Baselworld: mile upon mile of aisles, lined with hundreds and hundreds of booths looking every inch like places of worship, each dedicated to its own particular divinity. Whether the symbol is a crown, any number of crosses, an alpha or an omega, every brand, large or small, is hoping to attract new converts. It would be impossible for anyone hoping to join the ranks of the faithful to investigate them all, even if they share the task, as Europa Star has done in this issue. The visit is thus necessarily subjective, leaving plenty of room for chance encounters and serendipitous events.
We therefore propose three different routes, respectively taken by yours truly in this article, and
by D. Malcolm Lakin:
- The Kaleidoscopic World of Jewellery Watches
- The Beautiful game comes to Baselworld
- The Basel Marathon
- Ice, Jungle, Savannah and a US General comes to Switzerland
and by Keith Strandberg:
without forgetting the DLG analysis on the effects and aftermath of this horological Mass on the social networks.
In her opening address Sylvie Ritter, Managing Director of Baselworld, stated loudly and clearly that it was the aim of the international watch fair “to provide a faithful reflection of the upheavals the sector has experienced over the last ten years.”
In terms of those “upheavals”, two major phenomena have converged and accelerated over the last decade.
The inexorable rise to power of the big groups, which today are more dominant than ever, has coincided (by chance?) with an astonishing media infatuation (nurtured at great expense, admittedly) with the world of watchmaking and which shows no signs of diminishing.
More than 4,000 journalists attended the fair, almost as many as the über-famous Cannes Film Festival - 3,907 in 2013, according to official figures – although still well short of the Sochi Olympic Games at 13,000!
In ten years the watch itself is becoming virtually a cult object, invested with enormous symbolic weight and value.
In ten years the watch itself has undergone an astonishing transformation. Initially a nice-looking, more or less disposable utilitarian object, it has now achieved star status, becoming virtually a cult object, invested with enormous symbolic weight and value. We often hear the word “icon” being used about certain watches that have achieved cult status. But perhaps the word “cult” is appropriate on more than one level.
After all, it is very tempting to read Baselworld and its booths (from the smallest at 6m2 to the largest at 1,625m2) as so many chapels, lined up next to one other; temples, cathedrals even, dedicated to an array of different forms of worship.
There are the great monotheistic religions that continue to dominate, such as Rolex, whose temple is an impenetrable mausoleum (its “religion” continues to hold sway but, like the Vatican, it risks losing its influential position unless some way is found to revitalise and rejuvenate its message - see our editorial, “The Empire Strikes Back”).
Opposite, Patek Philippe, another pillar of monotheism, has built itself a new altar, at the foot of which we are invited to worship the cult of transferable perfection: a white cloud is suspended in the centre of a glass cube.
Both these monotheist establishments (although Rolex has successfully launched a new cult named Tudor) are surrounded on all sides by active pantheistic religions that encourage a multiplicity of different branches and schools, which may or may not be strictly fundamentalist, in the name of “authentic watchmaking”.
Thus, Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy (LVMH), which is stationed at the entrance, lines up its various and varied tributaries side-by-side, from the Roman Bulgari to the severely Protestant Zenith, not forgetting the charismatic Hublot or the methodical and unstoppable TAG Heuer. Louis Vuitton, the eponymous brand whose worshippers are notoriously faithful, hosts its congregation outside the walls, in the Wildt’sches Haus, an 18th-century villa named after a manufacturer of silk ribbons (as fashionable in their day as watches are today).
At the geographical heart of the Baselworld compound sit the tentacular headquarters of the most pantheistic of watchmaking religions, whose name resonates around the world: Swatch (Group). Swatch Group promulgates a polychromatic faith, welcoming all congregations with open arms – populist, elitist, and all shades in between – embracing the world in all its contradictions.
All around these giants, up stairs and around corners, myriad smaller cults attempt to reach out, to grow, or simply to survive, to win over some new converts, to be reborn from their ashes, or to break through ex nihilo. In the wonderful polyglot bazaar of Baselworld (which could as aptly be named Babelworld...) you can find everything, and its opposite. But let us put aside the religious metaphor and look at the facts: what did they all have to offer?
Journalists returning home from the great annual watchmaking fair are ritually asked the same question: so, what’s new? What are the trends?
Well, watchmaking has always been a faithful reflection of its time. In 2014, it is absolutely anything you want it to be, and its opposite. There is truly something for everyone, from the enormous musclebound timepiece for the chiselled hero returning from a dangerous mission (the award for this category goes to U-Boat and its monumental watch whose thick glass is deliberately smashed before sale, a little like those ripped jeans that cost more than an unblemished pair...) to the Saxon ultra-purity of three hands against a white dial (the award here goes to Moritz Grossmann with its balance wheel stop-mechanism made of human hair: that of the CEO).
Let us nevertheless attempt an analysis.
