The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie brings together 16 of the world's top watch brands for a week (21-25 January 2013), in a plush exhibition centre close to Geneva airport. It is a superb opportunity to see the new watches launched for the year, to talk to the people at the ccompanies, and to get some general impressions of how the industry is changing. In this overview, we are reporting on macroscopic trends; over the next few days, we will be posting a series of articles summarizing the most significant watches introduced by the individual maisons.
The overriding sensation is one of optimism. At regular intervals, particularly towards the end of the week, the entire team on the stand of this or that brand would group together for a photo, accompanied by Maori-type collective shouts that evoked rubgy and tribal war-chants. They had every reason to be happy: the fine watch industry enjoyed growth of about 10% in 2012, and this follows on from 20 years of constant growth, often in double-digit figures. It is an industry whose combination of obstinately maintaining a vast tradition of hand-crafted production along with price-driven exclusivity is enabling them to reap rewards. As one commentator at the show said to me, "It's the only place where a person can go along ready to spend a mllion francs on a watch, and goes away empty-handed, invited to return a year later." There just aren't enough watches to go round, and as the developing markets produce the latest generation of new high-net-worth people, this trend is not going to change in the near future.
Which are the most promising areas? China continues to be very important for all brands, while Brazil, Mexico and Russia are all showing good results. Several brands reported that Singapore is looking very promising too.
So what about the watches? Complications and grand complications are very visible, with the high point possibly being the spectacular piece by A. Lange & Sohne, with 16 complications including a minute repeater. With just six pieces available, the watch wasn't actually visible, just a giant model. Those in the know said that all six in the series had been sold by the end of the first day of the show, plus another four. The brand makes just one per year. Minute repeaters were very much in view, with some fine watches by several brands, including a superb model by Piaget.
Another theme is theatricality. You don't necessarily buy a watch of this type to tell the time. To do that, you have your smartphone. Quality watches are iincreasingly becoming miniature performances worn on the wrist. For Van Cleef & Arpels, time becomes poetry, with their signature piece this year being the Enchanted Ballerina, in which a double-retrograde movement powers the butterfly wings over the dancer's tutu. When you push the button, the butterfly wings rise in sequence to show the hours on one side, the minutes on the other.
Greubel & Forsey presented their "Art Piece 1," a watch that includes a micro-sculpture by artist Wigan, visible through a magnifying glass incorporated into the crown. It's difficult to express in words, but when you see this miniature world brought to life by the powerful lens, you get a powerful feeling of the magic that is always a part of the fine watch industry. There are no hands; the time can be displayed by pressing a button, with hours and minutes shown on the two sides of a small arc-shaped window. This watch, retailing at about a million euro, is a limited edition of one, though it would be more accurate to say that each one is a one-off work of art.
Other features of theatricality include the tourbillon, which remains a favourite for providing visual interest. The tourbillon becomes the mysterious beating heart of the watch, forever revolving in a movement that evokes the orbits of planets and stars. From a purely visual viewpoint, the three-dimensionality of movements is enhanced by the use of transparent sapphire bridges, stepped bridges, and skeletonization, so that you can glimpse parts of the movement below the dial.
Transparency is increasingly present in another way. Van Cleef & Arpels is now introducing some of its craft techniques, that were once close to being industry secrets, to all those interested in learning about their exquisite watches, with their Ecole, which from its base in Paris, will tour the world. The idea is simple: if a prospective client understands the vast amount of crafts skill that goes into a watch, the purchase will have greater meaning.
Another important theme goes in the same direction: accessibility. While prices at the top end of haut horlogerie continue to rise, some brands make superb watches at very accessible prices. Probably the most striking example is Montblanc, with the Star collection: a piece with multiple functions, with all the canons of quality and finish, retailing at just €3,850, is an invitation to the younger end of the population to begin their adventure in mechanical watches.
Watchmaking is by now a mature industry, and sustainability has become a keynote for many brands. I'm thinking of their commitment to supporting crafts that would otherwise risk disappearing, such as enamelling and the most refined features of gold-working, notably by Van Cleef & Arpels and Vacheron & Constantin, but more in general by all top brands. Audemars Piguet is deeply committed to the protection of the environment at Le Brassus, their home town, but also the forests of the world. Montblanc supports young artists with a programme that gives them global visibility by means of boutique displays.
Ambassadors are changing. Previously, they were mostly famous figures who lent their faces (and wrists) in photos with watches. Now, they do the same, but they often love fine timepieces (for example, Michael Schumacher for Audemars Piguet), and contribute to their own special editions. This trend can be seen in the collaboration between car brands and watches. Jaeger-LeCoultre, which celebrates its 180th anniversary this year, will be launching an important project with Aston Martin. IWC's stand was themed around its work with the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One racing team, with mechanics on hand explaining the cutting-edge materials that have been incorporated into the latest Ingenieur watches by IWC. Parmigiani Fleurier's highlighted products included the remarkable Bugatti watch, named after the supercar.
Then, women. Women are becoming more interested in mechanical watches, and they are increasingly wearing men's watches. This is something that makes all brands happy (as long as they buy their own and don't borrow their partners' watches!) It may also be the reason why the very large watches – 47 millimetres or more – seen in recent years have mostly been supplanted by a more wearable 42 millimetres.
Lastly, philosophy. This is a word that may seem a million miles from luxury watches, but in actual fact, several watchmakers are driven by philosophical considerations for their designs and mechanisms. The watch becomes a microcosm of the universe, the wheels mirroring the mysterious motions of the planets and the stars. Michel Parmigiani explained how the design of his watches incorporates the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Mean in order to attain true, lasting beauty (shown in the photo below during our interview. Photo courtesy of Parmigiani Fleurier/Maryline De Cesare).
To sum up, these are truly exciting times for watchmaking. SIHH is limited to 16 brands, but other watchmakers exhibited during the same period in other locations in Geneva – notably Breguet at Cité du Temps, Cristophe Claret at the Four Seasons des Bergues, and many others at the Geneva Time Exhibition at the Batiment des Forces Motrices. The next big event for watches, Baselworld in late April, looks set to providing yet more excitement.