Crisis? What crisis? The fine watch industry achieved a growth of about 10% in 2012, and this follows 20 years of annual increments often reaching double figures. The industry's insistence on hand-crafted watches and low volumes has proved a marketing winner. The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva brought together 16 of the world's top watch brands. Let's take a look at some of the major trends.
At the very top end, there are some superb grand complications this year, such as the spectacular piece by A. Lange & Sohne, with 16 complications including a minute repeater, in a limited edition of just six pieces.
Minute repeaters were very much in view, amongst which Piaget's superb Emperador Coussin Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater. The brand has long been accustomed to setting world records for its ultra-thin Altiplano watches, and their Minute Repeater follows suit, with double records for calibre and case thinness. The automatic in-house Calibre 1290P comprises 407 parts, with some wheels about the same thickness as a human hair.
Audemars Piguet presented the Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication, a watch that combines a perpetual calendar, a minute repeater, and a split-time chronograph, all in the sporty octagonal case that has hallmarked the Royal Oak family since Gerald Genta's inspired design in 1971.
Many of the new pieces introduced for female customers have transparent casebacks, an indication of women's growing interest in mechanical watches. Several brands reported that more and more women are wearing men's watches, and this is something that makes all watchmakers happy (as long as they buy their own and don't borrow their partners' timepieces!)
In the Enchanted Ballerina by Van Cleef & Arpels, time becomes poetry. A double-retrograde time-on-demand movement powers the butterfly wings over the dancer's tutu. When you push the button, the butterfly wings rise in a carefully-orchestrated choreography to show the hours on one side, the minutes on the other, marked by diamond-studded indices.
Reflecting the trend towards transparency, the maison is imparting what were once close to being industry secrets, its cherished craft techniques, to all those interested in learning about their exquisite watches, with their École, 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 a much greater significance.
Cartier has brought an ancient technique back to life with the stunning Rotonde de Cartier, in which granulation is used to depict a panther on the dial. Tiny gold beads are made from gold threads cut and heated over a flame, and then assembled and fused to a gold base plate. The result is a fascinating, sensuous, powerful image.
The Rendez-Vous watch by JaegerLeCoultre is a new interpretation of an earlier piece, the Hollywood. In Rendez-Vous, you turn the diamond-set bezel to move a marker in the shape of a star, so that you can set an appointment. A celestial sky-map adds to the complexity and beauty of this piece.
The tourbillon has long been a favourite for providing visual interest in a watch, becoming its mysterious beating heart. Jaeger-LeCoultre's Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon 3 is an incredible piece,whose two-axis tourbillon in a spherical cage has no bridge, so that it seems to be floating in the movement. One of the unbelievable features is a spherical balance wheel inside a spherical hairspring. The watch has a chronograph with a digital minutes counter. The time is shown on an offset dial, and there is a day-night indicator disc. The gyrotourbillon alone has 75 components, the chronograph 400.
Richard Mille's dramatic RM 59-01 Yohan Blake Tourbillon is a limited edition of 50 pieces, with the bridges supporting the tourbillon cage in green and yellow livery, celebrating the Jamaican sprinter. Panerai presented a remarkable combination of tradition and high-tech in its Pocket Watch Tourbillon GMT Ceramica, a super-modern design for an antique format, providing a second time zone, and power reserve indicator. The zirconium oxide ceramic case is enclosed by a sapphire glass and caseback that reveal the intricacies of the hand-wound movement.
Roger Dubuis presented the Quator, in the Excalibur collection. A remarkable piece that attacks the challenge of gravity (to which the tourbillon was Abraham-Louis Breguet's brilliant solution) in a different way: four balance springs, working in pairs, and positioned in a way to compensate for its differential effects.
IWC's Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon has an integrated constant-force mechanism which increases precision, but requires higher torque. This is provided by two barrels, also providing the extra power for the beautiful moon phase subdial.
The new movement has a power reserve display that indicates just how much of the massive 96-hour reserve is left.
The IWC Ingenieur collection this year is hallmarked by the partnership with the Mercedes AMG Petronas racing team, providing important technological and visual crossover. A different type of cooperation with fast cars can be seen in the Bugatti Vitesse by Parmigiani Fleurier, with its radically new design. The dial is positioned at 90° with respect to the usual position, so that it is visible while driving without having to move your wrist.
While prices at the top end of haute horlogerie continue to rise, some brands are making superb watches at very accessible prices. Probably the most striking example is Montblanc, with the Star collection: the Quantième Complet, which includes date, day, month, and moon phase, retailing at just €3,850 for the stainless steel version. A clear invitation to the younger end of the population to begin their own exciting adventure in mechanical watches.
SIHH 2013 was held in Geneva from 21 to 25 January 2013. The next large fine watches show is Baselworld, running from 25 April to 2 May in Basel.