Out of all these contradictory currents, one “trend” nevertheless stands out. But is it really a trend? Or is it just a reflection of the zeitgeist, and perhaps a foretaste of things to come? After the excesses we witnessed before the subprime crisis, and following the modest return to sanity in 2008-2009, watchmaking has taken off again with renewed vigour, just as if nothing untoward had happened. It lay low for a while, the better to resume its wild flights of indulgence. In short, the “crisis” (first a financial crisis, which led to an economic crisis, then a social crisis and finally a political crisis) was not just a simple event; more profoundly, it signalled a paradigm shift.
Watchmaking unintentionally ended up paying for its own excesses. The case of China is probably the most instructive in this regard, although it is certainly not the only one. In China, the Swiss watch became the emblem, and sometimes the actual legal proof, of corruption. This time, it was not just a warning tremor, it was a full-on earthquake. Like the end of banking secrecy in Switzerland, there will be no turning back the clock.
Most watchmakers seem to have understood this, and in consequence, the most notable “trends” from BaselWorld 2014 are an understated appearance and a return to smaller sizes. Suddenly, watchmaking has rediscovered the virtues of temperance and the beauty of moderation. But it continues to learn from the amazing creativity that fed its excesses.
In this respect, one example seems perfectly apt: the takeover of
H. Moser & Cie by family-owned MELB Holding. As Edouard Meylan, who was appointed to head up the Schaffhausen firm, explains, “We want to offer innovative but very discreet products. It’s all in the details.”
By way of demonstration, the new collection, Endeavour, is presented in the form of a round two-hand watch with small seconds, measuring 39 mm in diameter and 12.5 mm deep, which is quite simply perfectly designed. Faultlessly elegant, its design owes something to the strict codes of 1920s Bauhaus, tempered with an inspired 60s touch: wide bezel, long, slim, faceted hands, a fumé rose gold, ardoise or argenté dial with a subtle sunburst effect, and a smoothly curved, aerodynamic case, topped with a domed glass...
- Endeavour by H. Moser & Cie
It seems very simple, obvious even, and yet the result is perfectly, exquisitely proportioned. Detail, detail, detail; a far cry from raucous advertising.
A new in-house movement, the HMC 327 calibre, offers some innovative and avant-garde features. The calibre with its traditional finish has a minimum three-day power reserve and a stop seconds function, but also features a silicon lever with ruby pallets and a silicon escape wheel. In our opinion, this watch is emblematic of a style of watchmaking that seeks to rediscover the elegance and discretion of the past, while embracing the most useful technological advances of the present day.
This “neo-purism”, which is not about breaking records but about refining the concept of understatement and rediscovering the sensuousness of simplicity, is now looking distinctly avant-garde. It is, in any case, in tune with a rediscovered taste for discretion that in no way excludes sophistication.
This taste seems to be fully shared by Marc Hayek, at the head of Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz. In his eyes, “Clearly, slim, classic watches are back. In terms of ultra-thin, for example, no one is interested in records any more, it’s the performance and the beauty of the piece that count. What’s important is finding a way to gain more freedom in the architecture and decoration of the movement. Technically, you can always take it further, but beyond a certain point, not only do reliability and performance reach a critical level, but the possibilities for decoration become more limited.”
This assertion is corroborated by Nakis Karapatis and Alain Zaugg of Breguet, head of R&D and the technical department respectively, in their exhaustive study of the history of ultra-thin movements.
Building up a timeline of ultra-thin watches, from “the first idea for an ultra-thin watch, attributed to Geneva watchmaker Jean-François Bautte, a supplier of movement blanks to Breguet, in 1820,” to the examples of the famous Delirium (ultra-thin quartz movement used in the 0.98 mm Eterna Museum watch), not forgetting the Altiplano Piaget 900P, measuring 3.65 mm, and various movements that Breguet has designed throughout its history, the two researchers conclude that anything over 8 mm is no longer considered ultra-thin, and that below certain minimum dimensions there are insuperable difficulties with assembly, leading to unreliable performance. The historic Breguet 1210 movement, measuring 1.2 mm, and the automatic Breguet 2100, measuring 2.10 mm, were both discontinued for these reasons.
“It is vital to find a compromise between thinness and the rules of horology,” state the two experts, who mention in passing the 502 (2.40 mm) and 591 (automatic, 3.05 mm) movements, which have been in regular production since 1971 and 1980 respectively. What does this compromise mean in practice? It means a whole series of optimised features – starting with the power reserve and with twin barrels which may be either open or fitted on ball bearings. Such enhancements also stem from an architecture that avoids overlapping functions and seeks a balance between performance, safety and thinness in terms of the escapement, a balance without a double roller, a flat balance-spring, an escapement with no index; and last but not least, a few “aesthetic” tricks... In fact, the idea of ultra-thin is more a matter of perception than objective measurement. And, of course, it must work.
“It must be possible to consistently reproduce the same performance,” insists Marc Hayek, “and to do that, we need high-tech. Each component is therefore computerised, and its production is scheduled. As I said before, we’re not interested in breaking records: reliability in wear, compatibility with our stylistic codes, the care and detail of decoration: this is how we design our ultra-thin watches.” Coming from the lips of the man who, at the head of Breguet, presides over the production of 1,000 tourbillons a year – an enormous figure – it would be foolish not to take note.
