Changing times in watchland: latest figures and how the brands are responding

While watch demand in Australia has held up in the last year, other countries have been giving major brands a major headache. It’s not just watches that have seen the sun dim somewhat. Luxury goods in general are facing tougher times, the challenges similar whether you’re Panerai or Prada, Tissot or Tiffany, with the owners of such brands having to trim staff, tune strategy and temper expectations.

The decline in appetite for watches has a particularly geographic bent: Hong Kong is the world’s largest market for Swiss watches, while China has been the recent growth engine. Together they’ve driven optimism that’s been matched by investment, the latter to meet a demand that seemed like it would grow at astonishing rates forever.

Sadly that’s proven to be wide of the mark. Since things peaked in 2014, Swiss exports to Hong Kong are down around 40 per cent, while China’s situation at last count was following a similar trajectory.

It means the watch folk, ironically, got their timing wrong. That includes the powers behind Baselworld, the giant Swiss fair that accommodates Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Breitling and every luminary outside the Richemont Group brands.

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Basel’s city worthies spent the equivalent of $600 million sprucing things up and adding an extra 38,000 square metres of space to Basel’s exhibition halls in 2013. The renos were planned when the value of total Swiss watch exports was growing by as much as 19 per cent a year; they are now running at a negative 9.5 per cent. That’s not just “ouch” territory, it’s “oh dear, what do we do”.

Fortunately that question is being answered with some affirmative action, namely a leap in the quality of the product being offered, showcased at Geneva and Basel and reported in the following pages.

But before we go there, let’s put aside the Swiss and their problems and look at the situation here. Australia takes a mere 1 per cent of Swiss watch production but demand has edged up by 11 per cent in the past two years. While there’s evidence of recent slowing, the official Swiss export figures don’t include watches from the Richemont Group; these are categorised as being Singapore or Hong Kong inventory. Given Richemont owns the likes of Cartier, IWC, Panerai, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin, Montblanc and such desirables, the reported stats should be deemed indicative only.

Nonetheless the trend is there: we’re punching above our weight, and don’t think the brands haven’t noticed. While some like IWC are on the prowl for premises for their own boutiques; others such as Graff and Van Cleef & Arpels are settling in. Cartier has opened a lavish new Sydney spread and notables from Audemars Piguet to Zenith are lifting their local game. Such a push needs populating with pieces, meaning enthusiasts here are less likely to be left empty-handed when it comes to special or exotic editions that in the past have often not made it to our shores.

Gems in Geneva

The first opportunity watch brands had to address the current feeling of malaise was early this year at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva, a lavish invitation-only event staged predominantly by Richemont’s luxe labels.

Here the first of the year’s new models were unveiled. On the door list were distributors, retailers and the media, with the five-day event attracting more than 14,500 attendees, and this time adding some fireworks to the mix.

Normally a refined affair – with brands including Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, A. Lange & Söhne, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Panerai and Montblanc, along with Audemars PiguetGreubel Forsey, Richard MillePiaget and Parmigiani – the organisers decided this year to give over a space vacated by Ralph Lauren timepieces to a brace of smaller independents, including MB&F, Urwerk and De Bethune. They proved to be the icing on the cake.

Which is not quite fair, because when it comes to icing no one quite beats long-time incumbents Cartier or Piaget and their jewelled exotica. But while many of the old hands showed designs referencing the past, the newcomers revealed an often striking vision of the horological future.

That said, whether retro or radical, the result was impressive across the board, with Geneva debuting some rather special watches.

Rotonde de Cartier Astromystérieux.

Creativity from Cartier

Cartier has been on a high-end march under its head of fine watchmaking, Carole Forestier-Kasapi, who not for nothing is known as Switzerland’s Queen of Complications. This year she did herself proud with the most complex watch Cartier has ever attempted, a “mystery” tourbillon model with its entire movement – escapement, balance wheel, gear train and barrel – invisibly geared to circle the dial every 60 minutes, the minute hand mounted on it indicating the time. The Rotonde de Cartier Astromystérieux uses a winding system of sapphire discs and comprises 408 parts framed in a 43.5mm palladium case. Just 100 will be produced, with gem-set versions an option.

IWC Big Pilots Heritage Watch 48
IWC Big Pilots Heritage watch.

Impact from IWC

A massive 55mm Big Pilot’s Heritage model limited to 100 examples heads up the IWC squadron circa 2016 and, if that’s too large, there’s also a 48mm version, limited to 1000 pieces. Inspired by a 1940s observer model, they boast vintage looks from beige markings to a glove-friendly, cone-shaped winder, although inside the weight-saving titanium cases it’s all modern technology, with eight days’ power reserve for the “smaller” model. The new Mark XVlll Pilot model is the wearable winner, spanning a happy 40mm, and giving you the look without the lard.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Openworked - new for 2016
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Openworked – new for 2016.

