GENEVA WEEK & SIHH - Through the Hushed Aisles of the SIHH

March 2015

It’s a glorious day. The air is crisp, the Pont du Mont-Blanc is lined with the white flags of the SIHH, and the powers that be at Geneva’s City Hall have turned on the tap of the Jet d’Eau, which cascades down elegantly into the green waters of the lake. In front of the Hôtel des Bergues (which for the past few seasons has also sported an international Four Seasons label) limousines jockey for position. The SIHH opens tomorrow.

The only blot on this idyllic landscape: just three days ago, the Swiss National Bank announced that it was removing the ceiling on the Swiss franc to euro exchange rate. The effect was immediate: the price of Swiss watches jumped 20 to 25% from one moment to the next. “A tsunami for Swiss industry,” spluttered Nick Hayek in Biel. What will happen? What strategies will the groups and big brands settle upon? Will they cut their margins or pass on the costs? It’s the elephant in the room, but the huddle of people heading for the salon where Christophe Claret is about to present his Aventicum is keen to put this burning issue out of their minds for a moment, and take refuge in antiquity.

Aventicum by Christophe Claret
Aventicum by Christophe Claret

2000 years ago, Avenches was the capital of Roman Helvetia. It was to remain so for 300 years. During this period the Romans undertook some major construction works, including an amphitheatre that remains in very good condition today. An amazing hydraulic organ was also discovered there, bearing testimony to the opulence of the city, which was destroyed in 258 A.D. by the Alamanni hordes. In 1939 a treasure of rare splendour was discovered in a drain: a perfectly preserved gold bust of emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Reduced to a height of just 2.8 mm, it now presides over the centre of the Aventicum watch. Placed in the exact centre of a minuscule mirror in the form of an inverted dome, the microscopic bust carved from gold appears to thrust out from the bottom of the dial. But it is a holograph: the bust is topped with a second parabolic mirror with a hole in the centre, which generates the optical illusion. The light waves reflected off the bust are magnified, making the holographic bust appear almost twice its actual size. This magical effect, which is sometimes used in children’s toys, is called a mirascope. But achieving such miniaturisation was anything but child’s play. “It requires cutting-edge and meticulous construction techniques, as the effect cannot work unless the two minuscule mirrors are precisely curved. At that size, it really matters,” explains Christophe Claret.

Step by step, the watchmaker is clearing land hitherto largely unexplored, that of playful Haute Horlogerie. After his delicious Margot with its falling petals, and the occasional foray into poker and roulette, Christophe Claret is off playing again. He just can’t help himself. The back of the Aventicum features an oscillating weight in transparent sapphire1, which bears five numbered Gallo-Roman racing chariots. A flick of the wrist sends them racing around, and the chariot that stops over the letter ‘A’ in ‘Aurèle’ is the winner.

This playful object, 120 of which will be made each year, costs CHF 49,000 or, at today’s rates, 49,000 euros. At this price level, exchange rate fluctuations certainly seem less of an issue... A factor we came to appreciate as the week went on.

While the Aventicum’s chariots race, the roulette wheels are spinning at the Geneva Casino, next door to the airport, and consequently, to the SIHH. A flash of the credentials and I’m crossing a room filled with solitary punters mechanically feeding coins into slot machines; up a flight of steps, I arrive at a more elegant salon with large gaming tables. Look left, look right, and there is the SIWP, as the Swiss Independent Watch Pavilion is somewhat inelegantly known.

The brainchild of the dynamic Amarildo Pilo (Pilo & Cie), this new exhibition hall brings together some of the leading lights of independence: small but excellent watchmakers. It probably has more winners of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève per square metre than anywhere else in the world. Kari Voutilainen, Vincent Calabrese, Vianney Halter, Ludovic Ballouard, Emmanuel Bouchet, Peter Tanisman and others are here, manning their booths. Antoine Preziuso, his triple tourbillon in hand, celebrates his return to watchmaking after a pause for reflection. “Live happy, live small!” he enjoins, as a saxophonist invited to animate the opening launches into a riff, and the first champagne corks of the week are popped.

