As the big day approached, everyone was saying the 2016 SIHH would bring a ‘moment of truth’ about the climate of the watchmaking industry. But, as is the case with conjecture about the climatic, economic and geopolitical future of our planet, no one was capable of predicting the outcome with any degree of certainty: would we see retreating markets, caution, a wait-and-see attitude, or bold wagers on a recovery?
Nevertheless, on the first day everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Perhaps things weren’t as bad as that, after all.
But how were we to establish the truth – or truths – about the brands’ actual situation in their respective markets? After all, the SIHH, like all salons and fairs, is a stage first and foremost. Everyone plays out their role in the centre of their own stage, and it would be awfully bad form to go up and ask the actors for a look in their wallets...
So let us look at the products – and their prices – which, in their own way, can provide some concrete indications about the brands’ intentions.
Clearly, not everyone has the hitting power of Cartier, for example, which, thanks to its production capacity and worldwide logistics network is capable of executing a very tight turning circle. For many companies, developing a watch takes time – a lot of time – and there is a risk of finding themselves in straitened circumstances when the watch launches. Designed in times of plenty, it arrives on the market when everyone is tightening their belts.
But we should draw a distinction between companies of a certain size, and independent watchmakers whose production is limited to the dozens or low hundreds of watches per year. The latter have one overriding obsession: to continue undeviating along their path, ploughing their furrow, in the hope that their rare timepieces will continue to attract well-heeled collectors. This dichotomy between the small brands that operate ‘above the markets’ and the larger brands who have no choice but to get down and dirty was particularly noticeable at this SIHH.
The reason was the presence for the first time of the now famous Carré des Horlogers (which Europa Star previewed exclusively in its BREAKAWAY issue in September 2015). In the tastefully refurbished SIHH the Watchmakers’ Square, decked out as a kind of caravanserai courtyard, was impossible to miss, being right by the entrance.
Some commentators have called this initiative the ‘kiss of death’, on the premise that the SIHH is bringing in these independents to clasp them more firmly to its bosom, all the better to suffocate them out of existence.
We don’t set much store by this view, since the global visibility afforded these nine brands (unlike Baselworld’s practice of relegating them to the Palace) was, by their own admission, ample reason to come.
“I make 50 watches per year with 19 employees,” explains Kari Voutilainen, standing at his rather spartan booth. “I’m not here to look for new retailers, I don’t need any. I much prefer dealing with collectors directly. Also, I largely make unique pieces, and my order book is full until 2019. In fact, I will tell you: I want to make fewer watches – or at least not more – but make them even better.”
“Fewer watches...” That must be the first time anyone has expressed such a wish in the inner sanctum of the SIHH.
- GMT Email Trompe-l’oeil by Voutilainen: The Voutilainen GMT Email Trompe-L’oeil, inspired by Vasarely, is the perfect embodiment of the extreme technical and aesthetic refinement of Kari Voutilainen’s timepieces. Entirely designed, built, produced, finished and assembled in the master’s own workshop, the movement has a very special and highly efficient escapement that sends a direct impulse to the balance wheel through the ruby roller.
On the other side of the Square, David Zanetta, the great aesthete who along with Denis Flageollet co-founded De Bethune – one of the most consistently noteworthy independent brands – appears to be singing from the same song sheet when he confides that he too wants to “make fewer watches but even better.” So why is he here? “You’ll see,” he says, as the SIHH welcomes its first visitors. He adds an aside, “It’s nothing but marketing hype... If you ask me, everything is falling apart. The system is dead. It’s every man for himself. No one has a clue what’s going on. The drawers are all full, turnover is sluggish...”
As if in a gesture of apology for his anti-marketing tirade and dark mood, he unveils his latest creation, which is a masterpiece: the brand new DB25 World Traveller, which combines a second time zone and universal time in a way that is both ‘mysterious’ and simple to use, in keeping with one of the brand’s central tenets, which places a priority on comfort and usability. In its 16 years of trading, De Bethune has produced 28 original calibres. The current climate of uncertainty surrounding the company places it at a crossroads: whether to grow its production, or batten down the hatches and stay small. As we all know, it’s dangerous to stand too long at a crossroads, but David Zanetta seems to have decided which way he’s going. The DB25 World Traveller, however ingenious, beautiful and useful it may be, will be produced in a limited run of just twelve. Paradoxically, the future is looking pretty restrained.
- DB25 World Traveller by De Bethune: The different time zones, which radiate out from the centre of the dial, are set via a pusher at 8 o’clock, which advances the cities disc clockwise, one hour at a time. The time on the first 24-hour time zone, or reference time, is indicated by the mysterious ‘microsphere’ which appears to float around its track. The sphere can be adjusted in both directions via the crown, and rotates at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to display either its front in rose gold, for daytime, or its back in blued steel, for night. Local time is indicated by blued hands. The date is read off the outermost disc by a jumping pointer, which is set by an adjuster at 10 o’clock.