“The art of constant evolution”
“Consistently reproducing the same performance,” says Marc Hayek, “the art of constant evolution,” as they say at Patek Philippe or, in other words, the art of “evolving, optimising and reinterpreting models in the current collection.” This focus on ongoing optimisation – a painstaking process that we find also at Rolex – does not however preclude a “spectacular launch”, to be unveiled this autumn to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Geneva-based Manufacture.
- Annual Calendar Chronograph Ref. 5960/1A by Patek Philippe
But in the expectation of what will certainly be a timepiece of great prestige, let us consider for a moment some of the new models representing examples of optimisation, beginning with the Annual Calendar Chronograph ref. 5960/1A (A stands for acier – steel in French), one of the rare models to combine a complicated movement with a steel case. This model, “which replaces all the gold and platinum models that have made the Patek Philippe Annual Calendar Chronograph one of the manufacture’s best-sellers since its launch in 2006,” has an unapologetically graphic face: black applied hour-markers, touches of red, a contrasting monocounter, as well as a flexible and comfortable bracelet with “drop” links... all giving it an undeniably sporty feel. All the ingredients to make what was already a best-seller one of the most understated prestige steel watches on the market.
- Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph Ref. 5990/1A by Patek Philippe
Another major new launch, again in steel, is the Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph Ref. 5990/1A, which we reviewed at length in our previous issue (see Europa Star 2/2014 BaselWorld Special). Here, the concept of continuity is fully embodied, both technically – by combining two useful complications – and in terms of its design, which makes excellent use of the porthole shape, with its two ear-like lateral hinges, so characteristic of this cult watch.
Here, the right hinge acts as extra protection for the crown and chronograph pushers, and the left hinge, which previously was merely decorative, has been reinterpreted to contain the plus and minus correctors to move the local hour hand forward or backward in one-hour increments. Users can therefore continuously display local time (with the the full luminous hand), while keeping an eye on home time (via the skeletonised hand).
At 12 o’clock is a pointer-type date display indexed to local time, with the 60-minute chronograph monocounter at 6 o’clock. Complete the picture with a new automatic movement featuring column wheel, vertical disc clutch, Gyromax® balance and patented Spiromax® hairspring (CH 28-250 C FUS), and you have a perfect example of what Patek Philippe means by “constant evolution”.
This idea of continuity is not just about technical advances and design: it can take other forms too. For instance, it may be a continuity of imagination, as we see with Hermès.
Guillaume de Seynes, a member of the founding family, whose exact titles are Deputy CEO of Hermès, Chairman of the Board of Directors of La Montre Hermès SA and President of John Lobb, has always made longevity the main tenet of watchmaking according to Hermès. Without ever claiming to be something it is not, or is not yet, Hermès has slowly but surely raised the bar. Over the last three or four years, as it reached a critical threshold of vertical integration into the watchmaking inner circle, things have accelerated. Guillaume de Seynes explains: “The driving concept is to bring to watchmaking a totally different spirit of complication, something that’s ours, something that no one else has even thought of: a suspension of time, a rewinding of time. It’s no coincidence that we were able to think of this, since it’s a direct translation of a particular relationship with time. As a family company we think in the long term – we are after all in our sixth generation – and we stake our reputation on the transmission of knowledge and the refinement of our craft. The concept of longevity is extremely strong, it comes from our saddle-making roots, when our products had to be practical, rugged, supple and durable. The Hermès object is a companion for life, it gradually becomes imbued with sensations and emotions over time. This relationship with time is what our watchmaking is all about.”
- Dressage L’Heure Masquée by Hermès
Under the umbrella of Time Suspended, Hermès’ whimsical complications define a range that is both poetic and philosophical. The new Dressage L’Heure Masquée is one such. “We got the idea from the regulator display,” explains Philippe Delhotal, creative director of La Montre Hermès. In the first Le temps suspendu watch, the idea was to mask or blur the hour display on demand, whereas here it’s the opposite: in ‘normal’ mode, only the minute hand is visible, with just the initials GMT appearing in the lower aperture. Not very readable, in fact. It is only on demand, by activating the crown-integrated push-button, that the hour hand instantly appears and moves to the correct position, while the home time is simultaneously displayed through the GMT aperture.
- Inside mechanism for the Dressage L’Heure Masquée timepiece by Hermès
Another heading, “Le temps à l’oeuvre” (translated in English as “Of Mastery and Time”) brings together its watches involving specific skills exercised by artisans. At Hermès they have banished the term “Métiers d’Art” (artistic crafts), perhaps considered too overdone, and now prefer to speak “Of Mastery and Time”.
Showcasing other métiers within the Hermès stable, such as the Cristalleries de Saint-Louis, Hermès continues to innovate just as poetically in the art of decoration.
Take, for example, the highly unusual Arceau Millefiori watches. We have not the space here to go into detail about this complex and unique technique, which is carried out by master glassmakers. Briefly, however, it consists of assembling bundles of extraordinarily delicate rods of crystal and enamel that look like multi-coloured candy canes. The result is a luminous carpet of tightly-packed flowers and stars which, once cut into wafer-thin 0.6 mm slices, are transformed into stunning polychromatic watch dials. A feast for the eyes. (Europa Star will come back to this fascinating technique in a future issue.)
