Earlier this fall, when it released its Ultra, Apple did more than simply put out a new timepiece: The company took its first truly momentous step forward with its watch since debuting it back in 2014. This was a watch designed to appeal to mechanical-watch aficionados. Not that the previous iteration didn’t suit their smartwatch needs, but, viewed horologically, Ultra features many of the characteristics found in a classic tool watch: the larger case size and crown; activity-specific bands (elastomer for diving, woven textile for climbing); and a fortress-like construction with a titanium case to protect the glass and crown guards.
The redesign is radical, and certainly newly alluring for Rolex fans, but Ultra’s best attribute is that it runs on software. Which means it can be truly multifunctional while still being smartly and beautifully crafted. In short, it does things that no conventional tool watch can.
Apple’s Alan Dye, vice president of human interface design, told me that the company was inspired by historic watches that were purpose-built for adventure. But it realized that a big virtue of the Ultra is that it can be so many different things at once. “We don’t need to confine ourselves to experiences for a single–use case,” he says. “The user can configure it to be the ultimate watch face, for hiking and orienteering, or running and diving.”
Or, for that matter, just a watch face that is pleasing to look at. The world-time dial, for instance, which has a map of Europe and Africa, adopts a visual language pioneered by Patek Philippe with its Heures Universelles watches, first produced in the ’30s. This intricate face design is now familiar to modern wearers of Vacheron Constantin’s Heures du Monde and Montblanc’s Star Legacy Orbis Terrarum, among many others. And it can be seen on the wrists of Apple fans for a fraction of the cost—and to much greater effect, thanks to the Ultra’s 49-mm screen.
Historically, Apple’s product designers have favored doing away with buttons, but Ultra is in part defined by the addition of a new, customizable Action button. As Evans Hankey, vice president of industrial design at Apple, explains, it “allows for quick access to a variety of capabilities that accommodate all sorts of activities.” It also contains updated hardware functions that set a new standard for the wristwatch as an essential safety device—like car-crash-detection hardware and the 86-decibel emergency siren.
Hankey describes Ultra as a sort of wrist-worn guardian angel. “As we near almost a decade with Apple Watch, we have learned about the pivotal role Apple Watch has played in the lives and health of our customers and their families,” she says. “It provides an enormous peace of mind around health and wellness, especially around heart health.” Ultra will notify you if your heart rate is too low, too high, irregular, or if you just aren’t doing enough cardio.
In conceiving Ultra, Apple went beyond the confines of Cupertino. “Research included meeting with modern-day explorers, ultra athletes, biologists, climate scientists, filmmakers, cyclists, and divers,” says Hankey. However diverse their disciplines, it seemed, they shared the same goal. “An underlying theme that echoed throughout our discussions was that, rather than being motivated by personal glory, each of them seemed driven by their relationship with our planet.” Ultra is infinitely customizable, but it launched with three essential activity–based profiles—the hiker, the endurance runner, and the underwater explorer.
While it may seem counterintuitive, what makes the Apple Watch so appealing to mechanical-watch enthusiasts is not the more overt references to mechanical watches. (At least not for this watch enthusiast). Watches that achieve greatness serve as excellent tools, with pleasing design and a strong identity. With Ultra, Apple has earned that distinction.