The new rules of water-resistant watches

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We ask whether the new standard will be good, bad or indifferent.

The internationally recognised standard for water-resistant watches has been updated to make the system simpler for shoppers to understand, but will it make enough of a difference to consumers to justify the investment needed by the trade? Rachael Taylor reports.

A spade is certainly not a spade in the current world of water-resistant watches. Despite having a standard to comply with, the process is so confusing that consumers are often left struggling to work out just what they can and can’t do whilst wearing a water-resistant watch. 

The current certification process is very technical. Watches are subjected to a pressure test to determine at what depth the watch will begin to take water into the case, but this scientific test usually has little relevance to everyday wear.

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If a watch reaches 30m before the case leaks then it will be branded as water resistant to a depth of 30m, but in reality the watch seal cannot usually cope with total submersion at any depth for extended periods of time, let alone function at 30m. And so confusion reigns.

“If someone is told a watch has a 100m resistance, then telling them they can’t do watersports with it causes a lot of confusion,” says Philip Wolkind, divisional manager for Casio’s timepiece division in the UK. “I think a lot of consumers are concerned about whether they can wear their watch in the shower, for example, and the understanding of the standard does have an impact.”

ISO agrees and to respond to the confusion created by the current system it has set about to clarify the certification process. The update of the water resistance standard ISO 22810 will mean that watches will be tested against everyday uses for the watch instead of one-off pressure tests. Following the criteria of the new standard, manufacturers must prove that watches that claim to be water resistant to 30m can be worn for all types of aquatic activities to that depth without any water penetrating the case. Watch manufacturers will be able to determine the types of tests that they put the watches to but the tests must comply with watersports best practices.

“The new ISO standard represents a win-win situation for both industry and consumers,” says Vincent Grossenbacher, secretary of the subcommittee that developed the new standard. “For the first time, manufacturers are free to choose the tests and sampling plan, on condition that the end product meets the requirements of ISO 22810. Consumers, on the other hand, gain guaranteed protection that any watch on the market sold as water-resistant must satisfy ISO 22810 – regardless of the brand.”

Wolkind has praised the standardisation update and believes that it will help consumers to better understand water-resistant watches and will also make it easier for retailers to sell the watches as staff will not need the same level of training because of the simpler terminology.

“It’s much more sensible and consumers should be able to understand a lot more than the current system which only retailers and professionals within the watch industry understand,” he says. “The other advantage is that retail staff won’t need training because it will be more intuitive and if we say it is water resistant to 30m you can actually go down to 30m with it rather than having to explain that if it’s 200m water resistance that’s when you can go to 30m.”

Citizen general manager Alan Mace is less convinced by the changes to the standard. While he says Citizen “would welcome any change that would clear up the issue”, he doesn’t believe it will make a difference to the average watch shopper.

“Obviously we will adhere to any regulations and tests that need to be done in order to authenticate our products but I don’t think it will make a big difference,” says Mace. “I don’t think it’s at the top of a consumer’s check list when they buy a watch.”

Mace goes on to say that the only watch shoppers who would specifically look for water resistant standards are those interested in specialised watersports such as diving. While the ISO 22810 covers daily use and swimming, ISO has a further standard for scuba diving, the ISO 6425.

“For general use such as ‘Can I swim in the sea or go in the swimming pool with it?’, I’m not too sure it would clear up a situation where those questions would be asked,” says Mace.” You can argue that the starting point of this is when many watches are called water resistant people are confused as to whether this means waterproof.”

Mace also argues that the ISO standard will have limited use over the lifetime of a watch. “People are not aware that when you change a watch battery you break the seal and it loses its resistance,” he says. “That’s one of my biggest concerns; when someone goes to change the battery, how many people will then think to have their watch altered back to the correct level of resistance?”

Whether or not every watch shopper takes note of the new standard should be irrelevant as long as it clears up the issue for those who are interested, but there is the not-so-small issue of the costs involved in such a huge industry-wide change.

“It does mean a lot of work for the industry because it means a lot of point of sales and a lot of watches will have to change,” says Wolkind. Like any major incentive that generates extra admin issues, such as the change in VAT, the new standard will hit margins. But the longer-term benefits could be worth the initial cash injection.

Consumers’ mindsets have been changing and the post-recession shopper is now willing to spend, but only on products they feel are worth the money. For those on the hunt for what they determine to be a quality watch, the discovery that a timepiece with a water resistance depth of 200m can only be worn to 30m would no doubt be a nasty surprise. This new easy-to-understand ISO 22810 should go some way to giving consumers unfamiliar with the intricacies of watch mechanics an extra confidence boost.

As watch brands and retailers recover after a tough few years the thought of this extra admin cost might leave a bitter taste in the mouth but the initial financial outlay may well result in increased shopper confidence, and therefore increased sales.
As Wolkind says: “The initial implementation will be costly but overall it will have a benefit because it will be a lot more transparent for the consumer.” And in a world where consumers are looking for brands they can trust, clarity is of the utmost importance.

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