Sometimes, however, it’s less about continuity and more about breaking out to conquer new territory. Louis Vuitton springs to mind. L’Escale Worldtime is probably one of the most astonishing watches we had the opportunity to discover in Basel this year.
This world time watch represents a break, not only with other universal time watches on the market, but also with the Louis Vuitton style, hitherto dominated by the “tambour” or drum shape, a somewhat polarising design with the general public. Since his appointment as head of watchmaking and jewellery at Louis Vuitton, Hamdi Chatti has been tinkering with the house style codes, beginning by inverting the famous drum.
- Escale Worldtime by Louis Vuitton
This year, the brand has implicitly distanced itself from this theme (without abandoning the drum motif completely), notably with the Escale Worldtime and its brilliantly-coloured and ingenious display: the only stationary element, a dark central triangle, points to the chosen city. The hour there (on a 24-hour clock) and the minute, each on their own rotating ring, position themselves automatically.
To change time zone, you simply turn the city ring. Ingenious, colourful and playful, it nevertheless remains perfectly readable. But despite its rebellious appearance, the watch draws its chromatic inspiration from Louis Vuitton’s history as a maker of personalised luggage, customised with coloured geometric signs, which are reinterpreted here. Another stylistic wink towards the past, the case echoes the shape of the metal corners of Vuitton trunks, transformed here into “horns” that protect and support the case.
- Emprise Watch by Louis Vuitton
The same horn detailing in the shape of trunk corners can be found in the exquisite and subtle Emprise watch. Its design, the epitome of Parisian chic, a “simple” square measuring 23 mm by 23 mm, is based on “all the structural elements of the trunk, those that give it strength and solidity: the metallic corner pieces, the locks, the nails, are transformed into decorative leitmotifs repeated ad infinitum.” Innocent of numbers or indices, protected by a double-bevelled glass, fitted with powdered dials reminiscent of the padded interior of a Vuitton trunk, and featuring simple lines evoking the panelling of a grand Parisian apartment, the Emprise is a complete and utter triumph. To our taste, it was the most beautiful women’s watch at Baselworld.
Let us leave the salons of Louis Vuitton and head over to Dior, which is part of the LVMH stable. The Parisian house is throwing one of its Grand Balls, and we are transported in a whirlwind of colours, a rustle of luxurious materials and the sensuous thrill of rich textures.
“We’re looking to bring the worlds of couture and watchmaking together,” confides one of the brand’s representatives. The effect is striking, as if one had been transported into a shop full of exquisite and tremendously expensive delicacies. Inverted oscillating weights are covered in strips of mother-of-pearl depicting a “sunray pleat” or are dressed in blue feathers mounted on gold ribs. D for Dior is embossed on the dial in gold-plated alligator, a texture that extends onto the bracelet. Ox-eye or tiger’s-eye quartz painted with delicate leopard spots catch the eye. Mother-of-pearl is embroidered with silken thread over a tungsten lattice.
- Chiffre Rouge Moonphase by Dior
For Homme Dior – a rarer breed – there is a Chiffre Rouge Moonphase watch, measuring a modest 38 mm, equipped with a Zenith Elite 691 movement, noteworthy for its perfectly minimalist design, but also for the sophistication of its stunning dial in metallic mother-of-pearl.
Another major “trend”, if we can call it that, of which we have seen glimpses since the beginning of the year, was confirmed at Baselworld 2014: the mid-range is back! Several factors confirm it: a general lowering of prices affecting almost all brands (the eye-watering but attention-grabbing price of 50 million US dollars for Graff’s high-calibre tutti-frutti concoction is merely the “tree that hides the forest”); the début in the ‘Swiss made’ arena of several fashion names; and the renewed vigour of the Swiss brands operating essentially in the mid-range sector.
Until 1982 Oris, which was founded in 1904, was producing up to 1.2 million watches per year, and was the proprietor of 279 in-house calibres.
A very good example of this is Oris, one of whose leitmotivs is to provide “added value at democratic prices.” Having always worked exclusively in the affordable mechanical watch category, Oris had an important announcement to make. Its spokesman, vice-president Rolf Studer, did not beat about the bush. “I would like to point out that ETA was built from the rubble of the Swiss industry; initially it was a joint project.
It’s too easy to say that the others, who were destroyed previously, ‘are now helping themselves at ETA as if it were a supermarket’,” he stated, referring to some pointed remarks made earlier by Nick Hayek. He noted that until 1982 Oris, which was founded in 1904, was producing up to 1.2 million watches per year, and was the proprietor of 279 in-house calibres. In 1982, he explained, the ASUAG – the consortium that predated ETA – which had been mandated to bring some order to the production of movements in Switzerland, had simply decided to close down Oris’s movement production, after which Oris was bought by its own management. On its 110th anniversary, Oris therefore decided to relaunch the production of in-house movements with the Calibre 110, a hand-wound movement with a 10-day power reserve and a non-linear power reserve indicator (an interesting patented display).
