Appropriated by promotions companies as a cheap but mildly impressive giveaway, worn with a sense of disposability and too often packed with useless functions, the digital watch may still account for the bulk of the world’s watch sales, but it remains shunned by watch connoisseurs. Whither the Rolex digital or the plastic Patek Philippe to be handed down through the generations? Worse still, it is unfortunate to belong to the only part of the wide gadget world in which more accurate, more reliable and more advanced is not regarded as better. With watches, it seems, mechanisation is still favoured over high technology - which keeps getting higher, regardless.
Indeed, suspend micro-capsules with both positively charged white particles and negatively charged black ones in a clear fluid and, when a charged electric field is applied, they rearrange themselves to show areas of light and dark. The result is a high contrast read-out that not only has low power consumption but can be super-slim, flexible and any size.
In other words, Electronic Ink, as the technology is called, and which has recently been snapped up be Seiko, may still be experimental but is likely to be the heart of the next generation of digital watch. And, as with any new technology at first, it won’t be cheap. As Seiko’s sales director David Innes describes it, “it’s a tentative toe dipped into the idea of giving an upmarket feel to a digital watch again”.
You read that right: an upmarket digital watch. Bell & Ross, Omega, Breitling - all makers of manly watches for manly purposes - all now have top-end watches with digital displays, at least as part of an analogue dial; Chanel has its Chocolat; and Tag Heuer’s recently reissued Microtimer, which continues to set style junkie’s pulses racing (and measured to 1/1000th of a second), and its reversible Monaco 69 are arguably the first digital premium watches for 20 years. The collectors’ market has its fans too: Sinclair’s famously unreliable Black Watch of the same year, Girard-Perregaux’s LED Casquette or the likes of Tag’s 1975 Chronosplit, the first quartz chrono with a double digital display, are like gold dust.
“We have a history in time measurement so it really wasn’t too much of a leap for us to launch a fully digital luxury watch,” says Tag Heuer’s honorary chairman Jack Heuer. “We’ve even put diamonds on one version of the Microtimer. There’s a high-end niche market for digitals and I wouldn’t be surprised if other top-end manufacturers now follow.”
Certainly a premium digital is, for anyone over 50, not such strange notion. Patek Philippe may have dismissed their advent as “a brief craze rather than a product of the future”, but in the 1970s, when digitals arrived, they were considered both elitist and edgy. “Looking at an early digital watch now it is hard to believe anyone could be seduced by it,” says Innes. “But it was such an incredible idea at the time” - such that Roger Moore’s James Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die dons one.
The idea of digital (as opposed to analogue) display was not of tomorrow’s world: that dated to the Art Deco era. But electronic digitals were once the epitome of progress. Hamilton, the US brand that has just launched in the UK, created the first electronic digital display watch in 1972: the power-hungry Pulsar, with a red LED (Light Emitting Diode) display activated by pressing a button. Not only, fittingly, was it inspired by a clock Hamilton had devised to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it came gold-plated and cost a then whopping $2,100. A new Toyota could be had for the same money.
Yet just four years later a digital watch could be bought for $10 - while no amount of science could make the manufacture of a hand-built mechanical watch any less expensive, technology loses its kudos as time gives it a mass-market. The invention of the permanent-display, energy-efficient LCD (Liquid Crystal Display), pioneered by scientists at Kent State University in the US and Hull University in the UK - who found that cyano-biphenyl crystals could be made to change form by applying a current - and realised commercially by Seiko from 1973, may have guaranteed a huge global demand but couldn’t save the digital from being considered cheap and cheerful.
But that was then, as more premium brands are realising. Make a watch from top-end materials - high-grade steel, sapphire crystal glass - in small numbers, with patented, intuitive controls and a streamlined, modernist look and there seems no reason why the digital watch may not have its moment again. Indeed, that is what Swiss company Ventura is now producing: handcrafted digitals targeting those consumers seeking more leftfield, individualistic luxury goods. More than this, like it or not, the analogue display is increasingly likely to become, like the mechanical watch, a quaint anachronism in a fast-moving world.
“Of course, while many of us have been trained to use analogue dials to tell the time - to ‘see’ the time rather than having to ‘read’ it as you have to with digitals - today there is a whole generation with what you might call a ‘digital mind’, that are more used to using clocks on PCs, phone and the like,” says Heuer. “They prefer digital. And that’s a market there is simply no stopping”.