Salon International de Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) is a show with fewer than 40 exhibitors, but its size, influence and importance is growing at a time Baselworld with its 600 stands is consolidating. Its timing in January marks the start of a new horological year, and WatchPro was on site to soak up the news, gossip, hot trends and inspirational watch launches.
WatchPro tours SIHH with a little black book in which we create a table of the design and business trends we notice throughout the exhibition. Will it be blue watches everywhere? Are case sizes getting smaller? Is yellow gold making a comeback? These and many answers are scratched into the table as aide memoires to be used in the writing of this article. And we do not rely solely on our own views. We button hole retailers on the show floor, and swap thoughts with the dozens of other watch journalists working the exhibition.
Observation number one is that exhibitors at SIHH this year were planning and designing their watches at a time of considerable fear for the future health of their industry. Product development cycles are many years long, so it is worth remembering that, despite a year of continuous growth in Swiss watch exports since February, 2017, the recent upturn came after two years of retreat, and the added threat that Apple watch and other smartwatches from the tech giants could cause another 1970s-style crisis.
It is little wonder, then, that this was a safety-first year for Richemont brands and other members of the Federation de Haute Horlogerie. The watch maisons’ banker collections were given incremental tweaks such as new strap materials and colours, slightly smaller sizes. Anything that retailers have found difficult to sell in 2017 has been quickly retired, so the square dials and use of materials like bronze have all but vanished.
If it has been selling well, the brands are giving more of it. Classic blue and white dialled circular watches are the best example; they were everywhere again. IWC has gone blue, white and round in every watch associated with its 150th anniversary year, launching several models in its Portugieser, Da Vinci, Pilot and Portofino families. Mainstream and commercial complications and embellishments were spread out throughout the Jubilee watches, giving a highly saleable option for pretty much every customer — male or female — with a budget ranging from around £4000 up to over £200,000.
The only risk IWC took was with a reimagining of a 150 year old Pallweber pocket watch as a contemporary wristwatch. It’s possibly the only model in the family that retail partners won’t fancy, but is certain to be a hit in boutiques.
IWC doubled down on another successful commercial trend: creating what economists call scarcity value by limiting supply. In the case of its 150th anniversary Jubilee collections, every single watch is being promoted as a limited edition, despite the launch adding up to thousands of watches when you total up every piece that will be manufactured.
Keeping current customers happy is key to every watch brand, but they must not forget to forage for new ones. This appeared to be the thinking of Vacheron Constantin, the oldest and arguably most venerable and traditional of Swiss watchmakers, which introduced a brand new collection, the Fiftysix.
Vacheron typically appeals to watch connoisseurs, a description that conjures up images of Victorian gentlemen in smoking jackets with a glass of port. But the launch of the Fiftysix collection, described incongruously as retro-contemporary, was accompanied with a slickly produced video of young hipsters who would not have looked out of place in a Shoreditch speakeasy.
The look of the Fiftysix models did not entirely warrant such a jarring change of gears by Vacheron Constantin’s marketing team, and the watches might have been slipped into the Overseas family unnoticed in another year. However, the entry level price of £10,500 is a significant change for the brand, it is over £6000 cheaper than the bottom end of its current Patrimony collection.
Accessible price points were another key theme continuing into 2018. Zenith presented a new range of Defy El Primero models from a tourist boat on Lake Geneva. The single watch from Baselworld 2017, the Defy El Primero 21, will become a broad family this year, all using the El Primero automatic movement with a chronograph capable of measuring hundredths of a second. The sophisticated watches have an entry price point of just CHF 10,900 and could attract a whole new generation of enthusiasts to the brand.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is also aiming to broaden its target market with a range of Polaris models with an entry price for the three hand automatic of just €5600 (excluding tax). The Polaris was first introduced as the Memorex Polaris in 1968, so it is 50 years-old in 2018 and will be a core line with five models including a world time chronograph.
There were a number of anniversaries, but very little vintage styling this year, a significant departure from 2017 when the industry seemed to suffer a collective bout of nostalgia.
Historic models were, of course, used as inspiration, but the 2018 models look brand new rather than reviving colours, logos and other design elements. Montblanc was a notable exception.
The company’s watch business is comparatively young compared to old-timers like Vacheron Constantin, but it acquired a historic back story when Richemont bought Minerva in 2006 and turned it into the manufacture for Montblanc.
Minerva would have been 160 years old in 2018, and its watch designs from the 1920s and 30s have been dusted off for the anniversary in a family called the Montblanc 1858 collection. The onion crowns and chunky leather straps using old stitching techniques are nods to the past, but even here the majority of the collection looks modern and fresh.
Using historic names for new collections is a standard way of reminding customers about the heritage of a watch collection without needing to stick rigidly to historic designs. Cartier’s Santos launch is a good example.
The case shape is similar to the design of a watch made by Louis Cartier in 1904 for his close friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, an eccentric Brazilian inventor and early aviator. Mr Santos-Dumont found it difficult to check the time on a pocket watch while testing and working on his flying machines, so Mr Cartier made him a wristwatch.
The 2018 editions’ square cases with rounded corners and lugs that sweep into the strap are familiar, as are the eight screws on the bezel and the Roman numeral hours behind Cartier blue hands.
The days of measuring a man’s success by the width of his Swiss wristwatch continue to fade, with even the most masculine of brands such as Panerai, Audemars Piguet and Hublot knocking a millimetre or two off their case sizes.
The trend to make watches lighter is also continuing, so heavy gold and platinum watches were thin on the ground while titanium, ceramic and carbon composites were used to give luxury feel to wearable pieces from Richard Mille, Zenith and Hublot. Girrard-Perregaux had a particularly commercial look to its Laureato family, which is using white and black ceramic this year in a collection that tops out with a tourbillon skeleton model.
The battle to produce ultra-thin watches is also continuing. We expect to see Bulgari come up with additional challengers at Baselworld, but at SIHH it is Richemont’s Piaget that leads the way. Its Altiplano Ultimate Automatic is described as the thinnest automatic in the world, at just 4.2mm from the top of its sapphire glass to the bottom of its case back. The company is also promising even thinner watches in the future using elements from a prototype hand-wound movement architecture called the Altiplano Ultimate Concept that Piaget says will make it possible to build watches just 2mm thick.
Watchmakers with very low volumes of highly complicated watches, such as Richard Mille and Greubel Forsey were prepared to innovate with materials, movement architectures and combinations of complications, but the more commercial players took fewer risks. A notable exception was Ulysse Nardin, which adopted a Freakonomics business model for its Freakus Visionum.
The watch’s entire flying carrosel movement circles inside the watch displaying minutes at one end and a balance wheel at the other. There is no winding crown because the automatic movement is wound by a pepper grinder mechanism on the underside of the watch where the mainspring is tightened by an oscillating ring weight.
Even bolder, and perhaps foolhardy in the current #metoo era, is the Classic Voyeur that, in the words of Ulysse Nardin, offers intrepid voyeurs a titillating glimpse into a secret world of forbidden love. The watch is essentially a piece of historic pornography in the form of a minute repeater.