- Oris 110 Years Limited Edition
- Calibre 110 by Oris
Developed over ten years in collaboration with the Ecole Technique du Locle, production of this base movement was fully industrialised in order to achieve the low production costs for which the Oris range, which comes in at less than 5,000 Swiss francs, is known. (Europa Star will look in greater depth at Oris and the rebirth of its movement production capacity in the next issue, ES 4/14).
On its launch, the new Calibre 110 was fitted into the “Oris 110 Years Limited Edition” watch, produced in a limited run of 110 in steel (CHF 5,500) and 110 in 18K rose gold (CHF 14,800).
- Artix Pointer Moon by Oris
In addition to this important announcement, Oris presented a series of new models demonstrating its philosophy of “democratisation” of prices, including a very handsome WorldTime with an original module (CHF 3,400), the Artix Pointer Moon which, thanks also to an in-house module, indicates the day of the moon phase (CHF 1,900), the Chrono Aquis with ceramic rotating bezel and helium valve (CHF 3,600), and last but not least, a new version of the famous Big Crown Timer, fitted with a Valijoux movement, for CHF 3,300. Who could ask for more?
At Maurice Lacroix, another major player in the Swiss mid-range sector, they are also very proud to present a new completely in-house movement, the ML 230. Developed by Michel Vermot, head of movement production at Maurice Lacroix, which was the first to develop and produce an all-silicon escapement in collaboration with the Haute Ecole Arc Ingénierie based in Le Locle, this automatic movement is equipped with a complete set of escapement parts – balance, balance staff, lever, pallet-staff, escape wheel and escapement pinion – entirely made of silicon.
The frequency of its large balance is 18,000 vph (2.5 Hz), a more gentle cadence than some, which is particularly suited to silicon. The movement has 188 components, a deliberate choice that delivers a stripped-down aesthetic while increasing reliability.
When asked about the possibility of making this movement available to other watchmakers Sandro Reginelli, director of production, development and design for Maurice Lacroix, responded cautiously: “We’re thinking about it...”
For the time being, this movement can be found in the new Masterpiece Gravity watch (limited edition of 2 x 250, in polished and satin-finished stainless steel, or fully sandblasted and PVD coated steel), which is designed to showcase its features to the full. Sandro Reginelli explains: “From the designs standpoint, this piece sends an important message to everyone: it shows that after 38 years in existence, Maurice Lacroix is now a fully-fledged member of the Swiss Haute Horlogerie tradition, combining this with an avant-garde aesthetic of which we are very proud, and which sets us apart.”
Indeed, the Masterpiece Gravity is a collision of two worlds, its off-centre dial in lacquered enamel on a wide and thick Clou de Paris-decorated bridge contrasting sharply with the left side of the watch, which is completely open to the beating heart within. This watch, in its three-dimensionality, is a contemporary echo of Breguet’s celebrated Tradition collection. Price: CHF 10,500.
I met up with Antonio Calce on the final day of Baselworld. Rumours were circulating in the corridors and lounges of the fair. What was going on at Corum, which had been bought exactly one year ago by China Haidian? China Haidian, the Chinese proprietor of Ebohr and Rossini, representing “approximately 43% of the Chinese watchmaking industry” according to the group itself, bought not only top-drawer Corum, but also Eterna (largely for its industrial movement production capacities, an area that China Haidian has recently hived off from its finished watch activities - read more about Eterna and Eterna Movements in our next issue, ES 4/14, out in August), followed by the recent acquisition of the Dreyfuss Group. The latter is particularly active in Great Britain but is developing its Rotary and Dreyfuss & Co brands internationally. China Haidian shelled out CHF 40.8 million in order to “complete the group’s portfolio with a mid-range product.”
- Antonio Calce, CEO of Corum
On the last day of Baselworld, Antonio Calce seemed sincere. And he was. Clearly, he was unaware that barely a week later he would be unceremoniously ousted from his position as CEO of Corum, a brand he pulled back from the brink of the abyss. This is the second time the brand has risen from the ashes. Antonio Calce admitted that the Chinese shareholders needed to be made aware that “returns on investment are calculated over the mid-term; watchmaking as we practise it offers no immediate gains. It’s a culture shock. Everyone has to adapt.” Nevertheless, in the final hours of Baselworld he remained totally confident and fully committed. As a shareholder himself, albeit a small one, he gave himself a further three years to completely turn the brand around. He also said he now had “a safe, long-term partner,” noting that he had “never known such a stable situation.”
He showed me (off the record - although it scarcely matters now) a luxury bronze Bubble, “very exclusive, reserved for 15 retailers worldwide. Who would have thought that originally this was a low-end product, a flash in the pan that almost sank Corum...” he mused, still off the record.
It was a rude awakening, his disappointment on a par with the passion with which he was in the process of turning Corum around and reasserting its position among the brands that matter. Let us hope that his considerable work will not be in vain.
