Watches and eyeglasses have morphed into devices that many choose to spend time and money on, becoming not just tools, but a form of identity.
We could extend this a bit to handbags and to cars, but the number of items that qualify as functional jewelry is fairly small--and the market for each is huge, far bigger than if the only use was as a tool.
Apple has long flirted around the edges of this psychological sweetspot, and the reaction to yesterday's watch is fascinating to see.
1. What does this remind me of? is a key question people ask. Certain glasses make people look smart, because they remind us of librarians and scholars. Some cars remind us of movie chase scenes or funerals... If you're going to put something on my wrist, it's going to remind me of a watch. What sort of watch? The Pulsar my grandfather wore in 1973? A 175,000 euro Franck Muller Tourbillion, with complications?
Marketers rarely get the chance to start completely fresh, to say, "this reminds you of nothing, start here."
2. Do people like me wear something like this? is the challenge that the Google glass had (a challenge at which, so far, they have completely failed). Remember when bigshots used to wear Mont Blanc pens (oh, another bit of functional jewelry) in the outside pockets of their Armani suits? They didn't need a fountain pen that handy... it was a badge, a label, something the tribe did.
3. What story do I tell myself when I put this on? is the core of the fancy wristwatch marketing promise, because, after all, most people aren't going to realize quite how much you paid.
4. Do I want this to be noticed or invisible? is the fork in the road for all of this. You can buy a car or glasses or a watch that no one will comment on, remember or criticize. Or you can say, "look at this, look at me."
The iPhone and the iPod weren't launched as functional jewelry, they were pocketable tech, designed to be a tool for a user seeking a digital good-taste experience, but not originally thought of as jewelry. White headphones and phone cases and then Beats transformed these devices into a chance for individuals to wear a label and a message and tell a story (to themselves and to others) about their importance and tool choice.
The challenge the Apple watch faces right now is that there are only three of them. And successful jewelry is never, ever mass. Even engagement rings come in 10,000 varieties.
So, as technology people continue to eye the magical fashion business with envy, they're going to have to either change our culture, to create a 1984-style future in which all jewelry is the same jewelry, for all knowledge workers, slave to their devices, or they need to shift gears and understand that people are sometimes more like peacocks, eager for their own plumage, stories and narratives.
Or they could just make tools that are hard to live without.