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Will digital watches call time on analog counterparts? video

After some 40 years in the wristwatch wilderness, digital timepieces made a surprise return to the fore at this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair, with a wide variety of smartwatches proving the stars of the show.

Photo: Sign of the times: the logo for the 2013 Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair.
Sign of the times: the logo for the 2013 Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair.

The Hong Kong and wider Asia watch market is best known for its love of expensive automatic items, compete with detailed complications and high price tags. It was something of a surprise, then, to see a distinct emphasis on digital offerings at this year's Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair.

For Sweda Watch, though, it was clearly a welcome surprise.

The Hong Kong watchmaker is a veteran of the fair. The company produces a wide range of watches, both digital and analog, but this year it stepped up its game and introduced an intriguing hybrid product – an analog watch that can sync with smartphones or tablets.

Johnny Tang, Sweda's Manager for Innovation and Technology, was the man responsible for overseeing the product's debut at the fair. Describing the thinking behind the model, he said: "We are very much looking to benefit from the demand for 'wearable technology'. We believe that this is going to be a growing market."

Tang was not alone in this conviction. Many of this year's exhibitors were quick to note the increased interest in both digital and ana-digi (combined analog and digital) watches.

The more standard analog watches – automatic or otherwise – were on show across three separate halls on two floors of the HKCEC. They also featured prominently in the design competition that underpins the fair and in every one of the many "watch parades" that punctuated each day of the show. A number of high-end brand names, notably Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Breguet and Chopard also made their expected appearances.

It was, however, the digital watches – including ana-digi combinations and a growing range of smartwatches – that attracted the interest of buyers and far more so than in any previous iteration of the fair.

Smartwatches, however, were clearly the emerging stars. Not long ago the sole preserve of the most hard-core of techno-addicts, these timepieces are now clearly migrating to the mainstream. Typically, smartwatches come loaded with technology (Bluetooth being a prime example) that allows them to be synched with a smartphone or tablet. This then allows them to alert the wearer to an incoming email, call or text, act as control for music players or cameras, while also providing a range of other functions.

This particular sector was given a boost, on the opening day of the event, with the global debut of the first smartwatch from Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant. Samsung's watch, the Galaxy Gear, is a futuristic looking model, loaded with all the expected features. Its style is the one seemingly universally favoured by most makers of wearable technology. These digital watches are not for the purists, those who typically prefer elegance over innovation or function.

It was a trend picked up on by Orca Tang, Retail Operations Manager at Odm, the Hong Kong-based designer watch brand. Commenting on the change, she said: "People still prefer analog, but fancy digital watches with aggressive designs are ever more popular." Odm's own smartwatch, a device as powerful as it is colourful, will be in stores later this year.

Add Inc is another Hong Kong company looking to capitalise on the smartwatch phenomenon. Its Add Me Smart Watch allows users to share social networking information and can be customised with hundreds of combinations of wristbands and a wide choice of display graphics.

Sweda's new offering, though, with its knowing tip of the hat to the analog world, is quite different from that of many of its competitors. This ana-digi watch includes a traditional analog watch (with its own power source), but also comes with a raft of features that allow the watch to link with Android- or Apple-based smartphones, alerting the user to an e-mail or SMS or even allowing for a picture to be taken. As a word of warning for early adopters, Tang says that a number of the watch's features will not work with iPhones unless the iOS 7 operating system is installed.

Explaining the thinking behind the watch, which has been in development since 2010, Tang said: "We are a watch manufacturer and want to keep the design and specificity of a watch. We don't want to compete with electronic companies. Our challenge was to make an analog watch that offered these functions and could be used every day."

The demand for digital products, a common theme throughout the fair, was not just limited to smartwatches. They also proved highly popular in two other sectors.

The first of these was typified by Neolog, the Hamburg-based digital watch specialist distributed across Asia by GSSP (HK). This saw the company offering a style of retro-futuristic digital watches, ones with space age designs and counterintuitive LED displays that went out of fashion a couple of decades back. With this style now enjoying something of a renaissance, one of the companies' more popular items was a watch with a dice-inspired face – a square face split into four sections, with a distinctive pattern of dots marking out the hours and minutes.

The second sector to enjoy a digital resurgence comes at the lower end of the market. Solar System International Co Ltd, a Hong Kong-based watch manufacturer and distributor, has seen demand for its more inexpensive digital models grow considerably. This includes the solar power watches that the company is now successfully exporting to meet the increased demand in Germany and Japan. Succinctly assessing the current market, Raymond Fan, Solar System's Sales Manager, said: "Digital watches are more popular now."

Photo: Odm's ever-so smartwatch.
Odm's ever-so smartwatch.
Photo: Sweda's ana-digi hybrid.
Sweda's ani-digi hybrid.

It would be overstating the case, however, to suggest that analog and automatic varieties were marginalised at this year's event. They were well-represented at the fair, although only a surprisingly small number featured in the main hall.

Despite a number of individually upbeat sectors, many exhibitors testified to the fact that it remained a tough market. According to some attendees, this year's fair was slower than previous years, with sales proving sluggish.

Summarising a widespread sentiment, Tang said: "We are still alive but, this year, the whole market's down."

A number of exhibitors had their own individual theories as to why 2013 had proved a quieter year than they might have expected. One suggested that the continued conflict in the Middle East had kept a number of the region's buyers at home. For another, it was the fact that the show coincided with the Jewish New Year that had kept some buyers from attending.

Assessing the footfall, Karen Lau, a director of Kowloon-based Woodstock Design, said: "This year is slow." Despite this, there was still much interest in the company's range of unique watches and clocks, including one model that automatically adjusts to any time zone in the world.

The challenges notwithstanding, many brands and distributors chose the event to launch new ranges, as well as an opportunity to showcase the latest industry trends. Hong Kong remains the largest importer of watches and watch movements in the world, as well as the second largest exporter of watches and clocks, making it a hugely significant player in international terms. In the first half of the year, overall exports actually showed a 2% increase, mostly to the EU and the US. Around half of these export numbers were said to be battery-powered wristwatches.

In terms of the Chinese market, two things have acted as a major boost to the industry over recent years. Firstly, an upswing in the quality of goods produced in mainland factories has seen the country come to play an ever-increasing role at the top end of the market, particularly in OEM terms. Secondly, in keeping with the rest of the luxury sector, affluent mainland consumers have now become one of the most important target markets for the high-end watch sector.

A key beneficiary of both trends has been Nobel International (HK) a Swiss brand of automatic watches, but one that also has facilities in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The company makes automatic watches that retail for a relatively modest US$1,000.

Despite budgetary pressures, Michel Malley, Chief Executive of Nobel, believes the demand for well-crafted timepieces will never really recede. Acknowledging that consumers have now been obliged to widen their parameters, he said: "A lot of buyers are looking for inexpensive made-in-China watches, but people still buy watches. That isn't going to change."

Photo: Clocking off: time travellers head home as the 2013 show ends.
Clocking off: time travellers head home as the 2013 show ends.

The HKTDC Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair 2013 was held from 4-8 September at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The event attracted 726 exhibitors from 18 different countries and regions.

Alfred Romann, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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