Can Apple Sell Wealthy Shoppers on a Luxury Watch?

Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an event on March 9th. Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an event on March 9th. Credit Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty

Because Apple first unveiled its smartwatch six months ago, and little has changed about the product since then, there wasn’t much for the company’s C.E.O., Tim Cook, to tell his audience on Monday, when he took the stage at a theatre in San Francisco for a follow-up event. Everyone already knew about the watch’s cool, if not necessarily essential, features and its stylish design. Cook did reveal one bit of news, though: the price of a high-end version of the watch, encased with a special kind of eighteen-karat gold that is, according to Apple, twice as hard as regular gold, will start at ten thousand dollars.

Apple had previously explained that there would be three different versions of the watch—Apple Watch Sport, Apple Watch, and Apple Watch Edition—but hadn’t disclosed how much each type would cost, beyond announcing that pricing for the least expensive model would begin at three hundred and forty-nine dollars. The Apple Watch Edition, with its gold casing, was expected to be expensive, but the ten-thousand-dollar starting price still took people by surprise; John Gruber, who runs Daring Fireball, a popular and authoritative Web site about Apple, had guessed that Edition watches might begin at seven thousand four hundred and ninety-nine dollars.

As I have written in the past, smartwatches are a bit confounding, as tech products go. People tend not to gravitate toward gadgets unless they fulfill some unmet need. But smartwatches don’t do anything that existing devices, like smartphones and fitness trackers, aren’t capable of, and it’s unclear whether the convenience factor—having the device strapped on your wrist rather than stuck in your pocket—will make up for that fact.

Apple executives seem aware of that pitfall, and so, while they have pitched the Apple Watch as a tech product, they have also taken another tack, as if to hedge their bet: marketing it as a high-end fashion item. Last year, when the watch was still only a rumor to the outside world, Apple hired Angela Ahrendts, the well-regarded former C.E.O. of Burberry, as its head of retail; the year before, Apple had convinced Paul Deneve, a former employee who had gone on to become the C.E.O. of Yves Saint Laurent, to return to the company. Ahrendts and Deneve were surely influential in guiding the development of the deluxe watch, but so were more long-established Apple executives; in Ian Parker’s recent Profile of Jonathan Ive, the senior vice-president of design at Apple, a friend of Ive’s told Parker that Ive had “always wanted to do luxury.”

It’s relatively rare for a single watchmaker to simultaneously sell a three-hundred-and-forty-nine-dollar watch and a similar ten-thousand-dollar version; for the Apple Watch to be successful, the company will have to market to a mass audience and a luxury one at the same time. Some tech bloggers, accustomed to seeing high-end products priced at most in the hundreds of dollars, immediately balked at the ten-thousand-dollar price tag on the Apple Watch Edition, especially given that the guts of the watch—what’s inside the gold casing—are the same as what’s in the other, less expensive versions. But people from the luxury-fashion world were not particularly surprised; by their standards, the price was somewhat modest. Milton Pedraza, the C.E.O. of the Luxury Institute, a consulting firm, told me, “At ten thousand dollars, I would call that more of a premium watch”—that is, something less than a luxury watch, a term reserved for the highest-end watches that sell for six figures. The luxury-goods business model relies on selling exorbitantly priced items to small numbers of people, which means not having to persuade the masses (tech bloggers included) that the price tag is reasonable. Profit margins for luxury watches tend to be around thirty per cent, compared with ten per cent or less for mass-market watches.

To Pedraza, the ten-thousand-dollar price tag seemed eminently justifiable. For one thing, the gold casing adds significant cost—in the high hundreds of dollars, at least—to the Edition watches. Perhaps more important, though, is that no one expects luxury products to be priced based on the value of their components; what’s being sold is cachet. “With the first caveman or cavewoman, the one who found the shiniest shell to make a necklace had an advantage, and ever since then people have been trying to one-up themselves,” Pedraza said.

Selling cachet, of course, requires special tactics. Pedraza noted that Apple’s marketing has tended to focus on the possibilities of achievement that are contained within a computer or a smartphone. The finest luxury brands, he said, draw their prospective customers’ attention, instead, to what a product suggests about the owner’s acquired achievement. In other words, he said, Apple might do well, with the Edition watches, to focus less on what the watch allows its wearer to do than on what it conveys to others about what the wearer has already done. “It’s about how people look at me and see me and how I want to be seen in the world,” Pedraza said. To an extent, Apple seems to appreciate that message; at Monday’s event, Christy Turlington, the supermodel, appeared onstage to show off her watch.

Apple will face another challenge with its Edition line. The luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe advertises its watches with the tagline “You never really own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” The point, of course, is that Patek Philippe watches—many of which are priced at twenty thousand dollars or more—are investments. Like art, they don’t lose value as time passes; they may even gain value. It’s hard to make the same case with an Apple Watch; at best, new technologies last for three years or so before they are seen as obsolete. “If you spent ten thousand dollars on an Omega gold watch, theoretically, in two years time, it should hold most of its value,” Bassel Choughari, a luxury-goods analyst at Berenberg, told me. “What are you going to be left with in three or four years time with your fifteen-thousand-dollar Apple Watch?”

Apple executives are surely aware of this issue; it could be one of the reasons the Apple Watch is built with removable straps, which can, at least theoretically, be removed from an obsolete watch and attached to the next version when it comes out. There is also some precedent for attempting to sell luxury tech products. A British firm called Vertu makes high-end smartphones that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. “A phone is more, in a way, like a car,” Vertu’s creative director, Ignacio Germade, told Sam Byford, of the Verge. “You don’t buy a luxury car because you want to buy it for the next 10 years or 20 years or 100 years; you buy a luxury car because even if you use it for two hours every three days, you want to have the best experience that you can have. If you look at the difference between when you buy a car and when you sell a car, you will realize that it’s actually a huge investment for a product that you use a few times a week.” Notably, in his Profile of Ive, Ian Parker quoted Ive’s friend as saying that Ive was “very interested” in Vertu.