Smartwatch shipments outpace Swiss watch for first time: Research

Could appetite for the respected Swiss watch be fading? Smartwatch producers shipped out more of their devices than top-notch timepieces at the end of last year, according to new research.

Apple Watch vs Rolex wristwatches
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Apple Watch vs Rolex wristwatches

Global smartwatch shipments hit 8.1 million in 2015's fourth quarter, outpacing Swiss watch shipments for the first time on a global scale, the latest research from Strategy Analytics suggests.

Of those 8.1 million smartwatch shipments, tech giant Apple dominated the batch. The Apple Watch produced 63 percent of the market in 2015's final quarter, followed by Samsung, who acquired 16 percent. Put together, the tech duo accounted for 8 in 10 smartwatches shipped.

Meanwhile, the traditional Swiss watch delivered 7.9 million global shipments in 2015's last three months, a decline of 5 percent from 2014's figure of 8.3 million.

The figures show that the major Swiss watch players are "struggling to find growth" Strategy Analytics analyst, Steven Waltzer, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Executive director Neil Mawston added that the industry has been "sticking its head in the sand and hoping smartwatches will go away," with Swiss brands like Tag Heuer only accounting for a "tiny 1 percent" of all smartwatches shipped during the quarter.

Swiss businesses had to face a number of challenges throughout the year, from the slowing growth in China to the Swiss National Bank abandoning its currency peg against the euro. However, it was the rise in connected devices, such as the Apple Watch, that hit the traditional watch industry in particular.

The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry highlighted these challenges Thursday, when it reported that Swiss watch exports had seen a 7.9 percent decline in January 2016 compared to the year before, with leading markets Hong Kong and the U.S. being "almost exclusively (responsible) for the global downturn."

Overall, Swiss watches recorded a 3.3 percent decline in exports during 2015 — coming in at 21.5 billion Swiss francs ($21.7 billion) — its first annual fall since 2009.

Despite signs of struggle, Tag Heuer's chief executive, Jean-Claude Biver told CNBC in February that this figure was "phenomenal" for a product which has been dealing with a number of global headwinds.

Swiss watch moguls haven't ignored the rise in smart technology with several brands showing an interest in entering the smartwatch space, and Tag Heuer even creating its own line of luxury smartwatches, released late 2015.

However, Tag Heuer's CEO did warn prior to the company's launch into the space, that smartwatches above the $2,000 price tag would face "a huge problem".

"There is no eternity, it means it will become obsolete and who wants to buy a $10,000 - $20,000 watch that becomes obsolete after five or 10 years?" Biver told CNBC in October 2015, adding that a traditional timepiece would outlive technologies which eventually evolve and become outdated.

By CNBC's Alexandra Gibbs, follow her @AlexGibbsy and @CNBCi