BaselWorld 2011 – In search of the perfect watch – Part 1

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June 2011

Which watch would you buy?
On the last day of the international show for watches and jewellery—or more simply called BaselWorld 2011—someone asked me the predictable question: “If you had total freedom to choose a watch, what would you purchase?”
I have to admit that I did not have a ready answer. The mission of a watch journalist is to have all of the world’s most beautiful watches pass through his hands. Why, then, would he want to own one in particular?
It was even more difficult for me to respond immediately to this question because, during this watch week, I saw so many timepieces that were described, boasted about, even meticulously explained to me—and, believe me, some sorely needed to be explained—that a form of general confusion clouded my head.
Just think about it for a moment. There were 637 watch companies exhibiting at BaselWorld. Now, multiply that number by several new collections and then again by the number of references in each collection. Finally, you will arrive at a number that is beyond comprehension. And, we might add, this large number demonstrates how creative juices can express themselves in amazing ways, all in the space of just a few square centimetres—most often round but sometimes rectangular, and sometimes, although rarely, in a variety of weird shapes (although these are generally not the most successful of timepieces).
How can we sufficiently understand and appreciate this incessant flood of designs and technical ingenuity? There is no point in talking about BaselWorld in a chronological sense. This would merely be reproducing and duplicating the prevailing confusion because, in 2011 (first year of the ‘post-crisis’ for some but not all), any and everything is possible. Did you think, for example, that bling had definitively gone by the wayside? Well, think again. Just pay a small visit to someone like Jacob & Co to witness first hand the resurrection of Bling King, just released from American jails and immediately flaunting more than $100 million of diamonds, arranged in the shape of watches (which is not the same thing as a watch decorated with diamonds) in the display cases at BaselWorld. The collection was completed with a more ‘watchmaking’ line (with notably—ah yes—a striking tourbillon on a rotor), restructured by the enfant terrible of Swiss watchmaking, Yvan Arpa.

BaselWorld 2011 – In search of the perfect watch – Part 1 CYCLONE TOURBILLON, GHOST and GRAND by Jacob & Co

You thought that all watches were going to be ultra-flat and minimalist? Big mistake. While sizes have become—a little—smaller, you still could find all the watches intended for thick-necked truckers that you could ever hope to see.
You were sure that the mechanical follies such as the ‘tourbillon on top of a tourbillon placed on an off-centred oscillating weight driving a perpetual calendar with chime while passing by the jackpot square’ were dead and buried? Nope, wrong again. The crazy young men with their flying mechanicals are alive and well. And, in a certain way, so much the better because this baroque effervescence—not to be confused with the ordinary timepieces (three hands or simple chronographs) that make up the bread and butter of the watch industry—is a sign that watchmaking is and remains a wonderful mirror of our world in turmoil. Just look at the number of young people who are still attracted by the pot of gold—potential gold since many will be disappointed—and you will understand that watchmaking, in a crisis or a post-crisis mode, continues to exercise an enormous power of attraction. This power of attraction is, however, out of proportion to its real weight in the global economy. As an example, let’s compare Swiss watch exports totalling CHF 17 or 18 billion annually with the more than CHF 400 billion in sales generated every year by Wal-Mart. Economically, Swiss watch exports are, indeed, a drop in the bucket. But, in terms of image, they are enormously important.

Cleansing the eyes
Confronted with this aesthetic and technical inundation, faced with so many different propositions, it was necessary—out of fear of losing our direction—to ‘cleanse our eyes’ in order to see more clearly. The occasion presented itself on the third day of the show when we were invited to discover the 2011 collection of Patek Philippe.
I might as well admit it up front. My eyes were wide open during Patek Philippe’s demonstration that the family enterprise is in a class by itself, above the other prestige brands—all the others, we are tempted to say, at the risk of offending a few others. In this collection, there is true watchmaking, a level of care, attention to detail, and ‘natural class’ that make the brand a unique phenomenon. And yes, the watches are quite expensive. But, they are also quite beautiful.
In his way, Thierry Stern’s ‘first full term’—the protective shadow of his father Philippe is gradually fading—shows that the baton was passed from one generation to the next in a perfect way. The brand presented its Reference 5208P—a chronograph, minute repeater, and perpetual calendar with window displays—showcasing aesthetic clarity while remaining restrained, which leaves nothing to predict its complexity (on this subject, see Europa Star 2/11 Special BaselWorld). Among other timepieces, Patek Philippe also presented a Chronograph Perpetual Calendar (Ref. 5270G), a new version of the Ref. 521 6R, a Minute Repeater, Tourbillon (hidden as always), a Perpetual Calendar with retrograde date and lunar phases, an ultra-flat Perpetual Calendar with a black lacquered dial and bezel beautifully decorated with the Clou de Paris pattern (Ref 5139 G), and a Perpetual Calendar with a retrograde display in a Calatrava style case (Ref. 5496 P). Added to these was a lovely and simple automatic Ladies’ First Repetition Minutes (Ref. 7000 R), which is in no way a mere reduction of a masculine model (on this subject, see the article in this issue by Sophie Furley). In the same collection, the brand introduced a single push-piece Ladies’ First Flyback Chronograph (Ref. 7059 R). We also cannot forget the whole new series of Calatrava models with their absolute styling.
Along with the other journalists present, we were all nearly speechless before such examples of fine timekeeping. In a few words, it was ‘grand class’. Styles come and go, trends rise and fall. None of this seems to matter to Patek Philippe. The company is content to follow its own road, without false pride but with a clear awareness of its own exceptional nature.

BaselWorld 2011 – In search of the perfect watch – Part 1 Ref. 5073P and Ref. 5216R by Patek Philippe

King Rolex
Alone with Patek Philippe, but in an entirely different style, Rolex also simply follows its own path without deviation. As it does each year, the brand brought a few small changes to its anthological models. It is a unique strategy, one that unceasingly improves its offer, touch after touch, in small steps. So, this year, the accent was placed on two axes: the ‘professional’ watches and the feminine timepieces (for the ladies’ models, see the article by Sophie Furley in this issue).
On the ‘professional’ level, Rolex presented: a new version of ‘Everose Rolesor’ (exclusive combination of 904L steel and rose gold, for the first time used in the Oyster collection) of its 44-mm Yacht-Master II, launched initially in 2007, with its system of mechanical memory (10 min) programmable by the bezel and equipped with a 4160 movement with a Parachrome balance spring. There was also a new and larger 42-mm version of its famous Explorer II, launched 40 years ago, which again has its characteristic orange hand and is equipped with the latest generation of movements, the calibre 3187, a Parachrome balance spring, and Paraflex shock absorbers; and even a new version of its legendary 1963 Cosmograph Daytona, equipped with a new bezel made from a single block of black Cerachrom ceramic mounted on an Everose gold case, offered with a chocolate or ivory dial.
These are all Rolex and nothing but Rolex in the quality sense of the term. It is a ‘world unto itself’, or perhaps even a tranquil and autonomous ‘continent’ in the midst of a global watch planet in turmoil.

BaselWorld 2011 – In search of the perfect watch – Part 1 44-MM YACHT-MASTER II and COSMOGRAPH DAYTONA by Rolex

Source: Europa Star June - July 2011 Magazine Issue