The first of the year’s watch fairs wrapped in Geneva last week with the usual spread of exotica revealed against an unusual backdrop, namely recognition that times are certainly changing, and not for the better.
If there were evident trends regarding the watches – a mountain of moon-phase models, a proliferation of grey dials, some lower price-points – the predominant conversation was about the need to find fresh customers for creations both extraordinary and everyday.
While the 30 brands exhibiting will be hoping The Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie might be a circuit-breaker after consecutive months of declining timepiece demand, there was open admission that the industry is in unchartered territory.
“Last year was very bad … the future we don’t know” were the unvarnished words used by Juan Carlos (Charlie) Torres, the CEO of the world’s oldest watch company Vacheron Constantin, echoing the prevailing sentiment.
Rather than customers shopping for watches, we’re in a scenario where it’s watches needing to – more than ever – shop for customers.
As to whether the new models are up to such a task, and bear in mind work on many began in happier times, we’ll have to wait and see. While there was plenty to excite enthusiasts and attendees – some 15,000 of them – this year saw more than the usual shifts in brand positioning, some rather dramatic.
After years of stressing its watches are dedicated to the alpha-male using the strap line “Engineered for men”, IWC decided it can’t ignore the fact 60 per cent of watches are bought by women, declaring the new Da Vinci range firmly one for the female forearm. Previously the brand had merely admitted to making “mid-size” watches restricted largely to the Portofino line.
Montblanc performed a similar somersault, leaping from desk to track with the re-purposing of the Timewalker range as sports watches with a rally theme.
The logic behind this? The venerable Minerva facilities Montblanc took over some years back was originally known for stopwatches, hence sports timing “is in our DNA”.
The shifts continued apace. Jaeger-LeCoultre discovered it could, after all, produce desirable watches for less than a king’s ransom, unveiling a Master Control range of striking handsomeness with price tags hovering around the $10,000. Baume & Mercier injected fresh life into the Clifton range with a raft of spritely-detailed Club models. And Ulysse Nardin, previously best-known for catering to aficionados, dived into the mainstream, literally in the case of a Marine Diver LeLocle, possibly the best-looking vintage-themed watch of the fair although not cheap at $14,000.
The biggest surprise though was in the technical category where Panerai came up with one of the most advanced watches yet seen, the Lab-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days in 49mm, to give it its full name. Thanks to the use of materials such as tantalum-based ceramics and silicons in its movement, this watch works without oils or liquid lubricants of any kind. Such a friction-free environment allows it to be offered – to a limited number of boutique customers only – with an astonishing 50-year guarantee and commensurate $70,000-odd price tag.
That looks like a relative bargain compared with another engineering feat on show, Richard Mille’s RM 50-03 Graphene. The lightest split-second chronograph yet, this 50mm by 45mm statement weighs just 40 grams including the strap and boasts a case made up of 600 layers of carbon. Just 75 will be produced, yours for around $1.3 million.
Whatever way you look at it, it’s impressive, but it remains to be seen if it’s smart. Is this the kind of watch the industry needs right now? And speaking of smart, while brands such as IWC and Montblanc have previously looked at connected devices, there were none to be seen this time around.
With the spotlight firmly on the mechanical, other models appealing to well-heeled enthusiasts included: A. Lange & Sohne’s Turbograph Perpetual Pour le Merite, a 636-part, platinum-cased triumph with five complications and a $700,000 tag; Greubel Forsey’s first Grande Sonnerie, a 935-part chiming watch that took 11 years to develop, three to five available a year for more than $1.5 million; or for a tenth of that Urwerk’s quirky, and giant, 60mm by 48mm Transformer, a clam of a watch with a swivelling case that hides the dial when you don’t need to see the time, price around $130,000.
Upping the novelty stakes were serial offenders MB&F, whose HM7 Aquapod appeared to have been inspired by the planet Saturn. A 53.4mm disc with a tourbillon at its centre, it’s described as a “tribute to dive watches”, a handy choice of words given the $130,000 piece isn’t actually capable of serious diving, being water-resistant to just 50 meters. Why then would you want one? Because it looks like nothing on earth let alone nothing you’ve ever seen on the wrist.
As for the earlier-mentioned Vacheron Constantin, it was sticking to what it does best, namely impressive complications and Metiers d’Arts models, the hero a watch offering the most features ever seen on a wrist-piece. The Celestia has 23 complications on twin dials, six barrels for three weeks power reserve, and displays three types of time – civil, solar and sidereal, each powered by its own gear train.
Also sticking to the knitting were Cartier, Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels, where style was resolutely to the fore in slimmed down and jewelled confections designed to tempt with visual impact rather than merely impress as micro-engineering feats, although many did both.
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