How will the week go? At least one person here is not the least bit worried. Kari Voutilainen, like his friend Preziuso, is keen to stay small. “I get by, and I do quite well. I produce 50 watches per year with 17 staff. I make practically everything myself. The majority of it goes in direct sales. As I rarely travel, my clients come to me. That’s the key: do everything yourself. But be careful: you have to have the courage of your convictions.” Wise words, but not everyone concurs. Some have different concerns.
[For more on the SIWP, see the round table for independents, organised for the occasion by Europa Star Première in our next issue.]

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the SIHH, the CEOs receive their guests in style at the magnificent Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, now an annex to the Grand Theatre, Geneva’s opera house.
Against the post-industrial backdrop, guests in evening dress greet each other with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek, press toward the Best Workers of France, who man the buffet, or signal for the World’s Best Sommelier to come and suggest some wines. “Swiss franc... euro... dollar...” the words jump out above the laughter and the general hubbub, but that’s not really what they’re talking about. Clearly, no one has a clue what to think.

The magnificent Bâtiment des Forces Motrices
The magnificent Bâtiment des Forces Motrices

Rumours are making the rounds: so-and-so has decided to put his prices up by 15% with immediate effect; another is offering handsome discounts; and a third swears he won’t budge an inch. So let us move on. “Good evening! How are you?” But it wouldn’t do to stay up too late; another Geneva Week starts in the morning.

Monday morning. It’s 8.30, and an elegant and orderly crowd waits to pass through security. For those who have travelled from distant shores, it is just one more in an endless series of security gates. This latter-day ritual completed, we are admitted to the inner sanctum, to the familiar muted palette and tasteful upholstery of the SIHH. But relaxation is not on the agenda: first up is A. Lange & Söhne.

There’s nothing like a hefty dose of Germanic engineering to wake you up on a Monday morning. Today it takes the form of the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, “A modern interpretation of the decimal minute repeater with digital display,” so we are told.

It’s a bold wager. Launched several years ago, the Zeitwerk was the first Haute Horlogerie digital watch, the first to feature a jumping numerals display. This original Zeitwerk, with its three discs – one for hours, one for minutes and one for tens of minutes – comes equipped with a Minute Repeater.
The two hammers in black-polished steel are conspicuously located under the hours and minutes apertures and, unusually, strike not outwards but inwards. The gong, which is also visible, is not circular but follows the contours of the apertures and small seconds dial. There are three different sensors – three snails connected to the display mechanism – which detect the time to be indicated with an audible signal: a low tone for full hours, a double tone for ten-minute intervals and a higher tone for the minutes.

Zeitwerk Minute Repeater by A. Lange & Söhne
Zeitwerk Minute Repeater by A. Lange & Söhne

Consequently, the minute repeater sounds not the quarter-hours, but every ten minutes, a rarity in itself. And – it is also the only minute repeater that strikes exactly the time indicated on the digital display! Its constant force movement, comprising 771 components, has been thought out down to the smallest detail. Thus, the repeater takes precedence over the time display: if the repeater is activated just before the display is due to jump, the discs remain stationary until the chime has finished ringing. Another detail: the repeater cannot be activated if the power reserve shows less than 12 hours (from a total of 36), to ensure that the repeater function is not compromised. A red dot on the power reserve indicator serves as a warning. There is much more one could say about the meticulous detailing of this exceptional watch, whose face retains the typical Saxon understatement and simplicity.
The only downside is the price: 440,000 euros, in platinum! Clearly, at this price point, exchange rate concerns seem somewhat irrelevant. But, if you are absolutely determined to own an A. Lange & Söhne – which is completely understandable – you can always go for one of the other 12 watches in the 2015 collection. Beginning with the Lange One and its instantaneous jumping Big Date, which has had a successful facelift, and is available for EUR 29,800 in red or rose gold.

