Technology makes everything better. At least, that’s what big tech companies want you to think. Technology makes things faster, more accurate, and more user-friendly. No industry is immune to this relentless march toward so-called progress, not even mechanical watchmaking. Just as there are hybrid luxury cars, such as the Ferrari SF90 Stradale or Porsche 918 Hybrid, we’re now seeing the rise of hybrid luxury watches. While the advantages of hybrid cars are reasonably obvious (quicker acceleration, better fuel economy, etc.) the argument for hybrid watches is less compelling – at least as far as I’m concerned.
What are hybrid watches?
By definition, a hybrid requires the combination of two or more different elements. In cars, this typically means combining a traditional combustion engine with an electrical one (or several). In watches, it’s a bit more varied. There’s no single blueprint. Instead, the few luxury brands that have tried their hand at creating hybrid watches have largely plotted their own course. Generally speaking, though, they all seem to broadly follow one of two approaches: 1.) combine some of the features of smartwatches (or wearables) with a mechanical movement, or 2.) putting a smartwatch in a luxury package (e.g., a high-end case, strap, etc.). Here are some examples of what I mean:
Frederique Constant Classic Hybrid Manufacture
When it comes to hybrid luxury mechanical watches, Frederique Constant is something of a pioneer. Launched at the start of 2018, the company’s Classic Hybrid Manufacture is powered by the in-house hybrid FC-750 caliber. A manual mechanical movement (complete with date complication) serves as the base of this unique movement. Viewed through the sapphire crystal case back, you could easily mistake it for a normal FC movement.
However, integrated electronic components are tucked away inside the movement, lending it its smartwatch functionality. These watches can track activity, monitor sleep patterns, and show the time in any of the world’s time zones, among other features. Most of these smart functions are accessed using a smartphone and the FC Hybrid App. There’s a subdial for a second time zone at 12 o’clock. The movement also incorporates FC’s proprietary Caliber Analytics system, an algorithm that measures rate, amplitude and beat error. The system shares this information with the Hybrid App via Bluetooth, allowing you to monitor the statistics over time using graphs. While you can’t actually adjust anything, I suppose it’s still useful to know how your watch is performing.
Breitling Exospace B55
The Exospace B55 is Breitling’s first “connected” chronograph. This watch is all about functionality, and the Swiss watch manufacturer has certainly managed to pack a lot in. Targeted specifically at pilots and sailors, it offers features like an electronic tachymeter and a flyback chronograph that’s accurate to within 1/100th second. There’s also a specific “count-down/count-up” system, as well as “chrono flight” and “chrono regatta” modes for recording flight and regatta times. More generic functions include a digital perpetual calendar with a calendar week indicator, a UTC world time display, and an option to set up to 7 daily alarms.
All of this is made possible by the in-house Breitling B55 caliber, an extremely accurate thermocompensated quartz electronic movement, which is stuffed into a 46-mm titanium case. Remarkably, despite all the electronics inside, the final watch is water-resistant to an impressive 100 m (328 ft). There’s a traditional analog time display, as well as two backlit LCD screens for the other functions. And, of course, as a “connected” watch, you can pair it with the dedicated app on your smartphone via Bluetooth.
Montblanc Summit 2
Like Frederique Constant, Montblanc was one of the first manufacturers to dip their toes into connected watches. In fact, both brands integrating connected modules into their watch straps before graduating to full-blown connected watches. The Summit 2, however, is a different type of hybrid. It’s a digital smartwatch in just about every sense of the term, but comes with the styling and craftsmanship of a luxury watch. You might even think of it as a companion to your actual luxury mechanical Montblanc watch.
For example, you can save the mechanical model for special occasions and take advantage of the smartwatch’s functionality on a daily basis. The Summit 2 is the perfect choice for those looking for a smartwatch with more class and style than those coming from Apple or other generic smartwatch makers. Thanks to its stainless steel case with black DLC coating and matching black calf leather strap, this watch looks and feels like a luxury timepiece. However, the 1.2-inch round AMOLED display offers full smartwatch functionality, with several screens to choose from.
Grand Seiko Spring Drive
We’ll round off our list with a piece of technology that’s over 20 years old yet still as impressive as ever. In fact, I’m willing to say that Seiko’s Spring Drive movements are the true trailblazers of hybrid watch movements. However, Seiko wasn’t motivated by the shine of smartwatch technology. In fairness, smartwatches weren’t even a thing when this technology emerged. Instead, their goal was (and still is) to optimize the accuracy of mechanical movements.
Without getting too technical, the main concept behind Spring Drive technology is to harness the stable frequency of quartz and use it to regulate the unwinding of a mechanical movement’s mainspring. This ensures a steady amount of energy is transferred to the movement throughout the entire process. To make this possible, Seiko’s engineers created the Tri-Synchro Regulator with a quartz oscillator. It effectively functions as an electromagnetic brake that controls how the mainspring unwinds. That’s it. There are no notifications from your smartphone, no tracking your steps – just seriously improved precision and rate accuracy.
Are hybrid watches popular?
The four watches above (of course, this list is far from exhaustive) generally have a pretty niche audience. The one exception would be Grand Seiko Spring Drives, which are greatly admired by mechanical watch collectors and enthusiasts everywhere. But that’s not to say there isn’t a market for hybrid watches. However, in many ways, they seem like an answer to a question no one asked.
Smartwatches have not impacted the market for high-end luxury watches in the way people thought they would five years ago. At the time, many industry observers – mostly from the tech industry – proclaimed that the Apple watch spelled the end of the mechanical watch as we know it. The lower end of the market (i.e., below $500) has certainly been heavily affected, but for watches worth $2,000 or more, which includes all of the aforementioned watches except the Summit 2, it’s a very different story. If anything, more people are buying luxury mechanical watches now than when that prediction was made. Why? Well, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of luxury watch enthusiasts aren’t interested in hybrid timepieces anyway.