Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, May. 13th
One of the most talked about features of the Apple Watch this year has been the pricing. The consumer electronics juggernaut took a big pricey step into the world of luxury goods this year by offering up an 18 karat gold version of the device.
If you want to roll with the celebrities who are sporting that flashiest of versions you’re looking at dropping $10,000. For, as everyone will tell you, a watch that is almost certainly going to be obsolete in about three years time.
Or you could just gold plate the steel version. Which is something that is businesses are offering up for a few hundred bucks here and there.
But there is an alternative: Do-It-Yourself gold plating, using a device powered by Apple’s own iPhone charger. Or at least there will be if chemist Eric Knoll gets his way.
“His way” being a Kickstarter with a rather modest goal: $1,500 for his Midas Touch USB kit, which has everything a body needs for turning a humble steel watch into a shiny simulacrum of what Beyoncé wears.
We talked with Eric Knoll about the project.
Turnstyle: What prompted you to build a DIY gold plating kit?
Eric Knoll: After reading the original press release from Apple about the pricing of the Watch (March 9, 2015), within 5 seconds I thought: hold on Apple, have you ever heard of gold plating? It would make the steel watch look exactly like the $10,000 gold one. Later on, when jewelers started offering plating of the watch for $400 – $1000, I got annoyed. The profit margins on plating are crazy.
Then some research on 5th Avenue in NYC at ultra luxury watch stores: Breguet, Cartier, Tourneau, Omega, TAG Heuer. All stores I never visited, as I never earned enough money. These are not your Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs or other mid-tier $500 to $2000 watches. I walked in the Breguet store, and asked to try their popular model, the Marine 5823, which is one of their lower priced watches at $16,000. I asked if they ever made a gold plated watch. The salesman looked at me with horror. “No, Breguet does not do gold plating. This model is available in stainless steel or solid gold.”
The luxury watch brands have stainless steel and gold versions of the same watch, just like Apple. But their stainless steel entry price point is >$10,000. The gold versions are priced 50% to 90% more. Now I was pissed off – Apple was trying to have their cake and eat it, too, by hitting the top tier super rich with the gold watch, and the middle and upper middle class with the aluminum and steel versions at 1/20th the price. Other luxury brands don’t do this.
I was reminded of an interview on Bloomberg WEST of Tom Perkins, the cofounder of the famous Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers: “My Watch isn’t a Rolex; I could buy a six-pack of Rolexes for this.” His watch is a $380,000 Richard Mille timepiece. Yet, I never compared or considered these watches, or the Breguets, or Cartiers. They’re all out of our price range. Sure the super rich have them, but most of us are not exposed to that. With Apple, that’s a different story. See next answer.
TS: The price of the Apple Watch Edition seems to have gotten under your skin: has Apple’s entry into the luxury market tarnished their reputation in your eyes?
EK: Absolutely, what a ridiculous price. Here is the original copy of the “Motivation” section on my kickstarter page, which I toned down. Friends said the original copy might deter my target audience – people who love Apple and just spent $600 on a watch.
The estimated value of gold in the Apple Watch Edition is $650. The absurd price increase between the steel and gold versions is pure profit. The gold watch is the most profitable product ever for Apple.
We love Apple products, such as our iPhones. They are aspirational and attainable. But this new Apple product is the first one truly out of our reach. Are you irritated at the growing divide between us and the super rich? They can purchase a $10,000 watch with as much financial consideration as we purchase a beer.
With other Apple products, like our iPhones, we all get the same phone! I have the same one as a billionaire. This is the first product for which certain tiers of the product are out of reach.
TS: Talk science to me: why is it a three step process? Why doesn’t the gold solution look like gold?
Step 1: cleaning solution. same process jewelers use called electro-cleaning. It removes dirt and oil, the enemies of gold plating. Any oil/dirt spots will not be properly plated.
Step 2: Woods Nickel Solution, an acidic solution which plates an imperceptible amount of nickel onto the steel. Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, carbon, and chromium. The chromium interferes with adhesion of the gold atoms to the steel surface. But nickel can adhere to steel, then gold adheres well to the nickel.
Step 3: Plating of the gold. The gold solution is purple because of the gold complex. The solution is not tiny flecks or microscopic chunks of gold floating in the water. Each atom of gold is separated from other gold atoms, and complexed with other chemicals in the water, which create the purple color. An analogy: Many of us are familiar with the color of pure copper – golden. But the Statue of Liberty is made out of copper, and She is green. Why, the pure golden copper is transformed into a green color when it reacts with the elements.
Each of these steps is driven by an electrical energy supplied by a low (safe) DC voltage from the USB charger. Electrochemistry!
TS: How much are the materials costing you to make a kit? You’re not taking a loss on the gold are you?
EK: The material cost is about $35. The cost of just the gold is about $2. Yes, that’s right, $2. Gold plating deposits a thin layer of gold on the surface – around 0.2 to 0.7 microns (depending on how long you let the process go), which is above the FTC regulations of 0.175 microns for gold plated jewelry. This is thinner than a sheet of paper or the cross section of a strand of your hair. Yet it is thick enough to last. It will wear, but, hey, probably by the time it shows wear, it will be time to upgrade to the Apple Watch 2.0. Or you can re-plate the worn areas. Or you can use an abrasive polishing compound to remove the gold plating completely and get your original steel back. But just don’t give $10,000 to Apple!
TS: How well does the watch still work after the process? Does it interfere with the heart rate sensor, for instance?
EK: The process does not damage the watch. The Apple Watch has a water resistance rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529 – which means that it can withstand being submerged in shallow water for up to 30 minutes. As a result, the water based solutions do not damage the watch (when applied following the instructions with the kit; and when limiting the exposure time of the step 2 solution – the acidic solution, as per my instructions). The watch face (sapphire or glass) is not affected, as these materials are chemically inert to the solutions. Same goes for the ceramic back of the watch that has the heart rate sensor.
I’ve tested the process on a few Apple watches already, even with a sloppy, and somewhat abusive application process (to test the limits) without any damage to the watch.
The ultimate irony is that if this goes viral, it may help Apple make more money selling the steel watches, and may not detract buyers of the solid gold ones, as they’re in an entirely different consumer category. Also, I never intended to buy this watch – I only did so to do this project. But now that I have it, I’m starting to appreciate some of its functions. Never thought that would happen. This watch is about changing behavior – using something differently – which most of us can’t imagine until we try it out for a few weeks. I’m still not at the point that I think there is a $600 value – but getting there.
As of this writing Knoll’s project stands at $1,165 out of the $1500 goal with 27 days to go.