And now, a change of style. Japan, konnichiwa! Who would have thought that Seiko would stage the funniest and most amusing press conference at BaselWorld? It was all down to the witty and multilingual Shu Yoshino, who made the most of his small stature in a brilliant piece of showmanship. To illustrate the 30% reduction in the diameter of the Astron GPS Solar, he called up one of his colleagues, who had a considerable height advantage, and asked the audience to guess the percentage difference between them. When it came to demonstrating the ease of use of the watch, he switched between the different time zones, changing his hat at the same time, from samurai headdress to the feathered cap that is supposedly the traditional headgear of Basel...
But on a more serious note, Seiko’s big statement this year is known as Grand Seiko. This is Seiko’s high-end brand, a showcase of the company’s ancestral mechanical expertise and mastery of horological finishing techniques. Up to now Grand Seiko watches have only been distributed – and appreciated – inside Japan.
Lest there be any doubt as to its newfound international ambitions, Seiko divided its imposing booth into two distinct buildings: the white Seiko and the black Grand Seiko, the latter having at its entrance a bench with a master engraver at work. Considerable effort will no doubt be needed to position Grand Seiko as a reference in international watchmaking, which it clearly is in view of the history of watchmaking in Japan. The collections presented evinced a functional minimalism that was distinctly Japanese rather than Saxon: a measured and painstaking form of perfectionism with a soberly understated appearance, requiring an extensive understanding of watchmaking culture to be truly appreciated.
- Hi-Beat 36000 GMT by Grand Seiko (Front)
- Hi-Beat 36000 GMT by Grand Seiko (Back)
The spearhead in this offensive, the Hi-Beat 36000 GMT, encloses the new high-precision 9S86 calibre (-5/+3 sec/day), an automatic movement beating at 36,000 vph, with a gilt titanium oscillating weight, which displays a GMT function and has a 55-hour power reserve.
“Surely the most advanced quartz watch ever created, with its high-torque, super-sealed movement.”
However, the new Grand Seiko collection also has five new versions of the Self-Dater, a date-aperture watch from 1964, reworked and equipped with a choice of Grand Seiko’s two most exclusive top-of-the-range calibres, the famous Spring Drive 9R15 or the 9F calibre with instantaneous date change, marketed by Seiko as being “surely the most advanced quartz watch ever created, with its high-torque, super-sealed movement.” Seiko’s ambitions for its high-end Grand Seiko are entirely in line with the average price of this collection: €6,000, with a high of €31,900 for the Spring Drive in platinum.
Casio, too, has taken an important strategic decision, but one of an entirely different kind. No, the champion of electronic complications has not decided to launch into mechanical Haute Horlogerie (that really would be something!).
Significantly, the brand that built its worldwide reputation on digital technology is increasingly moving towards analogue: analogue technology that retains all the multi-functional abilities of digital, while offering the simplicity and graphical clarity of good old hands.
Hiroshi Nakamura, the elegant managing director and director of Casio’s watchmaking division, readily agrees. “We are selling more and more analogue watches, whether G-Shocks or watches from our other collections such as Edifice or Oceanus, for example.”
- Edifice EFR-540BK by Casio
Clearly, Casio is putting its money on Edifice to expand its international clientele to include a circle of aficionados who are sensitive to the appearance and horological qualities of the products they buy. A convincing example of this marriage between electronic and analogue can be seen in the Edifice EFR-540BK, a powerful chronograph with 20th-of-a-second capabilities, whose arrestingly three-dimensional dial is very comfortable to read. With a highly vibration-resistant structure, thanks in particular to the use of a special polyurethane hybrid gel, this chronograph has all the ingredients of a brand classic. But Casio’s analogue ambitions go even further, notably with another Edifice, the Bluetooth Controlled, whose time display for 300 cities around the world is automatically synchronised via a smartphone.
- G-Shock Gravity Master by Casio
Nevertheless, Casio’s watch of the moment remains the G-Shock Gravity Master, a world first that combines GPS reception and radio control (reviewed in the previous issue of Europa Star, ES 2/14). The launch of this universally accurate watch is scheduled for this September. Competition will be fierce: at the same time, the other two Japanese giants, Seiko and Citizen, will be launching their own GPS watches.
Meeting Guy Semon is always an interesting experience. The head of R&D for TAG Heuer is not typical of his breed. First of all, he’s not your regular “company man”: he’s a scientist, a mathematician, a physicist and a university professor. And he is also ex-army. A surprising giant who is equally capable of reconstructing stone-by-stone an old castle in the heart of the forest, or conducting an animated discussion on another of his favourite subjects: the peony.
But today, we are celebrating a double anniversary: the 10th anniversary of the V4 and Guy Semon’s 10th year in watchmaking.
“In 2004, everyone told Jean-Christophe Babin, then CEO of TAG Heuer, that it would be impossible to bring the V4 – the belt-driven watch whose design was sold to him by Jean-François Ruchonnet – to market,” says Guy Semon. “To date, we’ve sold 400!” At a price of around CHF 100,000 each, this sales volume and revenue are the dream of many a small, independent firm in Haute Horlogerie.