Audio from AP

For its part, Audemars Piguet brought along its version of its fresh complication, the Royal Oak Tourbillon Openworked, a 299-part, platinum-cased statement that reveals all up front, no need to turn the watch over: it’s a spectacular thing from any angle. AP also had on hand its Royal Oak Supersonnerie, a minute repeater (they chime the time) which is this year emerging from concept stage to reality. Patents cover the construction of tiny chiming gongs attached to a copper resonance membrane, resulting in tinkling alerts that are clearly audible across a room. There’s a tourbillon and chronograph in there too, 478 components filling the contemporary 44mm case.

Panerai Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio.
Panerai Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio.

Part-work from Panerai

You’re a Panerai fan? Forget the brand’s roots as an everyday tool watch, the Geneva highlight was a 47mm Panerai Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titanio, boasting a skeletonised movement hewn from titanium. Limited to just 150 examples, the Lo Scienziato model, as it’s called, features a hollowed-out case to even further reduce weight. The case is built up layer by layer, each 0.02mm thick, from powdered titanium. Power is provided by three barrels in series, with a reserve of six days.

Montblanc Orbus Terrarm wrist version.
Montblanc Orbus Terrarm wrist version.

Marvels from Montblanc

Pen-pal Montblanc continued its writing of horological history with wrist-works including an impressive Orbis Terrarum timepiece with 24 time zones in wrist and pocket versions, and a 4810 ExoTourbillon Slim 110 Years Edition. Yes, that’s Montblanc’s age, but the watch is decidedly fresh, thanks to a hand-painted, mother-of-pearl dial referencing either Europe, the US or Asia. The latter dial doesn’t, however, manage to extend as far south as Australia.


A.Lange & Sohne Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon.
A.Lange & Sohne Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon.

Legend from Lange

Serial overachiever A. Lange & Söhne also had a tourbillon triumph to show, a Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon. Observers judged it the best the brand has to offer all in one package, delivering as it does a perpetual calendar, fly-back chronograph with a jumping minute counter, outsize date and that tourbillon. The latter is visible only on the reverse, meaning the look of the platinum-cased timepiece is clean and uncluttered. The 2.5-hertz movement, also visible through the case-back, is anything but, managing to accommodate a mighty 729 parts. One hundred pieces will be produced, yours for around $500,000 – but by the time you read this, expect them to have sold out.

Vacheron Constanin Overseas ultra-thin.
Vacheron Constantin Overseas ultra-thin.

Venerable from Vacheron

Vacheron Constantin, too, reached back at SIHH, reprising the venerable Overseas range with five new models, boasting Geneva-hallmarked movements with anti-magnetic protection, unmistakable six-sided bezels and interchangeable straps. Most impressive – and contemporary looking – was the Overseas Ultra-Thin Perpetual Calendar, a 41.5mm beauty in white gold, just 8.1mm thick and delivered with both a bracelet and Mississippi alligator strap.

Grace from Greubel

Greubel Forsey is known for some of the most complicated watches out there, sporting up to four tourbillons in one watch. A surprise at SIHH was the lean and graceful Signature 1, a steel-cased time-teller with not a complication in sight. Under the large, polished dial-side bridge sits not a tourbillon but the balance wheel and escapement, with a small dial for seconds and an offset one for hours and minutes. Despite its simplicity, the finesse and finishing stamp it as a highly desirable machine, albeit one with an asking price of about $200,000.

Performance from Parmigiani

Parmigiani’s Tonda Chronor Anniversaire marks the brand’s 20th anniversary and a rare achievement, the complete integration of the split-second chronograph into the movement. Chronograph mechanisms normally come in module form and are added to the timekeeping mechanism. To achieve the feat, Parmigiani’s watchmakers started with a clean sheet, ultimately choosing an unusually high frequency of 36,000 vibrations an hour to enhance accuracy. Just 25 will be made, cased in gold with a deep blue or white enamel dial.

Visionary from Van Cleef

Van Cleef & Arpels‘ Midnight Nuit Lumineuse watch is a genuine watchmaking innovation, with the glittering heavens depicted on the dial actually illuminating on demand. Six diamonds punctuate the starry outline and are backlit thanks to the phenomenon of piezoelectricity. The 42mm white-gold watch contains a strip of ceramic that mechanically generates electrical energy when caused to vibrate by movement. This is used to power electroluminescent diodes, which in turn bring the diamonds to life. The show lasts about four seconds, while the passage of time is displayed on the dial via a retrograde hour hand.

Urbanity from Urwerk

What makes Urwerk’s EMC Time Hunter interesting – apart from its matt finish and cereal-box shape – is that at the press of a button the small dial in the upper left corner gives you a read-out of its amplitude and rate of precision in the range of plus-or-minus 15 seconds a day. Thanks to little controls, you can then adjust the power delivery accordingly, making it one of the most accurate – and individual – watches out there. As you might expect for $180,000-odd.

