With $10K Apple Watch, Apple tests its power as tastemaker

Think luxury. In jumping into the business of keeping time, Apple (APPL) isn't only betting that the time is right for the smartwatch -- it's also positioning itself as a high-end fashion brand targeting affluent customers.

After all, among the Apple Watch products the technology giant outlined today in a closely watched event in San Francisco is the so-called Edition model, which is encased in 18-karat rose or yellow gold and comes with a virtually scratch-proof sapphire crystal. The price? A cool $10,000. Even pricier versions sell for between $12,000 and $17,000.

Although the base aluminum and glass Apple Watch will retail for a more affordable $349, Apple also appears to hope that watch aficionados, along with younger consumers, will embrace the new gadget as a status symbol, and even as a work of fine craftsmanship. Prices for the stainless model will range from $549 to $1,049, depending on the size and watchband buyers choose.

When it introduced the iPhone and iPad, by contrast, Apple offered them in one size and one color. So as a marketing challenge, the Apple Watch marks a departure for the Cupertino, California, company.

"The Apple Watch has the sleek, forward-looking appearance of most Apple products," Nicole Phelps, executive editor at Style.com, told CBS MoneyWatch. "Most likely, the main audience will be gadget-heads, but it's not so futuristic-looking that it's going to scare off watch collectors who will want one for novelty's sake."

The Apple Watch is scheduled to start shipping April 24, with pre-orders starting April 10.

Apple's foray into wearable technology is a calculated risk. Work on the Apple Watch started around the time of the death of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2011, and marks the company's first entry into a new product category under the leadership of his successor, Tim Cook. As part of its fashion-forward push into watches, Apple has added several high-profile executives to its ranks from the fashion industry, including former Yves Saint Laurent Group CEO Paul Deneve; ex-Burberry head Angela Ahrendts; and Patrick Pruniaux, who oversaw sales for Tag Heuer, a high-end watch brand owned by France's LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

Apple is entering the wearables segment less than three years after the debut of Google Glass, glasses that enabled people to access their smartphone apps. Rival Samsung unveiled its smartwatch called the Galaxy Gear in 2013. Both products flopped.

But many experts think the Apple Watch will be a game-changer, scratching an itch that many consumers still don't know they have. Wall Street analysts expect the company to sell as many as 14 million Apple Watches over the next year or so, according to Bloomberg News. Market researcher Strategy Analysts forecasts that more than 28 million smartwatches will be sold globally this year, versus 4.6 million in 2014. Apple is expected to 55 percent of the market, according to Neil Mawston, an analyst.

Sandra Markus, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is a fan of the Apple Watch, calling the design "amazing." She had previously tested Google Glass, along with the Pebble, a rival smartwatch that began selling in 2013.

"Having had a smartwatch before, I found it incredibly useful," she said. "I felt like it I was one with my technology."

One reason Google Glass didn't seem to resonate was that people found it to be invasive, allowing users to surreptitiously take pictures or record video. Apple won't have that problem with something as seemingly innocuous as a watch.

"I don't think society was ready for It," Markus said, alluding to Google Glass. "This is really the wave of the future. ... it's going to redefine the watch industry."

More than a dozen traditional watchmakers have announced smartwatches over the past few months that will compete with the Apple Watch.

So far, however, reaction within the industry to Apple's entry has been mixed, said Gary Girdvainis, publisher of WristWatch Magazine and About Time Magazine. "I have had feedback ranging from full-on panic to 'It's not going to hurt us,' and everything in between," he said.

Apple Watch's small screen size may turn off some consumers, who are used to larger viewing areas on devices such as the company's iPhone 6, according to Girdvainis. Another potential turnoff could be the 18-hour battery life.

"I, for one, believe the minuscule visual and tactile interface of the tiny screen will mitigate much of the ostensible functionality of the watch," he wrote in an email. "As I mentioned, there's a reason Apple made the iPhone 6 bigger, and it wasn't for a bigger battery."

Then there is the question of who will fix an Apple Watch if something goes wrong. Apple is in discussions with the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute about enabling its members, who fix high-end watches, to repair Apple Watches, said Jordan Ficklin, the trade group's executive director.

Apple is "using the language of watchmaking, not the language of technology to promote this product," he said. "The competition will rise to the challenge. If I was a watch brand competing in the under $500 market, I would certainly be paying close attention.

  • Jonathan Berr On Twitter»

    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.