But the journey was a long and gruelling one, which Guy Semon describes as if it were a military campaign, conducted with daring and determination. In 2004 he was given two years to “make the thing work”, he explains in direct and colourful language. By December 2006, he’d done it. Stage two: the V4 should not only be a marketing coup, it should also be a sound commercial proposition. Was that even possible? Fifteen more months went by before the “thing” was deemed reliable. At the end of 2007 Guy Semon, who had been working as a consultant up to that point, was officially made head of R&D and put in charge of a team that today boasts “52 guys”. Next stop, industrialisation.
But behind the V4 mission another, even more important mission, was emerging: to position the brand on its own summit – extremely technologically innovative Haute Horlogerie offering unique solutions to unique problems. “It was the V4 and the determination that went into making it a success that led to all the rest,” he explains. The rest? He is referring to TAG Heuer’s various landmark achievements in terms of measuring time, mechanically indicated 100ths and then 1000ths of a second. The company also brought out two totally revolutionary escapements, the Pendulum and the Girder, which are still being talked about today. The resolutely scientific and mathematical approach of Guy Semon, as he conducted an orchestra of research laboratory technicians made up of “musicians” of every style, was crucial to these technical improvements, which no traditional watchmaker, no matter how gifted, could ever have imagined.
“The thing I love most of all,” he admits, “is turning an equation into cash.” “TAG Heuer, with an average price for the current collection of CHF 3,200, was absent from the most juicy slice of Swiss exports, the 45% represented by watches priced above CHF 10,000. What were we going to do? Gold-plate them? Add the same traditional complications as all the other major manufacturers? No, the V4 was on the table, we had to do something different, but with the same basic ingredients: quality, precision, design.”
To celebrate the V4’s 10th birthday, something special was needed. So, cocking a snook at watchmaking orthodoxy, Guy Semon asked himself: why not drive a tourbillon with a belt transmission? “Who would have thought of that ten years ago? We’ve opened a new chapter in watchmaking history.”
“I’m crazy about my job,” he continues. “I’m madly in love with transmission, in all senses of the term.”
At Baselworld, for the first time, he met the new Mr Big of LVMH watchmaking, Jean-Claude Biver. Another big personality. The two men appear to have got along like a house on fire. True, they have a lot in common. They are terribly passionate, fiendishly clever, outspoken, charming, lovers of fine wines, the countryside and the open air. And watchmaking.
(For more technical details about the V4 Tourbillon, see the previous issue of Europa Star - ES2/14)
This year’s re-adjustment to the mid-range and the general lowering of prices has somewhat eclipsed the technical and aesthetic enhancements proposed by the independent brands working in Haute Horlogerie. There has also been a shakeout of sorts; only the most consistent and dedicated will remain in the game, to the detriment of the outliers that until fairly recently constituted the bread and butter of any number of watchmaking blogs.
Among these brands, De Bethune clearly stands out from the crowd as a result of the depth of its watchmaking work as well as the exceptional quality of its aesthetics, which successfully blend the codes of classical fine watchmaking with an innovative and faultlessly executed modernity.
Throwing itself rigorously into the domain of chronographs (the fact that this is a true complication, more complex than many others considered more “noble” is often overlooked), De Bethune has radically rethought the techniques as well as the aesthetics involved.
- DB28 Maxichrono by De Bethune
“The absolute clutch operates in a system engaging the two traditional clutch methods to allow the different chronograph counters to function semi-autonomously”
A glance at the DB28 Maxichrono is enough to understand that this is a chronograph of incomparable elegance, whose readability is genuinely second to none. The hour is indicated by polished openwork hands in black oxidised steel, pointing to black numerals in a contemporary font. Elapsed time is indicated by slim, flame-blued hands that point to numerals of exemplary clarity, inspired by marine chronometers.
Technically speaking, the expertise is doubly breathtaking. These five co-axial central hands demanded totally a new construction technique “stacked wheels with their shafts fitting inside each other took real technical prowess to achieve”. Nor does the feat stop there, since most of the horological research is centred on the clutch system. Denis Flageollet explains: “The De Bethune absolute clutch system aims to improve the performance of chronographs by correcting the faults identified in current mechanisms. This mechanism makes the most of the advantages of the horizontal and vertical clutch systems while eliminating their faults. It thus benefits from a marked reduction in the friction that affects the movement both when the chronograph is running and when it is functioning without the chronograph engaged. The absolute clutch operates in a system engaging the two traditional clutch methods to allow the different chronograph counters to function semi-autonomously:
The chronograph seconds are governed by the new absolute clutch system;
The minutes counter is controlled by a shifting pinion;
The hours counter is engaged by a horizontal clutch.
Three different types of clutch behind three semi-independent systems controlled by three column-wheels thus govern the different chronograph elapsed-time counters.”
- DB29 Maxichrono Tourbillon (Back) by De Bethune
But over and above its horological performance, our bet is that the DB28 Maxichrono, along with its alter ego, the DB29 Maxichrono Tourbillon (a technically sophisticated tourbillon, since it is hidden in the back of the movement, whose astonishing architecture is revealed by opening a double case back on an invisible hinge) will make their mark on the history of the chronograph.