Jump-back from JLC

Jaeger-LeCoultre largely reverted to the safety of the rectangular-shaped Reverso, adapting the octogenarian design to a raft of classic men’s versions and comely female variants, the latter including a most fetching diminutive Reverso One Cordonnet, measuring 33.8mm by 16.3mm and mounted on a retro leather cord strap. Jaeger also managed to stuff its complex flying tourbillon movement into a Reverso case for the first time. Hero-ing on the dial of the Reverso Tribute Gyrotourbillon is a biaxial complication with two carriages, the inner rotating every 12.6 seconds, the outer once a minute. Swivelling the case reveals a 24-hour display, day-night indicator and small seconds driven by the tourbillon. Yes, complex, and just 75 are on offer.

Marvel from MB&F

Newcomer MB&F’s Horological Machine made a grand entrance at SIHH cloaked almost completely in crystal. Sapphire plates top and bottom sandwich a gold case band, while nine crystal domes – four on top, a corresponding four underneath and a large central one for a flying tourbillon – add to the exemplary view of the 475 components within. All that exposure could dry up the lubricants, so the HM6 features a retractable, semi-spherical, titanium protective shield, opened and closed by a crown at 9 o’clock. When closed, it blocks radiation from prematurely oxidising the oils in the regulator. With touches such as turbines regulating the winding, the drone-like wrist-work works like no other and – with its biomorphic shape – looks like no other.

Delight from De Bethune

De Bethune‘s triumph is a complicated watch that doesn’t look it: the DB25 World Traveller, the brand’s first dual-time-zone offering. World cities are indicated on a central disc, encircled by a channel in which a tiny moving sphere indicates the applicable city for home time. The microsphere has two halves – one blue, the other pink – that flip at 6am and 6pm to flag whether it’s day or night there. Local time is displayed on the raised hour circle, and the date on the outer circle. The 45mm case is white gold.

Buffed in Basel

While the Geneva watch fair has long been a gentrified, invitation-only affair (but changing next year), Baselworld has been an enthusiast’s heaven, open to the public. And they come in droves, this year 145,000 of them spinning the turnstiles.

The event is home to the most popular brands – Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, Patek Philippe, Hublot, Breitling, Breguet, Seiko and several hundred more, along with the fashion brands increasingly making their mark: Chanel, Bulgari, Dior, Hermès and Chopard, with only Louis Vuitton missing this year.

If the watches are the heroes, visual competition comes from the booths themselves; brands spend millions on trucking in designer decor that takes an army of 20,000 workers to set up over the preceding two months.

Fortunately this year the watches were as impressive as their environs, with tray after tray of tickers offering more allure, more luxe, more options and – incredibly after all these years – more performance.

While there was nary a smart watch in sight, there was a surfeit of smarter watches, meaning at the very least the battle is joined.

Refinement from Rolex

A refreshed Rolex Cosmograph Daytona featuring a black ceramic bezel was the most talked-about watch at the fair. It’s amazing how a small change reinvigorates a long-time favourite, the latest Daytona reminding many of a 1965 model that had a black-glass bezel. The other talked-about Rolex was a larger Air-King, now 40mm, with distinctive double-numeral minute markings on the dial. But it wasn’t all just appearances: Rolex announced it was introducing new in-house certification for all its watches, a “Superlative Chronometer” designation guaranteeing precision of plus- or minus-two seconds a day, a doubling of the previous standard for chronometer certification. Along with an international five-year guarantee, it means more power to the people.

Temptations from Tudor

Tudor gave Rolex a run for its money (sibling rivalry?) announcing a bronze version of its popular Heritage Black Bay, and followed that with a 43mm Black Bay “Dark” wearing a black PVD coat. This Black Bay, a recent hit for the brand, boasts higher performance chronometer-rated movements, created in-house and providing almost double the power-reserve, now 70 hours. Another neat touch is that the optional metal bracelet for the Black Bay now has retro-like studs or rivets gracing the links. Not necessarily clever, but a cute detail.

Oomph from Omega

Omega blitzed Baselworld with six new movements and 46 models carrying the Master Chronometer rating, thanks to the accelerated development of its proprietary co-axial movement, an upgrading that meets stringent tests and should deliver greater accuracy, magnetic resistance and longevity across the board – along with power reserves that extend beyond a couple of days. Most of all, though, watch-lovers want a good-looking thing on their wrist, and again Omega delivered, again across the board, Planet Ocean models to PloProfs. And as usual, a “Speedie” (as they’re called) hogged the limelight, with the Speedmaster Master Chronometer Chronograph Moonphase landing to acclaim. It ticks a lot of boxes. The moon display is as detailed as a NASA photograph, down to an astronaut’s footprint; the watch needs adjusting only once every 10 years; the bezel is ceramic; and that 368-part movement has been subjected to more tests than a North Korean missile – but successful.

