Swiss-based watch manufacturer that happens to have a connected watch.”
David Singleton, vice president of engineering at Google, said the firm welcomed the challenge to fit its technology into a case just 42-mm. wide.
“I think that’s really exciting to have the same aesthetic between both because in some cases, getting a smartwatch is for some people making a compromise compared to the shape and the style that you might have in a mechanical watch, a high-end luxury watch. And with the Tambour Horizon, that’s not the case,” he said.
“Our strategy and our philosophy here has always been that when technology is going to be worn on your body, that style is really important. We really don’t think that you should have to make the compromise between the style that you present to the world and the technology that’s available to you in a wearable,” Singleton added.
Hamdi Chatti, vice president watches and jewelry at Louis Vuitton, noted it was the first time that Google had agreed to customize its operating system beyond the watch faces, which can be personalized in exactly the same way as a Vuitton bag with different backgrounds, colored stripes and initials.
“We wanted the best of this technology to be available in a product that is very beautiful, with functions that have a natural link with our universe, which is the universe of travel,” he said. “They understood that it had to be a total immersion in our universe.”
Every watch face has a marker indicating a second time zone, mimicking the GMT function on a mechanical watch. There are subtler touches too, like the LV logo that appears in the background when you call up the menu.
The Tambour Horizon has all the usual smartwatch functions, including notifications for phone calls, text messages and e-mails; alarm; countdown timer; weather forecast, and step counter. It provides access to Google Play Store, allowing users to download the apps of their choice.
In addition, it offers two exclusive functions: My Flight, which provides at-a-glance information including flight times, terminal and gate information, reports of delays and remaining flight hours, and City Guide, which has geolocalized recommendations for seven cities, taken from the guides edited by Vuitton.
Google has designed a navigation experience exclusive to Vuitton, with custom-made typefaces and notifications, including a monogram flower that pops up to say: “You’ve got mail.” The 24-hour display allows it to show information like hourly weather forecasts and store opening hours in a circular layout.
“It’s a really interesting synergy between the craftsmanship in the case and then the craftsmanship in the software,” Singleton said. “It feels like a Vuitton experience.”
The Tambour Horizon is the first Android Wear device that will be launching simultaneously in China and the rest of the world. “This is a very significant engineering effort to make that possible,” Singleton noted.
“Before today, it was the case that for our partners, when they’re selling watches in China, they run a slightly different version of the software, so actually being able to unify those versions, so for the consumer they have the choice, no matter where in the world they purchase the watch, was very important,” he added.
Both the Tambour Moon and the Tambour Horizon feature a new system of interchangeable straps that allows customers to build their own watch by selecting first a case, and then one of 60 straps. Choices include a Damier or Monogram canvas, alligator leather and styles borrowed from Vuitton’s leather goods.
The Tambour Horizon comes in a choice of three cases: graphite, which is made of stainless steel; black, which is finished in black PVD, and monogram, which features monogram flowers on the 24-hour ring. It charges by induction, with a battery autonomy of up to 22 hours during normal usage.
Burke said launching a connected watch was a natural move for the luxury firm. “You can either sit on the sidelines and observe, or you can dive in and be an actor. And Louis Vuitton, in our DNA, it’s inscribed that we have to be an actor,” he said.
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