Baselworld 2016: Can you spot the smartwatch?

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series dedicated to Baselworld 2016. Josh Sims is a freelance writer, watch expert and author of “Icons of Style.”

CNN  — 

For the horologically-inclined, the rise of the smartwatch poses a problem. It is less which operating system to go with, but more to do with one’s more time-honoured mechanical timepiece. Should you dispense with it and embrace the future? Wear a different kind of watch on each wrist?

The few brands that are dipping their toes into what looks set to become a sizeable market – 17 million smartwatches were sold over 2015, a reflection in part of their more accessible pricing – are so far striking a middle ground: an aesthetically traditional watch, with smartwatch functionalities.

The key launches at Baselworld 2016

Last year came the likes of the Tag Heuer Connected – round case with digital “analogue” dial; the twist of Breitling’s B55 – putting your smartphone at the service of the watch, rather than the other way round; and Montblanc’s solution – the E-strap, a device attached to the watchstrap, allowing the watch itself to remain classical.

This year’s Baselworld sees a new spate of further solutions, among them pieces from Tissot, Mondaine and Frederique Constant, which has added a world timer to the new version of its Horological Smartwatch.

Tag Heuer Connected, 2015 -- pictured with the digital 'analogue' dial switched off

Tissot’s is arguably the biggest smartwatch launch of the show. And, like those before it, similarly seeks distinction through an innovative approach.

Building on the brand’s ground-breaking T-Touch tactile dial technology, launched in 1999, this solar-powered model not only comes with an independent outdoor weather station unit, but cleverly links its GPS function to its analogue hands. The watch literally points the way to go.

A watch is an emotional product

“One problem for smartwatches is that retailers are reluctant to take on products that may be out of date in six months. So while connectivity brings advantages, it’s important that even if you don’t use it you still have a beautiful watch,” argues Tissot’s CEO Francois Thiebaud.

“The fact is that we’re happy to change our phones regularly because it’s a practical product. But a watch is still an emotional product. You can’t present a watch as though it’s a gadget.”

Mondaine's M-Motion watch

The latest version of Mondaine’s M-Motion watch comes with a slot in the bracelet that provides contactless payment functionality. It is based on the same platform as the new model from Frederique Constant, arguably the first company with an historic reputation for high-end calibres. But, crucially, argues Mondaine’s CEO Andre Bernheim, both watches still look comfortably traditional.

“When the Apple Watch launched I couldn’t envisage a ‘normal’ watch with its functionality,” he says. “But I think it’s possible now – by limiting the watch’s functions to those it make sense to have on the body. There’s no point creating a watch to compete with your cellphone, especially since most people carry their phones with them. If I had to compromise the look I wouldn’t add the function.”

New brands, new concepts

Breaking away from a reputation for making analogue mechanical watches is potentially a brand positioning nightmare. This is suggested by the fact that among Baselworld 2016’s key smartwatches are launches by new names Veldt and WatchE.

The former is a Japanese company that takes the tack of using the watch – an analogue piece with LCD display and innovative LED light interface – as a means of limiting the stream of information received from the smartphone. Only messages from those VIP-approved show at the wrist.

WatchE's application for the Apple Watch

“A concept is important to stand out in the smartwatch world,” says the company’s CEO Jin Nonogami. “Ours is about using the watch to allow the wearer to spend more time away from screens, not to keep directing them back to one.”

Meanwhile WatchE arguably short circuits the whole debate: the mechanical watchmaker has developed an application for the Apple Watch that gives the digital device a virtual skeleton movement - one of the high points in mechanical movement design.

Does brand founder Luc Pellaton believe that making smartwatches from tech companies look more mechanical to be the way ahead? Only for a while.

“It’s going to be important to make smartwatches look more like traditional watches in the short term,” he says. “After all, the mechanical watch is a reference point in terms of quality, history and usage. But then the smartwatch will evolve into displays without limits.”

Indeed, the oft-suggested hope that smart watches will prove an introduction to mechanical timepieces for digitally native generations uninterested in wearing a watch at all may prove a forlorn one. The latest hybrids, and those that will surely follow, could rather simply prove the evolution of species.