Ever since smartwatches started hitting the market, Swatch Group Chief Executive Officer Nick Hayek has downplayed their importance, dismissing even Apple’s offering as “not a milestone” and saying the devices pose no threat. But he’s not taking any chances. Swatch has filed 173 U.S. and international patent applications related to smart- and connected watches in recent years, most of them since 2012, according to Envision IP, a patent law firm in Raleigh, N.C. While aggressive patent filing is an essential protective strategy in the hyperlitigious technology industry, Envision says Swatch is laying the foundation for a potential lineup of smartwatches. The Swiss company has “developed and patented watch circuitry and hardware that will allow them to introduce their own branded smartwatch without having to partner with telecoms and handset makers,” says Maulin Shah, Envision’s managing attorney.
The epicenter of Swatch’s patent efforts is a subsidiary called Ingénieurs Conseils en Brevets, or Patent Consulting Engineers. From offices along a stone-arched arcade in the medieval Swiss town of Neuchâtel, lawyers manage the intellectual property developed by Swatch’s legions of researchers for timepieces ranging from $50 Flik Flaks to $5,000 Omega Seamasters to the $50,000-plus Breguet Classique Hora Mundi. A patent published in March is for a smart battery that allows data transmission. One from May is for a radio-frequency signal receiver. And one from October, naming Hayek as the inventor, is described as a “portable object for detecting presence of apparatus by wireless communication circuit.”
The company declined to say what any of the patents are for or to make Hayek or other inventors available for this article. Swatch says its patent unit filed a record number of applications in 2014, with a goal of protecting its innovations, gathering market intelligence, and fighting counterfeiting. In the past, Hayek has had little positive to say about smartwatches, criticizing them for their short battery life—typically 24 hours or less—and features that are easier to use on smartphones. The Apple Watch, while “the nicest” on the market, breaks no new ground with its design, Hayek said in March. “People are trying to put too much in there that a phone can already do,” he said.