It is rare to be able to say this in the modern cornucopia of global watch brands, but Hoptroff watches are genuinely unique, Daniel Malins writes.
The brainchild of physicist and owner, Richard Hoptroff, these singular timepieces house electromechanical movements manufactured in-house using Bluetooth technology, and the brand claims to have invented the first watch to be regulated by its own atomic clock.
With smartwatches exploding (in the metaphorical, rather than astrophysical sense) at this year’s Baselworld, and a proliferation of established watch brands dipping their toe in the murky smart water, how does Richard Hoptroff keep his watches ahead of the competition, technologically?
What are his views on the current crop of pretenders in the market, including the highly anticipated Apple Watch? And, having developed his own technology so much earlier than he had previously anticipated, just how far can he take his own brand?
In a wide-ranging chat with Hoptroff, all the above questions and more were raised and, for the most part, answered.
Before discussing any of his views on the smartwatch revolution and what it means for the watch industry, I wanted to ascertain what his background was and what his own watch offering was all about.
“After finishing my PhD in physics I started a forecasting software company, and after I sold it I just started designing watches, much to [his wife] Sarah’s annoyance,” Hoptroff jokes. “I came up with silly fantasy designs; I had no idea whether they’d even be possible in my lifetime. Then I actually had to go back to earning a living, so I started a Bluetooth module company that kept me going in the noughties.”
It was around 2010 that things started to take off on the watch side. “These electromechanical units became available and I realised I could take that and my Bluetooth technology and make smartwatch movements; so I thought ‘let’s go, let’s do it!’” he effuses. “I’d suddenly gone from wanting to be in watchmaking but not feeling that I’ve got anything to offer, to realising that I’ve got something really advanced that I can offer.”
This takes us neatly onto the background of his dealings in atomic technology. “The atomics were more to do with the fact that we were trying to calibrate our quartz movement to be the most accurate in the world, and to achieve that we need a very accurate time source.” So, undeterred and undaunted, he spotted a rack mounted atomic clock at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. As you do.
“I asked the department of defence if I could have one and they said ‘yes, alright’! So I started using it for about a month, calibrating the watches, before it crossed my mind to actually put it inside,” Hoptroff continues. “So we made the first atomic watch more or less by accident; nobody can take that away from us,” he proudly declares. “We made the first atomic watch, accurate to one second every 1,000 years.”
What of the rather peculiar and untraditional look of the double-dialled No. 16 watch (or, to you and me, the one with the double dial), which is his famous showcase of the technology described above? “It’s got the double dial because we can’t make it any smaller than this at the moment,” which explains the genuinely extraordinary look and size of the product.
“It’s an atomic timekeeping unit that’s used in cruise missiles, so in there is a vessel of caesium and a laser to excite the atoms, an oven to heat the atoms, a laser to excite the electrons, and a microwave resonator to extract the frequency of the electronic transition,” he continued.
Although leaving me totally spellbound, perplexed and befuddled with the terminology flowing from his mouth, there is something about Hoptroff’s casual excitement for the technology behind his creations that is truly infectious. The atomic watch is his baby, and to have made the first of anything in this world is certainly no mean feat.
“We also put some traditional complications on the watch, so we have normal time, sidereal time, equation of time, date, time of sunset, time of sunrise, moon phase, and power remaining. Again, it’s a smartwatch,” he reassures us. A smartwatch it may be, but nothing else out there looks quite like it. “There’s a lot of technology behind there but it’s not what people conventionally call a smartwatch.”
Which begs the question: what is his own definition of a smartwatch? “I would say it’s when you start using non-mechanical technologies to achieve things that you can’t achieve with mechanical technology,” he answers. And yet it clearly irks him that the dirty ‘smart’ word leaves some with the impression that his watches don’t cut the horological mustard. “It’s got more gear wheels than the average Patek, so you can’t say it’s not mechanical,” is Hoptroff’s rebuttle.
But with this technology, there is bound to be an issue with selling the timepieces, given the knowledge deficit among consumers and retailers alike. “The important thing is that we keep the watches very simple, which is why we tend to focus on just a very simple piece of functionality on each watch,” Hoptroff explains. This is true for all of his collection except for the showpiece No. 16 atomic watch. For example, one of the range just gives the wearer live football score, one gives stock market updates etc.
