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The black-belt watch designer's next move

Yvan Arpa made his name creating eccentric analogue timepieces. Now he's focusing on the next generation of smartwatches.

By Keith W. Strandberg, Editor-in-Chief, Revolution USA

   Just as I prepare to ask watch designer and professional provocateur Yvan Arpa my next question about his craft, he produces a mawashi-geri (roundhouse kick) aimed squarely at my head. With that, the question is gone.

The interview is not going particularly badly: Arpa and WIRED are sparring in a training hall wearing protective gear. Arpa is a black belt in Japanese Kyokushin karate and his weekly sparring sessions help him clear his busy mind.

   A man of many talents, Arpa has worked for a number of high-end Swiss brands, including Romain Jerome (he came up with the idea for the Titanic DNA line of watches), Jacob & Co, Hublot and several from the Richemont Group. Korean electronics giant Samsung scoured Switzerland for a designer before finding Arpa, and he has been working with them ever since. He runs his own brand ArtyA, and is the designer behind Samsung's Gear S3 line of smartwatches.

   "I am always interested in new projects," Arpa says. ''What I like about the Samsung approach is that they are open minded. They wanted to review my work, and they were more interested in the stories behind he watches, like that of the Black Belt Watch [only sold to black belts in the martial-arts], the Son of a Gun [with real bullets inside] and the Son of Sound [inspired by guitars]. So, when I started designing smartwatches, every choice I made I had to explain. They deferred to my expertise."

   One of the important parts of the brief from Samsung is that the company wanted to combine Swiss craftsmanship with its own smartwatch technology. In short, they wanted the piece to be less a gadget and more a watch.

   "I wanted to use high-end 316L steel, like Rolex and the rest of the Swiss watch industry does," he explains. "I did a 'touch atelier' for them, so they could handle all the materials. I showed them low-quality steel and had them touch and feel it, then I showed them the steel options with 316L, with knurling, satin finishes and more."

  The smart watch is widely considered to be the enemy of the high-end Swiss-watchmaking industry, but Arpa disagrees. "Smartwatches get people - especially young people - wearing watches; it gets them used to wearing something on their wrists," he points out. "I was not so keen on wearing a smartwatch, but now it has become a part of my life. I now know my steps and my heart rate, it keeps me on schedule and I can make calls on it, so it is useful. I haven't stopped wearing mechanical watches, however, and I never will." 

   One of the challenges facing Arpa was changing his own mindset when approaching the project. "When I design for my brand, ArtyA, as well as others, I start with a mechanical movement," he says. "And I have to protect this delicate movement from outside forces. With Samsung, the watch has to be in contact with the smartphone, with your own body, with the web and more, so this is a different approach. I cannot protect the watch in the same way. It's an open-heart concept, which appealed to me."

   Arpa is already working on the next generation of the Samsung smartwatch, and the demands on his time while developing his own brand are extreme. "Eating my brain" is the typically colourful way he describes it. As a result, he needs the "moving meditation" of martial-arts training more than ever.

   The fight/interview continues. Under his glove, Arpa is wearing his Samsung Gear S3 Frontier (above) to record activity data, monitor his heart rate - and probabIy register the force with which he is hitting WIRED in the head. artya.com