Technology moves at a breakneck pace. You don’t need to be a student of Moore’s Law to see that the devices and gadgets we use today are light years ahead of the hottest items just a few short years ago. Compared to the new 1.5-pound, single-port Apple MacBook, the portable computers from a decade back are overweight, plodding behemoths with barely enough battery life to make it through The Godfather, let alone a productive day of work.
And this dynamic is even more apparent with our phones. Not only do the miniature computers in our pockets get smarter, faster and more powerful with each generation, they’ve trained us to adapt to an unprecedented upgrade cycle. Once our carrier contracts run out we rush to re-up, selling, handing down or otherwise discarding the models that were cutting-edge just 24 months prior. We keep jeans and wallets until they’re worn out and frayed, but we’re all too quick to declare our smartphones obsolete well before their expiration dates.
We tend to obsess a bit more over the things we wear, and in many ways watches are the ultimate expression of individuality—functional fashion statements that can convey status, importance and attitude. It’s no different with smartwatches. Apple has even dubbed its first watch (which you’ll start seeing on wrists later this week) “our most personal device yet,” no small claim for a company that pioneered the personal computer with the Mac, the personal digital assistant with the Newton MessagePad and the personal digital music player with the iPod.
“I’m not sure Captain Koons would go to such great lengths to deliver an Apple Watch Edition to a young Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction, but Apple shouldn’t have too much trouble selling them to its target audience.”
Watches are cherished in a way tech gadgets are not. Luxury timepieces from Rolex and Patek Philippe don’t necessarily do anything their Swatch and Casio counterparts can’t, but collectors and enthusiasts happily fork over tens of thousands of dollars for the pleasure of wearing them.
Presumably, that’s the logic behind the Apple Watch Edition, a five-figure, solid-gold version of the same aluminum watch Apple sells for $349. With a model that approaches $20,000 (including a $1,500 AppleCare+ three-year accident replacement warranty), Apple isn’t just selling the most expensive piece of technology in its history; it’s merging technology and luxury in an unprecedented way.
However, the notion that luxury watches are smart investments—like a near-mint copy of Action Comics #1 or a deadstock pair of limited edition retro Air Jordans—is a serious misconception. The opposite is very often true; for example, an 18K yellow gold Rolex that sold for nearly $35,000 in 1999 only fetches between $10,000 and $16,000 today, depending on condition.
“Really very few watches are good long-term investments, as they lose value over time like cars,” observes Ariel Adams, founder and editor-in-chief of the popular watch enthusiast site aBlogtoWatch.com and author of The World’s Most Expensive Watches. “With that said, traditional mechanical watches aren’t getting any more obsolete than they already are, so they have a significantly longer lifespan when it comes to utility than technology products.”
Even if you’re not a world-renowned author and watch expert like Adams, it’s easy to see the difference between a watch with gears and one with a computer chip. A wristwatch bought in 2015 will keep time just as well in 2025, but technology advances just a wee bit quicker; in 10 years, there’s no telling what Apple Watch will be capable of doing, and with a battery that isn’t user replaceable, there’s no guarantee that today’s model will even work a decade from now.
“You cannot deny that the electronics industry has a vested interest in wanting to create a clear upgrade schedule for consumers to have interest in their newest products,” Adams points out. “Apple is arguably the king of this [business model], so their argument about one generation of Apple Watch having a long-lasting appeal for consumers is thin when we all know Apple is going to be releasing new ones in the future.”
And therein lies the conundrum with Apple Watch Edition: Even if you can afford to buy one, should you?
It comes down to taste. Unlike phones and tablets, there’s an intrinsic value connected to luxury watches. Even after they’ve been retired from our wrists, we tend to tuck them into drawers or hand them down as keepsakes. And assuming there will always be a way to fix broken screens and balky batteries, it shouldn’t be all that different with Apple Watch Edition.
“I believe that many people misunderstand Apple’s value proposition thinking that they are trying to entice buyers with the ultimate investment gadget,” Adams says. “In my opinion, that isn’t Apple’s tactic at all. Instead, Apple is presenting a product to people who are already used to and comfortable buying high-end luxury watches who don’t wear steel timepieces. Apple wants luxury consumers who are already wearing gold watches to feel that they don’t need to downgrade in order to wear an Apple Watch.”
Now, I’m not sure Captain Koons would go to such great lengths to deliver an Apple Watch Edition to a young Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction, but Apple shouldn’t have too much trouble selling them to its target audience. We’ve already seen the likes of Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry (see image above) and Drake rocking Editions before the general public could even order one, and Apple is basically adopting the age-old adage for the most luxurious gadget around: If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. And if you can, you aren’t going to care about a potentially short shelf life.
Besides, the super rich are already using Apple products other people can’t afford. Aftermarket modifier Feld & Volk has built a lucrative business selling iPhones that are no different on the inside than the ones we buy for a few hundred bucks. But outside they’re coated in carbon fiber, titanium, sapphire and, of course, gold to give an exclusive look (and a price tag) that sets them apart from the masses. Company co-founder Alexander Volkov, however, isn’t concerned about Apple horning in on his racket.
“The launch of a gold Apple Watch was mostly a move to get more media coverage and to enter fashion world, which is traditionally indifferent to tech novelties,” Volkov remarks. “Production of this version will be ‘single-piece’ anyway and probably meant to make this model collectible.”
If anything, Feld & Volk proves that people will happily pay thousands of dollars for technology dressed in premium clothing. Volkov says he doesn’t doubt that Apple has indeed “changed the perception of the watchmaking industry” with Apple Watch Edition, and to that end, his company is already working on a “more perfect” watch than the one Apple sells.
And something tells me his customers won’t be too concerned if it’s obsolete in a year or two.