Sensation from Seiko

Seiko was possibly the second-most talked about brand at the fair, thanks to affordable beauties such as a new Presage column-wheel (deemed the best configuration) chronograph with a black hand-lacquered or white enamelled dial and elegant numerals. From most brands, these limited editions (1000 of each) would easily be $10,000 propositions, most likely more; from Seiko they’re $3900. There were also contemporary new Grand Seiko GMT variants and, to top it all, Seiko’s first tourbillon. The treasure pictured (right), released under the brand’s Credor moniker, boasted a breathtaking combination of metal engraving and lacquer finishing, and was hand-worked by three master craftsmen recognised by the Japanese government for their talents. Front and back depict a colour-infused wave motif, while the 43mm case is platinum, adorned with blue sapphires and mother-of-pearl panels on the case sides. Again, it’s not just about looks, as artistic as the creation may be: the tourbillon movement is the world’s thinnest by volume, just 3.98mm deep and 25.6mm in diameter. A stunning debut, with eight examples on offer for ¥50 million apiece ($630,000).

Perfection from Patek

Patek Philippe didn’t disappoint, showing a new World Time Chronograph (Ref. 5930) that for the first time combines the manufacture’s patented World Time mechanism with a proprietary self-winding chronograph movement. Five years in the making, it presents in a 39.5mm white-gold case with a blue dial featuring a manually guilloched centre. It contrasted with a decidedly contemporary debut, an Annual Calendar (Ref. 5396) marking the 20th anniversary of the complication. Featuring a 38.5mm white-gold Calatrava-style case with charcoal dial and Breguet numerals, the second time zone was shown around the moon-phase aperture, a very neat arrangement. Flying the flag in terms of complexity was a Grandmaster Chime (Ref. 6300) featuring 20 complications, among them five strikework functions, in a hand-guilloched white-gold case toned down from a previous hand-engraved model (Ref. 5175).

Brilliance from Breguet

Breguet’s Tradition Repetition Minutes Tourbillon 7087, announced in concept form last year and presented at Baselworld, sets new standards for a minute repeater. The starting point for the brand’s engineers was how to create a purer sound. Using specially developed sound generators, they experimented with more than 200,000 combinations of frequencies, which they then classified into categories according to psycho-acoustic criteria. The sounds were listened to and evaluated to determine the best combination of notes. Then a mechanism had to be built that could deliver on the findings. No wonder the watch has elements never previously seen and is covered by six new patents. For example, instead of being coiled, the chiming gong springs are attached to the bezel and shaped like earlobes following the outline of the watch. The springs are struck vertically from underneath by little hammers, rather than horizontally, the arrangement resulting in considerably enhanced transmission of the sound. Impressive stuff and the Breguet looks brilliant, too, the exposed workings framed by a 44mm rose-gold case.

Hedonism from Hublot

Hublot caught the eye with Unico models cut straight from blocks of sapphire crystal. While a few parts – the screws, the crown – are made from titanium, even the skeleton dial in the 45mm Big Bang Unico Sapphire is transparent, formed from a special resin. It reveals all the gears of the fly-back chronograph movement, one good for 72 hours between windings. The picture is completed by a see-through strap, and 500 will be produced.

Top value from Tag

Tag Heuer took it on itself to democratise the price of a tourbillon, offering a watch with a flying version and COSC-certified automatic chronograph movement for $20,450 – less than a third of the price you might expect to pay for such a complication. The lightweight Carrera 02T Tourbillon is handcrafted by four specialist watchmakers and has central sections made from titanium with a carbon top section. It offers a power reserve in excess of 65 hours and comes in a 12-part titanium case water-resistant to 100 metres.

Breakthrough from Breitling

Breitling’s contribution to entrepreneurial engineering came in the form of the Superocean Heritage Chronoworks, a watch with a highly refined and clever movement that, thanks to the use of ceramics and silicon, reduces friction by 45 per cent. Cased in a material a third lighter than titanium and mounted on a fibre-fused strap that requires 50 individual moulds, the Chronoworks has a power reserve of some 100 hours. Just 100 will be made, the suggested price a tad under $55,000.

Zinger from Zenith

The Zenith Academy Christophe Colomb Tribute To The Rolling Stones might well be the most expensive bit of rock’n’roll paraphernalia yet, given an asking price of about $US250,000 ($345,000). Just five fans will get their hands on one and whether on the wrist or merely displayed, it won’t go unnoticed. The hand-painted dial and combination of the Stones’ tongue symbol and the Union Jack make sure of that. Otherwise the watch is a 45mm gold-cased confection incorporating a 479-part manual-wound movement with a gimbal-based, gyroscopic, anti-gravity module.

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