A delightfully fun rumor coming from the watch industry has Apple trying to poach employees from high end time piece maker Hublot and setting up shop in Switzerland so that the unannounced "iWatch" can be "Swiss Made."
The comments came from Jean-Claude Biver, the head of the Watches and Jewelry division of LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.A. (LVMH) and the chairman of luxury watch brand Hublot, in an interview with French language magazine PME, which was passed along by French language iGeneration.fr, translated by Google, and noticed by iDownloadBlog.
Mr. Biver is what we in the tech world might call a "character," and whom the watch world might think of as "colorful." He's known for being able to create buzz about his companies, and for being outspoken, and it's important to consider his comments in the right light.
First of all, there's little doubt to me that Apple tried to poach employees from his company, and it's likely that that this was was for the company's wearables project that the outside world calls the "iWatch." According to Mr. Biver, all of those employees refused Apple's advances.
Because Hublot is a watch maker, it's easy to leap to the conclusion that Apple was after Hublot's mechanical engineers known as watchmakers because we all have "watch" on the brain. Apple's iWatch won't be a mechanical watch, but it's possible that Apple was looking for watchmakers to help solve problems with ergonomics or some other issue.
It's much less likely that Apple needed help fitting stuff inside its iWatch—Apple is already the master at such things when it comes to electronics. But, there are many more people that work for the larger watch companies, including metallurgists.
There are a lot of super high-tech alloys used in the watch world*, and Hublot has one called "Magic Gold" that is a combination of gold and ceramic. In 2013, Mr. Biver said that Apple asked him to license that alloy for use in a high end iPhone. Mr. Biver refused, but in September of that year, Apple released the gold iPhone, lending credence to Mr. Biver's claims.
The point is that we don't know what problem Apple was trying to solve when it went recruiting in Switzerland, but you can bet it wasn't an issue relating to the mechanics of high-end time pieces.
The idea of Apple marketing the iWatch as "Swiss Made" is intriguing, if improbable. The "Swiss Made" label is not only tightly controlled by the Swiss government (read iDownloadBlog's explanation of the regulations governing use of this term), it has the most value in the mechanical watch world, not electronics.
Even there, however, it's only watch geeks like me and Dave Hamilton that care whether or not a watch is "Swiss Made." The watch industry does billions of dollars per year, but most people not only no longer wear watches, those who do buy far more quartz devices than "Swiss Made" mechanical marvels.
Apple also has a lot of its image invested in the "Designed in California" label it uses, and I just can't see the company switching from "Designed in California" to "Swiss Made" for iWatch. Apple seldom confuses its message, and the company isn't going to start doing so here.
I can, however, easily buy the idea of Apple wanting to launch an R&D facility in Switzerland. Something Apple does very, very well is learn from disciplines and arts unrelated to computers, smartphones, tablets, and other electronics.
This is at the root of Steve Jobs's use of the concept that "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." While widely misinterpreted by Apple haters as proof that Apple doesn't invent anything, it's real meaning in terms of Steve Jobs is that there is enormous value in borrowing ideas—especially aesthetics—from other disciplines and bringing them to the world of technology.
With that in mind, a facility in Switzerland where Apple could recruit from the awesome pool of watchmaking know-how makes a lot of sense. There are plenty of ideas that Apple could use to disrupt the world of computing, and really, it's more of a surprise that Apple hasn't long had R&D offices in the country.
There's little doubt in my mind that Mr. Biver's comments are based on factual occurrences. Apple probably did try to license Magic Gold, and Apple has very likely been recruiting from manufactures. What we can conclude from that, however, is open to much wider interpretation, but I reject the idea that Apple is or was wanting to be able to put "Swiss Made" on its wearables product.
*Fun fact: Seiko has an alloy it developed for a bell for use with a minute-repeater that reproduces the sound made by a much larger ceremonial bell used in Japan. The company didn't patent the metal because it didn't want its competitors to be able to use that patent to reverse engineer and copy and the alloy. Watch companies take metallurgy seriously.