While IWC is ever attentive to the design of its booth, which changes from year to year, and is a dab hand at securing the presence of luminaries and A-list celebrities to its sumptuous parties, the Schaffhausen firm is less adept at running press conferences, whose monotony regularly puts one in a state of torpor reminiscent of Friday afternoon geography lessons.

Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight Days ‘75th Anniversary' by IWC
Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight Days ‘75th Anniversary’ by IWC

This is a shame, as the big push set in motion for the Portuguese watch deserves better than such a dreary presentation. By the look of things, IWC has decided to make a statement in movement and complication design: three new base calibres are planned by 2017, and a new factory is scheduled for completion next year.
The new family of calibres is called the 52000, and already equips several models in the Portuguese collection: the 52800 graces a new Portugieser Annual Calendar, with its three discs to display the month, date and day; the 59215 drives the classic and pared-down Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight Days Edition ‘75th Anniversary’ with its 1940s styling; and the 51900 is to be found inside the Portugieser Tourbillon Mystère Chronograph.
The other models in the collection, which includes six improved versions, will be gradually equipped with the new calibres over the coming year.

Aesthetically, the makeover has injected the new range of Portuguese watches with a becoming flush of youth. While the design remains virtually unchanged, the subtle graphic and aesthetic details bring some welcome new touches. The new arched-edge front glass makes the watches appear slimmer, and the curved and narrowed lugs provide greater comfort in wear, further enhanced by luxurious alligator straps made by Italian shoe manufacturer Santoni.
It’s possible that some of its Mediterranean flair has rubbed off on IWC, which nevertheless continues to apply its customary Teutonic rigour to the engineering.

Baume & Mercier CEO Alain Zimmermann, on top form, introduces the 2015 range of the Richemont group’s only mid-range brand. In fact, he prefers the term ‘affordable’, and emphasises the ‘back to basics’ approach of his brand, which celebrates its 185th anniversary this year.

In the past, the Geneva house has had trouble finding its niche, and its products suffered as result. Now, things appear to have turned a corner, with a new strategy organised around the Classima collection, a range that Alain Zimmermann admits has “never really been supported, but it’s back now.”

The strategy is focused around the idea of celebration, whether earning a diploma, getting a job or commemorating a special anniversary. Targeting young people primarily, Baume & Mercier has established a strong network of partnerships with an impressive number of prestigious universities and technology institutes around the world. Joint activities include workshops, curriculum involvement and introductions to watchmaking. But it’s the product itself that has made the greatest progress. Classima remains a simple, classic, automatic watch, but some special touches have moved its design forward very convincingly.

Classima moon phase by Baume & Mercier
Classima moon phase by Baume & Mercier

Promesse by Baume & Mercier
Promesse by Baume & Mercier

The four new pieces in the 40 mm Classima Homme range, available in steel or two-tone versions, sport sleek lines and have a line guilloché dial centre, with a date aperture at 3 o’clock. A sapphire back reveals the automatic mechanical movement. The price, with a metal bracelet that is perfectly fitted to the case, is €2,150, or, in alligator with a triple folding clasp and security push buttons, €1,950. A bargain at twice the price.

The Classima is also available in a 36.5 mm ladies’ version with a quartz movement. The stunning precision moon phase model (29.5 days), set with a sprinkling of diamonds and fitted with a blue alligator strap, also goes for €1,950. But Baume & Mercier’s offensive doesn’t stop there.
In addition to the new men’s Clifton series (43 mm with big date aperture at 12 o’clock and power reserve indicator at 6 o’clock – €3,400), and the rectangular Hampton automatics with their elegant design (cutaways to lighten the case, ribbing, blued steel sword hands – €2,200), a particular effort has been made with women. The new Promesse collection certainly lives up to its name.
The sunburst guilloché dial makes it shine, but it is the subtle play between the round case and oval mother-of-pearl bezel that imbues this watch so successfully with a touch of the opulent. Asked about the consequences of the rise in the Swiss franc, which is logically more of a problem at this price level, Alain Zimmerman said he would talk about it after the SIHH.
Who can blame him.