Another reason to visit the Square is to discover the latest mechanical flights of fancy, which the more well-established Maisons generally prefer to give a wide berth. And who better than MB&F to propose what was to become the unofficial mascot of the SIHH: Sherman the little robot, developed in collaboration with L’Epée. “Sherman doesn’t walk, talk, weld cars or roam Mars. He doesn’t try to kill Sarah Connor, help Luke Skywalker, warn Will Robinson, vacuum the floor, star in feature-length films or enforce the law.
In fact, Sherman really only does two things, but he does both extremely well. Sherman tells the time.
And Sherman makes people smile, which is probably the world’s most useful and (emotionally) valuable complication. That’s a superpower!” Humour in the watch industry – that’s something you don’t see every day. While MB&F continues to build its science-fiction-inspired universe, Max Büsser’s brand also knows how to win over connoisseurs of fine watchmaking. Just take the new 20-piece limited edition (in platinum or rose gold and sapphire) of the über-futuristic HM6, the HM&SV (S=Sapphire, V=Vision). By baring all 475 components of its movement through the contoured sapphire crystal, it provides ample demonstration of watchmaking’s adaptability to “biomorphic shapes”.
It’s true that, with a price of CHF 350,000 in rose gold or CHF 380,000 in platinum, this object is not for the great unwashed. Nevertheless, the latest reports suggest that MB&F filled its dance card at the SIHH.
- HM&SV by MB&F
Hybridisation is another avenue being actively explored by HYT. HYT has had a remarkable journey, succeeding in a few short years in making its iconoclastic vision of telling the time with fluids seem like the most natural thing in the world – almost. As if to mark the symbolic acceptance of innovation into the inner circle of tradition – but probably also for commercial reasons – HYT unveiled its H2 Tradition. As Vincent Perriard says, with just a touch of defensiveness, “We always said we’d never make a classic piece. Well, now we’ve made one. Although the original idea was simple – to produce a classical HYT – we constantly had to look for ways to preserve the identity of the watch, while observing codes that weren’t a natural fit. It was an interesting challenge suggested by our collector clients, and this is the result.” It was probably a necessity, given that HYT’s goals are ambitious compared with most of the other brands in the Square: 13 new models launched in 2015, more than 70 points of sale and annual production of over 450 pieces (with an average price of between €50,000 and €150,000).
But HYT is pushing the envelope of hybridisation, notably with the H4 Metropolis which, in addition to its fluid display, conceals two LEDs powered by a mechanical generator which illuminate the dial with a bluish glow.
- H2 Tradition by HYT: The first HYT with classic guilloché finish, and the first HYT with delicate lacquered dials and blued hands, the H2 Tradition nevertheless keeps both feet firmly in the 21st century. Its visual expression remains hydro-mechanical, thanks to the capillary through which the blue fluid moves as the hours go by. It is driven by two bellows positioned either side of 6 o’clock, developed in 2013 for the very first H2. The traditional side is expressed by the diamond guilloché main plate, the lancet-shaped crown and the blued hands. HYT wanted its watch to be classical and easy to read, with the most subtle of aesthetics.
On the subject of hybridisation, we gave a detailed rundown of Piaget’s Emperador Coussin XL 700P in the last edition of Europa Star. The 700P, Piaget’s first hybrid movement – with mechanical power generation and transmission, paired with a quartz alternator for regulation – gives extraordinary performance of plus or minus one second per day, which is beyond the reach of any exclusively mechanical watch, as well as resistance to magnetic fields and shocks as a further guarantee of reliability. It’s true, the Seiko Spring Drive, which works on substantially the same principle, has been around for quite some time, but Piaget’s offering opens up some interesting new prospects for Haute Horlogerie. The only slight sticking point is the price – around CHF 70,000 – which is pretty expensive, in the current climate, for a concept watch focused exclusively on chronometry.
Another interesting foray into the domain of precision and, in particular, power reserve, is the Senfine concept, an unexpected contribution from Parmigiani. Parmigiani is celebrating its 20th birthday by introducing its first integrated chronograph, manually wound with flyback hand and big date, entirely designed in-house and magnificently finished. Nevertheless, the Fleurier company is apparently in trouble; its production capacity is considerable (oversized, perhaps), and the brand has yet to find its niche.
That said, Parmigiani unveiled one of the most interesting technical concepts of the SIHH. According to the company’s head of movement development, Takahiro Hamaguchi, it will result in a power reserve of several months. We will return at greater length to this promise of a major leap in performance. For now, we can tell you that it is the brainchild of Pierre Genequand, and its principle lies in eliminating all friction within the regulator (a classical regulator loses 65% of the energy it receives) by exclusively using silicon in a monolithic oscillator that combines the functions of balance, balance spring and pallet fork, fuelled by a constant contact grasshopper-type escapement wheel.
The technology has been in development for eight years. We were able to see – and hear – a working prototype. The next step will be to make the Senfine compatible with COSC standards, which require constant isochronism over all internal temperatures between 8° and 38°C. And that’s not a foregone conclusion. But given that the technicians have already been working on it for eight years, they will no doubt take as much time as they need to get it right.
