High-Tech Cocktail Rings Take a Fashion-First Approach to Wearable Tech

By Gabrielle Karol FOXBusiness

Wearable tech with bling appeal

NYC startup Ringly is making 18-karat gold rings that vibrate to notify wearers of incoming messages.

It’s a bling-y ring that lets you know when someone’s ringing – or emailing, texting, Facebook-ing or tweeting.

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That’s the idea behind New York City startup Ringly’s new line of high-tech cocktail rings, launching Tuesday for preorders. The wearable technology is designed to resolve an issue CEO and co-founder Christina Mercando says she herself faced on a day-to-day basis.

“I was out and I had my phone in my purse, and I was missing important calls and messages from friends and family,” says Mercando. “And I looked down at my hands one day -- and I wear a lot of big rings -- and I said, I wonder if I can put something into my rings that would help solve this problem.”

Working with co-founder and mechanical engineer Logan Munro, Mercando sought to create a ring that could notify the wearer of incoming messages using flashing lights and various vibration patterns. Ringly’s cocktail rings take advantage of Bluetooth low energy technology to wirelessly sync with the startup’s smartphone app.

Wearers can use the iPhone or Android app to set different notifications for individual senders or types of message, i.e. flash blue for emails from the boss or vibrate and flash red for calls from the babysitter. The rings, which will ship this fall, are available for preorder for an early-bird price of $145.

Turning Wearable Tech into Fashion Jewelry

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Munro says the biggest challenge with Ringly was shrinking down the technology to the point that the rings didn’t immediately read as “wearable tech.”

“[W]e’re trying to make the technology almost invisible, so miniaturization is the main challenge for us – trying to get it small enough so we could put it anywhere, and we could really focus on the form of the jewelry, rather than fitting it around the technology,” says Munro.

While initial prototypes were the size of golf balls, the final product looks like a classic cocktail ring in terms of style, size and weight. Ringly worked with jewelry designer Annie Van Harlingen, a Fashion Institute of Technology grad who’s worked with Betsy Johnson, to design the 18-karat gold-plated rings. The initial line also features semi-precious stones in four different colors.

Ringly, which has raised $1 million in funding from investors such as First Round Capital and Andreessen Horowitz, isn’t the only startup looking to help women stop missing calls with wearable tech. Memi, a competitor, is also currently accepting preorders for its minimalist silver bracelets.

Memi co-founder Margaux Guerard says it was important to her and her co-founder Leslie Pearson that the bracelet actually looked like jewelry rather than popular activity trackers like the Fitbit or the Jawbone Up, or smart-watches such as Pebble. Guerard, who has an MBA from Wharton, has a background in luxury fashion; she quit her job as director of marketing for Diane von Furstenberg to work on Memi.

“My jeans are fitted … I can barely squeeze a heiny in there, let alone a phone,” says Guerard. “There was nothing really out there … some stuff, two years ago, but mostly in the form of a smart-watch that was big, black and bulky. I don’t want to wear technology – I like to wear jewelry.”

The Memi watch is available for preorder for $150 and is slated to ship in August. Memi raised more than $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and Guerard says the team is actively fundraising for a Series A round between $1 million and $3 million.

Will Apple Eat Up the Market for Fashionable Wearables?

More than half of “early adopters” say they want wearable devices that look more like jewelry, according to a Nielsen report published in March.

L2 analyst Colin Gilbert, who recently prepared a report on wearable technology, says these sentiments validate the idea behind startups trying to take a fashion-centric approach to wearables.

In this vein, Gilbert also points to the collaborations in the works between Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. In January, Fitbit announced that fashion designer Tory Burch would be designing pendants, bracelets and wristbands for the Fitbit Flex activity tracker. And this spring, Google and eyewear-maker Luxxotica, the parent company of Ray-Ban and Oakley, said they would be working together on Google Glass products.

But Gilbert says any startup in the fashion-wearable space should brace itself for Apple’s expected smart-watch release this fall.

“Apple prides itself on introducing cutting-edge designs,” says Gilbert. He points to hires like former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts and former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve as signs that Apple is looking to capture the attention of fashionistas who may feel lukewarm about black plastic watches.

“Whatever they’re going to introduce has to have a wider appeal than current [wearable options],” says Gilbert.

Canalys analyst Daniel Matte, who focuses on the wearable-tech space, agrees with Gilbert that Apple will likely set the standard for fashionable wearables.

“Angela’s perspective – she has experience in high-end retail and fashion retail … Expect a huge focus on design. They’re taking that quite seriously,” says Matte, though he points out that execution will be the key to getting wearables in the hands of more than just early adopters.

“We can’t say for certain how well it will execute, but we think Apple will define smart-bands and the overall wearable market. We do have them driving a lot of volume through the end of the year,” says Matte.

With that said, both the Ringly and the Memi teams say they aren’t scared by the prospect of a chic Apple wearable.

“I think an announcement from Apple is inevitable in the wearable space, and I’m all for it,” says Guerard, who says that Apple’s introduction into the market will build awareness.

“There are still a lot of blank faces around wearables … and Apple making a play will change that forever. I think it will only help our category and legitimize how big the wearable space will be,” she adds.

And Mercando, for her part, says she thinks consumers will eventually start wearing multiple wearables, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.

“We envision the future of the space as people shopping for electronics and devices the way that today they buy clothes,” she says. “So if you think of how many clothing brands are out there … We think there are going to be just as many device brands and wearable tech brands. [So, people will be wearing] multiples or changing their device, based on their outfit that day or what they’re wearing.”

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