For those whose fancy is tickled by mechanical follies, there was one obligatory stop: Christophe Claret. The man who has built and produced 70 different calibres in 25 years never stops experimenting with the mechanics of chance and happy juxtaposition, with strikes, rings and gongs, while revisiting the most complex escapements. Fresh from presenting his Poker Watch in Geneva in January, here he was again at Baselworld with two stunning new calibres, in his own inimitable style.
- Margot by Christophe Claret
The most visually striking new release was the Margot, an unparalleled romantic complication. Imagine picking the petals off a daisy, in the most random way possible. “He loves me, he loves me not... one by one, or two by two, it just depends. The twelve petals of the central flower disappear before your eyes as if by magic, accompanied by a soft tinkling sound (75 combinations are theoretically possible). Similarly, inscriptions cataloguing the extent of the unknown lover’s devotion appear in a window at four o’clock. If you should end up with “...not at all” a discreet pushbutton brings the message back to “... madly.” With the push of a different button, the petals instantly reappear around the glittering central corolla. Stunning!
On a strictly horological level, the ingenious Mr Claret has turned his attention to the detent escapement with another watch, the Maestoso. Seven years of development were required to perfect its pivoted detent escapement, whose origin harks back to marine chronometers but whose great weakness lies – or at least used to lie – in its sensitivity to shocks, particularly lateral shocks. They can easily cause the escape wheel to catch, with the risk of breaking, while shocks can increase the amplitude of the balance, leading to excess energy that accelerates the escape wheel.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to explain in detail within the confines of a general article such as this the mechanical solutions perfected by Christopher Claret. Let us simply note that two distinct systems have been added, namely an anti-pivot cam integral to the sprung balance and a flexible thrust bearing fitted on the wheel and connected to the balance, which absorbs any excess energy (in other words, an original constant-force system).
(Europa Star will look at different types of escapement mechanisms in its next issue, ES 4/14, to be published at the end of August).
Aesthetically, the Maestoso, whose depth of field gives an unparalleled view of the detent escapement and its workings, has “royal” leanings, with its Louis XIV style Grand Siècle sculpted pillars and Charles X-inspired bridges. “Châtelain” Christopher Claret (the Margot advertising spot was shot in front of the château he restored), master of the Soleil d’Or Manufacture, is not just a one-trick pony.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to report on everything that caught our eye at Baselworld. There are many other watchmakers, design houses and initiatives we would have like to mention in addition to the hundred or so mentioned in this edition. However, we will continue to revisit them in forthcoming issues. After all, watchmaking is known for taking the long view!
In the meantime, I will leave you with a few final snapshots.
- The Horological Academy of Independent Creators or AHCI
It was extremely gratifying to witness the buoyant enthusiasm and spirit of curiosity of the watchmakers within the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendents, the Horological Academy of Independent Creators or AHCI. At the centre of this metaphorical hive of watchmakers from all over the world, each standing in front of their own showcase (they were the only standing watchmakers in Baselworld!), I met Vincent Calabrese, keen to share his enthusiasm. He took me by the arm to show me the incredible work of his colleagues, going so far as to lead me over to the neighbouring stand of L’Epée, urging me to admire the latest Starfleet Machine engineered by them for MB&F, in his eagerness almost forgetting his own product for that brand, which is the last remaining specialised producer of high-end clocks in Switzerland. (Read Malcolm Lakin’s report in this issue)
- Miss Avant-Garde by Alexander Shorokhoff
It was remarkable to experience the energy that “outsider” Alexander Shorokhoff, a Russian-born designer who has worked in Germany for the last thirty years, has put into his constructivist-inspired watches. In the breathtaking setting of the pavilion designed by Zaha Hadid and discreetly located just a few kilometres from Baselworld on German soil, he told me he was not afraid to try out the unusual; he said he offered watches that were a little outside the mainstream, demonstrated his talents as an engraver and said he hoped to be able to launch his own calibre soon.
Watchmaking certainly exercises a powerful hold over those who have fallen under its spell.
It was also delightful to meet Michel Jordi, the standard-bearer of Swiss-ness, who in 1986, nearly thirty years ago, sent a number of young girls out among the crowds of the Basel Messe (as Baselworld was then known) pushing wheelbarrows filled with old wristwatches; they harassed the delegates to get rid of these old relics in favour of the Clip-Watch. Three years later he launched the “Swiss Ethno”, half a million of which were sold (at CHF 395 each).
He has lost nothing of his appetite, his vivacity or his obsession. Despite some bumps along the road, he has enjoyed a number of successful comebacks. He attended Baselworld with his wife, who has been his longstanding lieutenant, and his son. Together they presented the Jordi Swiss Icon collection: a watch like a pebble polished in an Alpine stream, a dial decorated with traditional motifs from the folk art of paper-cutting, in a full range of styles from the simple watch to an automatic chronograph. The collection is being positioned as affordable luxury.
Further up the range we find complications gathered under the label Icon of the World: twin-barrelled models with alarm function. A window at 10 o’clock reveals landscapes, skylines and landmarks from around the world against a disc painted in the colours of the sky, marking the transition from day to night.
Ah, the joys of watchmaking!
Source: Europa Star June - July 2014 Magazine Issue