He also passionately believes in “supporting the hell out of the retailer.” This dedication to such a close and strong relationship with stockists goes some way to explaining the sparsity of the brand’s retailers. Only Frost of London stocks Hoptroff in the UK at the moment, but this seems to be as much about strategy as it is about being a young company. “The sorts of people that we have selling for us are the ones whose customers come in and say ‘show us something new,’ so they know that their job is to go out and find new, interesting things and learn about them because that’s how they will make money,” Hoptroff concludes. Selling Rolexes in Harrods, this is not.
For those smartwatch brands that aren’t as high-end as his own, Hoptroff still believes that the basic principles to retail success are the same. “In the end it’s not the problem of how you do it, it’s the problem of what you choose to do,” he prescribes. “Choosing very specific things that not only are very easy for the customer to understand, but also easy to sell and easy to operate and are reliable is key; you have to be very choosy about what you do.”
So the message for prospective smartwatch brands is to find a niche and stick to it. That way it’s easy for the retailer to get on board with it and understand it, which will allow them to provide the level of knowledge and service that a customer would expect.
Given the unprecedented levels of interest in smartwatches among watch retailers at the moment, especially after a Baselworld that had smartwatch fingerprints all over it, I pressed Hoptroff for his general views and musings on this rapidly growing sector and the other brands that he’s observed beginning to stick their irons in the fire.
“Being able to produce a smartwatch with hands that move is fairly rare,” declares Hoptroff. “On most smartwatches the hands just behave like a normal watch, which isn’t a bad thing. I love, for example, the Montblanc solution, where the buckle is smart and the front is a beautiful traditional watch. That appeals to my sense of luxury,” he gushes. Clearly he is a man who is constantly striving for the ultimate marriage of aesthetics with ergonomics, and he believes smartwatches can provide that perfect melting pot.
Which leads our discussion onto where the much-hyped, yet largely critically scorned, Apple Watch will fit into the ‘looks versus practicality’ spectrum and how seismic an effect its launch will have on the watch industry as we know it.
“I think people overestimate the impact that it’s going to have in the short term and underestimate the impact it’s going to have in the long term.” When pushed to elaborate, he continued, “In other words, if it is a bit of a squib this year after the initial glut in sales, then don’t write it off, because it will probably be heavyweight in five years’ time, in one form or another.”
If he is right and the Apple Watch (and its rivals) is a force to be reckoned within the medium-to-long term, how will other watch brands, including his own, cope with the turning tide? “I don’t feel a threat from Apple at all,” he confidently replies. “If someone buys an Apple watch today, they’re going to be more inclined to buy one of my watches in five years.”
And what of other brands who are operating far closer to Apple’s entry level price point? “Watch sales are far from cannibalistic. If somebody buys a smartwatch, they could happily buy another watch as well,” Hoptroff says, as if trying to ease the fears of every brand out there. “Consumers wouldn’t buy one and therefore choose not to buy the other, so in that sense I don’t see that any of this as a particular threat. These are goods that we buy to look and feel good, so the more of them that we can buy, the more we want.” Hoptroff’s optimism is clearly based on a lot of thought and knowledge on the subject, and he sees this as much as an opportunity as a danger.
In that vein of optimism, our thoughts turn to the future and what the next chapter is for Hoptroff. Although not a man likely to rest on his laurels, it must be challenging to stay motivated when you have already climbed your personal Everest, having produced the world’s first atomic wristwatch.
“More atomic models I think is one of the things we will do because there’s a lot of interest there,” outlines Hoptroff. “They may not be wristwatches, they may be a tie up with a car manufacturer or a boat manufacturer.” Not content with pushing horological boundaries, it seems he wants to do the same in other industries as well. Hoptroff himself shrugs off my raised eyebrows, saying: “You’d be surprised how easy it can be. Under the hood, the technology is no different to what I’d put in a car or in a boat.”
There we have it then. Richard Hoptroff: part eccentric physicist, part audacious entrepreneur, and part inspiring pioneer. Who knows if he’ll ever stop trying to pursue new adventures and achieve new goals? All we can say for certain is that he’s the lead surfer riding an exciting and mysterious wave that’s sweeping onto the beaches of the watch industry.