- The Senfine movement by Parmigiani Fleurier: classical watchmaking structures, traditional energy supply but a revolutionary regulator.
One of the big questions asked during this SIHH was about prices: are they going down, moving up, or remaining static? The answer is, to say the very least, contradictory and complex. Montblanc and Cartier, for example, are both performing gymnastics to cover the broadest possible spectrum, from the depressed markets to the happy few at the top of the ladder.
In addition to the amazing complicated timepieces bearing witness to the exceptional imagination of Carole Forestier (head of Haute Horlogerie), who is in the prime of her horological abilities, and the fabulous 23-piece collection of mechanical High Jewellery, Cartier is launching two new moneyspinners: one for the ladies – the new Hypnose collection – and the Driver collection for the gents. Both collections demonstrate absolute stylistic mastery, with the kind of looks that make you think the design has been around forever. The Driver in particular is a genuinely complete collection, and has every chance of becoming an instant men’s classic, with its strong but elegant lines and Roman detailing on the dial. The price is also particularly compelling, at €3,300 for a Driver in steel.
- HYPNOSE by Cartier
- DRIVE by Cartier
The same strategic contortion is apparent at Montblanc. Since Jérôme Lambert, formerly of Jaeger-LeCoultre, took the reins, the company has been putting out collection after collection, in an apparent attempt to throw a spanner in the works of the competition and earn its spurs as a legitimate watchmaker and ‘complete’ manufacture, with a full range of products. The journey is not an easy one, however, given that Montblanc remains synonymous with writing instruments in the eyes of the public. Nevertheless, at one end of the scale, we were treated to a sumptuous pocket watch with cylindrical tourbillon, featuring two domes representing the two hemispheres of our planet, entirely hand-carved, with a price tag of €295,000, and at the other, a raft of products at prices defying all competition, whether in the more exclusive categories, such as the Exo Tourbillon Slim with micro-rotor, stop-seconds and Haute Horlogerie finishes (offered at €34,500, which is ‘entry level’ for an automatic tourbillon, although Jean-Claude Biver’s forthcoming Tourbillon TAG Heuer, priced at €15,000, is likely to overshadow it, especially as it’s available online) and, infinitely more affordable but still in the same 4810 collection (the height of Mont Blanc in metres), a very elegant Day Date, a snap at €2,690. Examples such as this abound in the other four collections unveiled at the SIHH, including the ultra-conservative and ultra-readable Twin Counter Date for €2,950.
- Villeret Tourbillon Cylindrique Pocket Watch 110 Years Edition by Montblanc
- Heritage Chronométrie Twincounter Date by Montblanc
Montblanc, slashing prices left, right and centre, is closing in on the territory of another Richemont brand, Baume & Mercier, which has hitherto found itself somewhat isolated at the SIHH in that price category. CEO Alain Zimmermann doesn’t beat about the bush: “It’s a complicated situation. We have to take risks, be bold.” The ‘risks’ at Baume & Mercier remain calculated, as befits the brand’s conservative aesthetic, but this year those risks have led to some genuine success stories. The elegant Clifton Chronograph Complete Calendar with moonphase, at just CHF 4,300 with leather strap, is one of them. Simply unbeatable. But the most striking example is a delectable small watch with colourful double-wrapped strap, the 22 mm Petite Promesse. The astonishingly supple double-wrapped metal bracelet is particularly enchanting. With brilliant-cut diamonds and mother-of-pearl dial, this little beauty will set you back just CHF 2,500. Who can say fairer than that?
- Clifton Chronograph Complete Calendar by Baume & Mercier
- Petites Promesses by Baume & Mercier
On the final day of the SIHH it suddenly occurred to us. The dreaded S-word had not been mentioned once. Does this mean that these Haute Horlogerie brands are not the slightest bit concerned about the advent of the smartwatch, and couldn’t care less about this new horological avenue? Are they right? Only time will tell.
The spectacular RM 50-02 ACJ Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph is confirmation of Richard Mille’s strong affinity with world of aviation. “Like ACJ’s jets, which are designed to satisfy their owners’ demand for the highest standards of luxury, this new watch uses cutting-edge skeletonisation techniques on the components and in the manufacture of its bridges and mainplate in grade 5 titanium to significantly reduce the overall weight.” A limited run of 30 pieces will be produced.
The Reverso One by Jaeger-LeCoultre was one of the prettiest watches on display at SIHH 2016. Its unflashy design boasts a rare degree of precision and refinement, making it one of the most stylish watches of the season. We will come back to it later in the year, when we cover the Reverso’s 85th anniversary.
Audemars Piguet made a resounding impact with its Royal Oak Supersonnerie. Stylistically, the watch has undeniable character, but the success is scientific and technical, as we have never heard such a loud gong with such a clear and precise timbre.
Source: Europa Star February/March 2016 Magazine Issue