The new Inox from Victorinox is an astonishing breakthrough piece in more than one way. Not only is it probably the most durably tough wristwatch on the market, it also has youth appeal. Not only will it physically last for generations to come, it will appeal to them as well.
Given the sometimes bare, lab-like environment of many watch manufactories, this is something out of the ordinary. A man is letting a large upended metal hammer swing round through 180 degrees straight into a watch. It goes flying across the fire station forecourt – for what better place to express the sheer strength and machismo of a new timepiece than to have it bashed about by Swiss firemen?
When it is retrieved, amazingly still intact, the same watch is put into the station’s own washing machine, on a quick wash and spin cycle. It comes out, scratched and battered, but still ticking away.
Finally, the fire engine is driven over it, in an echo of a previous feat that saw the watch survive the close attention of the tracks of a 64-tonne Swiss Army tank. Watch testing has never been more fun.
These tests are just two of the 130 or so that Victorinox’s new Inox watch has been through. Testing that saw some 400 prototypes over three years fall foul of too many Gs of acceleration, or simply not cope well with being drowned in solvents… as you might expect.
Yet the final model was held in a 2200 degrees F flame for over a minute, and still told the time. It was encased in an ice block for 168 hours, and still told the time. It underwent and survived a vibration test new to the Swiss industry, and so on. The result, Victorinox is suggesting, makes it the toughest watch ever created – one in the eye for the G-Shock boys at Casio.
It is, the company hopes, not only mimicking the quintessential functionality of its Swiss Army penknives –
Inox comes from the French for stainless steel – but could become similarly iconic, especially for the customer less concerned with heritage and movement, and more concerned with, if not impressing firemen, then at least having a watch that just does what it should dependably do in almost any conditions. Just 25 years into making watches, it is certainly a statement of intent by Victorinox to claim a niche of the market.
“Twenty-five years is pretty young for a watch brand but we saw the development of this watch as a real opportunity. To look to the future of watches rather than just turn to the archives, as many watch companies are doing,” explains Francois Nunez, Product Director for Victorinox watches. “We want the Inox to become the company’s future classic. Consumption patterns are changing – more consumers expect what they buy to really last, like a Swiss Army knife. People are getting very tired with planned obsolescence. And so we wanted the watch to be tested for reality. For the occasion when you actually do forget your watch in your trouser pocket and put it in the washing machine. Actually we’ve had complaints from customers regarding older watch models that they’ve done this to – “‘but you said it was waterproof!’” Nunez jokes.
“I think now to make a difference as a watch company you have to have a different point of view. You can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over,” he adds, “and toughness seemed to us to be a very under-explored territory. The Swiss industry just seems to have left it to the Japanese.”
Victorinox’s emphasis on functionality has resulted in more than a few design improvements of the kind that makes one wonder why they have not long ago become standard through the watch industry. The likes of a one-piece case construction that spreads the stresses, rather than focusing them around the four lugs; the indices being stamped into the dial, rather than glued on; and a recessed crystal that allows the bezel to offer it some protection. The Inox’s 43mm size, furthermore, was a result not of marketing’s understanding of the most profitable sales trends, but of the fact that this was the smallest Victorinox could make the watch while protecting its parts and quartz movement to the level it does. In fact, protecting the movement was the biggest obstacle to creating the market-leading toughness standards Victorinox was aiming for.
“Our toughest challenge by far was the 10-metre drop onto concrete test, because we can’t control the impact resistance of the quartz components. We have to buy those in. And they are, in fact, very fragile,” explains Nunez. “We had to find some other alternative to making our own quartz movements, which we couldn’t do – so we came up with a silicon cushion that sits under the movement, and a bezel that drops slightly on impact to dissipate the energy. I’d have loved to have used a mechanical movement but the fact is there isn’t one that would have survived all the tests. I’m a watch guy and sad that this one comes with a battery – but it’s what it needs.”
Nunez, whose work background includes spells at Calvin Klein Watches, Georg Jensen and Rado (inventors of scratch resistance) contends that watch designers don’t think enough like product or industrial designers. “There is no magic in this Inox watch,” he says, “any more than there is in a suspension bridge – it’s about physics and engineering and, in the case of this watch, developing the product very carefully, micron by micron. It’s one thing to know what the problem is with a watch and the way it works, but another to know how to get the solution – which is why a lot of the testing and development involved creating new methods.”
Nunez continues, “The objective wasn’t to translate a Swiss Army knife into a watch and have blades coming out of the back, but certainly to apply the same philosophy. The fact is that watches get damaged and this one is made of steel, not some hi-tech material, so it will get bashed about. The promise is that its functionality will continue regardless.
But nor has the company – 130 years old this year – been naive enough to conclude that good looks are not also important. To this end the Inox is rather a classy model, classic enough to not date, modern enough to not look like a heritage piece, and, Nunez appreciates, with something of a nod towards Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and a 1970s aesthetic in general.
“And,” he adds, “of course the watch had to actually look tough too – the kind of watch that looks sophisticated from a distance, detailed up close, but isn’t necessarily the kind of watch you fall in love with at first sight, more one you start a long relationship with.”
Yet to this end the design has also taken a much more unconventional measure – one that in a few years will either be dismissed as a gimmick or as a stroke of genius. It is called the bumper, and it amounts to a nylon/silicone ring that clips on over the Inox’s bezel to create something of a protective shell – one that can be clipped on when your activity is genuinely likely to put your watch’s modelling career in jeopardy, and taken off when you’re attending that red carpet gala event.
Admittedly, the bumper doesn’t do much for the visual appeal of the watch – at least not to anyone over 30. But in that Victorinox may also have hit on something crucial to the long-term future of the watch industry: how to make watches appeal to a generation or two of consumers addicted to their smartphones and, frankly, with little or no interest in wearing a watch. The industry claims that the watch appeals to a consumers’ sense of heritage, continuity, craft, a love of the mechanical and a chance to show off a little – but all these reasons look less than persuasive to someone who has never worn one and sees little point in doing so, or aspiring to do so.
The bumper, however, as odd as it can at first seem, offers those younger generations the chance to customise and individualise – much as they do (well, most of us do in fact) with our choice of smartphone case. In time the company plans to offer many different styles of bumper, coloured and patterned.
“The bumper came from the notion of adding layers, like a new blade to a knife,” says Nunez, “and we’ve got ideas about incorporating additional functions to the bumper too, so you can use them as and when you need them. But, of course, there’s a strong decorative element to the bumper that will appeal to younger people too. When I first started wearing a prototype a lot of people my age thought it was just crazy – ‘who wants to wear that?’ they’d say. And I understood. I had the same feeling when I got my first iPhone – I didn’t want to spoil the beautiful lines by wrapping them in a bit of rubber. Of course now I have a case on my phone – a Victorinox one – and I kind of like the personal expression in it.
“But, you know what, show the bumper to a 20-year-old and they get it immediately. Because they’re used to customising what they wear,” Nunez states. “I look at young people and worry how they’re not interested in wearing watches – and the industry at large should be worried about that too. But I think something like this could persuade them to put a watch on their wrist when they’ve never worn one before.”
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