Panerai is, in a way, the Rolex of the Richemont group. Not so much because of its turnover (in this respect, the Geneva-based mammoth defies comparison) but for its propensity to stick to its own stylistic codes, incessantly working and reworking the same shapes.

This year the new models play with the highly recognisable Luminor (the first military dive watch, dating back to 1936) and the Radiomir (1940). The result is the Luminor Submersible line, the Radiomir or Luminor Time Equation, and the Mare Nostrum, inspired by a 1943 prototype that never went into production.

This year’s exercise is thoroughly convincing, for those who appreciate the robust and yet elegant style of Panerai. The Luminor Submersible 1950, a solid 47 mm in diameter, mounted on a rubber strap, houses an automatic chronograph movement with flyback function: the P.9100, the first automatic chronograph movement developed and produced by the Panerai manufacture in Neuchâtel. Two models are available with a choice of black ceramic or titanium rotating bezel that clicks at minute intervals; the exceptionally readable dial is enhanced with blue and green Superluminova for better legibility under diving conditions (to 300 metres).

Luminor Submersible 1950 CarbotecHTM by Panerai
Luminor Submersible 1950 CarbotecHTM by Panerai

Mare Nostrum Titanio by Panerai
Mare Nostrum Titanio by Panerai

Five hundred pieces are on sale at €14,200 which, R&D Director Frank Stalder notes, is the ‘spot price’. “It could go up or down, it depends, we don’t really know...” But the highlight is probably the Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech™. In 2010 it was all about bronze; now, it’s the turn of Carbotech™. This composite material formed of parallel sheets of compressed carbon fibre produces a dense, very strong, corrosion-proof and light (three times lighter than titanium) material, with a subtly striated matte black appearance. This technological innovation aside, the rest is 100% unadulterated Panerai.
Mounted on a rubber strap, the watch has undeniable sex appeal. Another fascinating watch is the Mare Nostrum. Originally developed in 1943 for officers of the Italian Royal Navy, only one or two prototypes of this model remain in existence. They were used as the basis for the creation of an almost identical reproduction, this time in titanium.
A classic chronograph with two push-buttons, today’s model features a tobacco brown dial and is supplied with a topstitched brown calfskin strap. It is produced as a collector’s edition of 150 units (latest price around €37,000).

For its 260th birthday the venerable Vacheron Constantin manufacture is promoting its talents as a ‘horological sculptor’. This exercise, which owes more to Brancusi than to Tinguely, has resulted in the new Harmony line. Like many others, Vacheron Constantin has also plundered its archives for inspiration, looking to one of its original bracelet chronographs dating from 1928. The result is a multifaceted case of subtly sleek lines and curves that play beautifully with light. Like a cambered square, its curved cushion case provides a wide 1920s-inspired dial opening with leaf-type hands and blue numerals.

HARmony tourbillon chronograph by Vacheron Constantin
HARmony tourbillon chronograph by Vacheron Constantin

There are seven watches in the first wave of the Harmony series: three monopusher chronographs – the world’s slimmest flyback automatic at just 5.20 mm deep, a tourbillon model and one with a pulsometric scale – a ladies’ chronograph with double pusher, and three dual-time models including one for women. We will no doubt be coming back to this collection, which certainly lives up to its name.
Some observers complain that there was ‘nothing really new’ at this SIHH. The expertly driven Harmony, although it won’t revolutionise watchmaking, does show that watchmaking is also, perhaps primarily, a matter of meticulous attention to detail, angles, lines, reflections, composition and balance, all of which are brilliantly executed here. Sometimes, this is more important than provoking a cacophony of tweets with a strident announcement that fails to deliver on its promises. But when you are 260 years old, it’s true that you can afford to take your time.

We should point out in passing that Vacheron Constantin is also focusing on its Métiers d’Art this year, specifically its hand-engraved movements; there are also twelve one-of-a-kind Arca table clocks, whose openwork calibre is displayed within an arch sculpted from rock crystal.

