Pininfarina accelerates into hybrid smartwatches
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in motoring will have heard of Pininfarina, the Italian car design firm established during the 1930s by Battista Farina, which went on to create some of the most celebrated models in the history of the automobile.
Nicknamed “Pinin” because he was the youngest of 10 children, Farina became famous for his work with prestige marques, including Alfa Romeo, Cisitalia and Ferrari, as well as more mundane makers, such as Austin, Peugeot and Fiat.
These days, the business has several divisions. Automobili Pininfarina currently manufactures the all-electric 1,900hp Battista hypercar. Pininfarina itself continues to engineer concept vehicles from start to finish. And Pininfarina Extra — established by the founder’s grandson, Paolo — serves as an industrial design division that envisions objects ranging from trains to yachts and from pens to residential buildings.
The Pininfarina name has also been on the fringes of the horological world since 2008, when it began working with Bovet — an independent Swiss watch house — to create an ongoing series of high-end timepieces, aimed at the type of wealthy individuals who got to know the business by owning supercars with Pininfarina coachwork.
One such person is Loewe Lee, whose Hong Kong-based family company, National Electronics Holdings, was founded during the early 1950s by his grandfather as a manufacturer of long case — or grandfather — clocks.
By the early 1970s, it had grown into a manufacturer supplying what was then cutting-edge LED technology to some of the world’s largest producers of quartz watches — including Casio and Timex — as well as the once-giant Japanese firm Namco, creator of the best-selling Pac-Man video game and its spin-off watch.
The business went on to specialise as a developer of electronic watches and movements. When Lee joined in 2005, it was already exploring the potential of incorporating Bluetooth connectivity into timepieces — a full decade before the release of the market-dominating Apple Watch. Indeed, NEH was making and selling basic smartwatches as far back as 2010 — although, back then, its products did not benefit from Apple’s ecosystem or marketing methods.
However, as a collector, Lee finds little pleasure in the plastic smartwatch. “I wear a [fitness tracker] on one wrist and my analogue watches on the other, but I have long wanted to create something that bridges the classic, analogue timepiece with state-of-the-art technology,” he explains.
The type of timepiece he refers to is known as a “hybrid smartwatch” and examples have been available for several years, from brands such as Frederique Constant, Kronaby, Withings, Skagen and Fossil.
But it was Lee’s life-long love of Ferrari cars — and the marque’s associations with Pininfarina — that got him thinking about the Italian design house as a partner to work with on a watch containing the advanced smartwatch technology in which NEH specialises.
“Our aim was to create something that is, first and foremost, a traditional-looking, beautifully designed and well-made watch, but which also has useful tech functions in the background,” he says. “I knew about Pininfarina through my interest in cars, so we struck up a dialogue and, between us, decided that we could do something together.”
The result is called the Senso Pininfarina hybrid smartwatch by Globics, one of the companies in the NEH group. It is expected to be the first of a series of ever more sophisticated watches produced with Pininfarina.
“Nowadays, all phones look the same and all smartwatches look the same, so we both thought it would be interesting to do something different,” says Lee.
“Bovet’s association with Pininfarina is at the other end of the spectrum to what we are doing, which is offering an accessible way into the luxury sector through a mid-market hybrid watch. We’re hoping it might move the trend away from conventional smartwatches.”
With its high-grade stainless steel case, traditional winding crown and classic dial layout, the $399 Senso could easily be mistaken for a regular, entry-level luxury watch.
But beneath the surface lies a smartwatch module with sensors capable of monitoring the wearer’s vital signs, blood oxygen level, and sleep quality. Other functions include a stress monitor, activity and hydration reminders, and activity trackers for a variety of sports that, among other things, show distance covered and calories burnt.
Conventional smartphone functions, such as alarms and calling and messaging alerts, are also included, and the Senso’s features can be synchronised to the wearer’s smartphone through a companion app.
Impressively, the watch can be used for more than a week between battery charges. “We didn’t want to overload the watch with functions, but to ensure that all of its capabilities were both relevant and reliable,” says Lee. “And, because we want the Senso to be first and foremost a watch, the timekeeping function will always be the last to stop when the battery runs low.”
However, hybrid watches have yet to find their place in the market. “The problem with hybrid watches is that they are neither one thing nor the other,” argues Jeremy White, the UK executive editor of tech magazine Wired. “Bringing a wearable tech element to a ‘proper’ watch seems to be a misread of what the consumer wants.
“Watches are not like mobile phones. We don’t expect to have one that does everything, and just as ‘luxury’ phones have never taken off, trying to mesh the world of artisanal watchmaking with tech doesn’t really work.
“A good example of that was the $17,000 gold-cased Apple Watch of 2015. It was quietly but quickly discontinued.”