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A New Digital Era

The watch business isn’t an industry with a lot of innovation and the objective from day one has been to do things that others haven’t been willing to do.

A typical digital watch remains a dull, black design with a gray LCD. Some companies have tried to dress it up with added features and functionality while others have surrounded the drab display with vibrant colors and brushed metals to try and force the consumer to look beyond grandpa’s old Casio.

Donald Brewer, founder and managing director of Phosphor Watches, wanted to find a way to use traditional watch materials, such as diamonds, crystals, and wood grains to tell time itself, in the digital representation.

Bred for the watch business, Brewer is the former vice president of technology for FOSSIL Watches. He left the company five years ago in pursuit of a digital watch with higher perceived fashion value. He was first approached by E Ink to license the company’s electronic paper-display technology to existing watch manufacturers.

When the larger brands balked at the idea, Brewer embraced the flexible display technology. He thought E Ink offered something unique, and he embraced the idea of curved watch designs with an ink-on-paper appearance.

In parallel, he also began working on a mechanical digital technology to deliver colorful representations of digital time. He sought out a cost-effective way to have contrasting crystals or wood grains represent the time and stumbled upon flip-dot displays, which are commonly used in buses and outdoor display terminals.

With some effort with a magnetic expert from MIT, Brewer designed a system that worked both mechanically and electromagnetically, and Micro-Magnetic Mechanical Digital (M3D) technology was born. M3D uses miniature rotors adorned with Swarovski crystals that mechanically rotate to reveal numerical or chronological information.

A couple of years before Phosphor attempted M3D technology, a Swiss company used traditional watch mechanics and rotors to create a similar mechanical digital effect -- they manufactured 100 pieces that sold for $100,000 each. Clearly, cost was an issue. Being able to make a reliable watch with multiple flippers that fit into a standard form factor was a tall task on its own. But Brewer also had to pull it off for a watch that retailed in the $150 to $200 range.

To reign in the cost of production, Brewer had to manufacture in Shenzhen, China.

“The watches can only be produced in China,” says Brewer. “It took us an extra year of production engineering to identify the processes. We have coils that are 1 x 2 mm that have to be soldered to a PCB – and you have 46 of them. The complications involved very tiny components, and it took a lot of engineering to optimize the soldering process. The components are tiny, but it still requires a certain amount of labor and handling.”

From concept to development, the production of the Phosphor Appear digital watches took four years. According to Brewer, the engineering talent exists in the U.S. and Europe. After spending a few years stateside trying to achieve a mass production state, he took his prototype to Shenzhen.

“Doing new stuff, especially from a development perspective, is very challenging in China,” Brewer says. “The modus operandi that I had was to seek out experts domestically and in Europe and develop the watch to a working sample stage. China is really good at is figuring out how to actually make this thing. I can make one domestically, but I go to China to figure out how to make 100,000.”

The watch business isn’t an industry with a lot of innovation; most of the brain power is found in consumer electronics. Brewer’s objective from day one has been to do things that the watch company’s haven’t been willing to do, and the jury is still out on whether it was a solid business decision. Right now, both the E Ink and M3D have a lot of excitement and interest from consumers and resellers, but it’s challenging when the company is selling a product that has otherwise never been done before.

“A woman would never imagine wearing some kind of cheap LCD looking watch,” Brewer proclaims. “In the future, we hope that we will be able to layout segments in any orientation, using any type of materials. It lends itself to unlimited possibilities from a fashion perspective.”