For Roger Dubuis, this is the year of the skeleton. Not only because of its architectural qualities but also because “it’s the best possible way of exhibiting the Geneva Hallmark,” which distinguishes above all the quality of workmanship that goes into movement finishing.
Once through the entrance to the booth, which reproduces the inside of a 7-metre-high skeletonised movement, there are automatic skeletons that even have openworked rotors (without losing any of their winding power); Brocéliande, a ladies’ skeleton watch overgrown with ivy, whose leaves of precious gems, white mother-of-pearl and diamonds twine in and around the movement; ‘technical skeletons’ such as the Excalibur Spider Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon, a fearsome beast sporting titanium surfaces and elements of fiery red aluminium; and the Excalibur Spider Skeleton Flying Tourbillon, the first watch in the world with a diamond-set rubber bezel (patented by Genevan gem-setter Pascal-Vincent Vaucher).

Brocéliande by Roger Dubuis
Brocéliande by Roger Dubuis

The least one can say is that Roger Dubuis has confidently opted for a baroque aesthetic, taking a road far less travelled than current trends dictate. Practically everywhere else, sizes are being reduced, appearances are subdued, and lines are finessed and polished, but the world of Roger Dubuis is full of the sound and the fury, like the deafening promotional films that illustrate the back-story of its Skeletons.

For many onlookers, however, the multiple sources of inspiration cited make the message paradoxically somewhat opaque. We are fed a mish-mash of images of Arthurian forests, corals, Romanesque churches and Gothic cathedrals, but also architects, suprematist painter Malevitch, even fantasy director Tim Burton!
The prices bandied about are equally polarising: from 54,000 Swiss francs (euros?) for a Skeleton automatic in titanium, to CHF 300,000 for the diamond-set Excalibur Brocéliande, not forgetting the odd 250,000 here or 280,000 there. This arresting watchmaking is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Skeletons may be rising from the ground, but it was by lifting their eyes to the stars that humans learned to measure time. Fundamentally, watchmaking is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to represent this elusive concept in physical form. Watchmaking, a micro-mechanical translation of the macro-movement of the celestial bodies, has always had a ‘date with the moon’.

Duomètre Sphérotourbillon Moon by Jaeger-LeCoultre
Duomètre Sphérotourbillon Moon by Jaeger-LeCoultre

This is the theme explored by Jaeger-LeCoultre this year, with a raft of beautiful pieces inspired by the moon and stars. Some are highly complex, like the Duomètre Sphérotourbillon Moon, others more simply stunning like the charming Rendez-Vous Celestial in burgundy aventurine (when asked the reason for this colour, we are told, “Because, as the poet Eluard said, the sky is blue like an orange”).
They all radiate an undeniable magic, a magic that is further enhanced by the great watchmaking skill that went into them. Hence the high-precision moon that cohabits with the Sphérotourbillon. The real lunar cycle is 29.53094 days, but for most watchmaking purposes it is taken as 29.5 days. This means it loses one day every two and a half years.
The moon of the new Sphérotourbillon will be just one day out after 3,887 years; the Rendez-Vous Moon after 927 years. Pointless? Maybe.
But exquisitely beautiful in themselves, such is the extreme degree of miniaturisation required to insert these complex moons into the reduced dimensions of a women’s watch, or into existing complications. The large moon of the Rendez-Vous Moon, in almost hyper-realistic mother-of-pearl, stands out against a dark blue lacquered guilloché sky, which glitters with a scattering of brilliant-cut diamonds.

Rendez-Vous Moon by Jaeger-LeCoultre
Rendez-Vous Moon by Jaeger-LeCoultre

Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication by Jaeger-LeCoultre
Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication by Jaeger-LeCoultre

This astral theme is also played out aesthetically and technically in other pieces, such as the Master Calendar, whose dial bearing a complete calendar is cut from a meteorite that fell from space some four billion years ago; and the Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, whose orbital flying tourbillon parades around the dial, indicating sidereal and solar time.

For other Geneva Week/SIHH brands, read Serge Maillard’s article.

Source: Europa Star February-March 2015 Magazine Issue