January has always been a significant month for launching new collections for LVMH, with TAG Heuer, Hublot, Bulgari and Zenith normally riding the coat tails of SIHH in Geneva for its kick-off event of the year. But with SIHH moving to the end of April (and changing name to Watches & Wonders Geneva) LVMH needed a new plan. So it flew the cream of the world’s multibrand retail partners to a gathering in Dubai for what became the inaugural LVMH Watch Week. WatchPro’s Rob Corder was there to witness a fresh format to rival the big Swiss trade fairs, cast a critical eye over the new watches and speak to the brands’ top brass.
To properly tell the story of the inaugural LVMH Watch Week, you have to begin at the end.
A spectacular firework display lit up the night sky over the Arabian Gulf in early January, the stretch of water separating Dubai in the United Arab Emirates from Iran.
It was the finale of a sumptuous party that brought the Watch Week to a close for press and retailers visiting from around the world, and was preceded by live music sets from two stages in the grounds of the Bulgari Hotel.
CEOs and in-country heads from TAG Heuer, Hublot, Zenith and Bulgari chatted easily with a select group of journalists and retail partners over free-flowing booze and a pool-side buffet.
It was the second night of partying. The previous evening everybody was ferried by four-wheel drives to a desert camp that had been spruced-up to Bulgari-approved levels of luxury for an Arabian-themed dinner under the stars.
During the days, we alternated between presentations of new watches for 2020 from the brands and interviews with their chief executives. The weather was in the low 20s Centigrade with light cloud and blue sky overhead.
There were probably no more than 400 people including executives from the brand at the event. All were flown business class into Dubai (arguably producing too large a carbon footprint for an industry trying to improve its eco-credentials) and accommodated in nearby 5-star hotels at LVMH’s expense.
The reason for starting at the end with this story, and working back to the beginning, is that the very first announcement from Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari’s chief executive, was that hosting the event was “far, far cheaper” than exhibiting a year’s worth of new watches at Baselworld.
It was impossible not to compare the cold, wet days most of us from the watch industry have endured in Basel, where we pay a fortune for lousy hotel (or Airbnb) rooms, mediocre food and gouging taxi drivers.
Dubai is built from the desert-up to delight tourists and business visitors, and the city is awfully good at it. “[Trade] fairs are outrageously expensive,” were almost the first words out of Mr Babin’s mouth in his opening address to the press. “This is much cheaper.”
He stopped short of saying that all LVMH brands would be pulling out of Baselworld, but the obvious excitement he expressed as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the CEOs of all the group’s watch brands was palpable.
Mr Babin later added in a round table with journalists that there would be no top-down directive from the parent company instructing each of its watch brands on how and where to announce their collections in 2021. It could be that the likes of Bulgari, which sells predominately through its own boutiques, has one plan, while the more wholesale-focused TAG Heuer has another.
Hosting in January, the desired month for the first watch launches of the year, was described as an important strategic choice. Holding the opening ceremony on the lush lawns of the ultra-luxury Bulgari Hotel clearly gave Mr Babin significant pleasure and he hinted that future LVMH Watch Weeks would take place at the company’s other Bulgari-branded properties around the world.
There are Bulgari Hotels in Milan, London, Bali, Beijing and Shanghai. The next opening will be in Parislater this year, making it a hot favourite to host the Watch Week in 2021.
“Will this be the first of many? We will have to learn and assess the relevance of this new format. I am pretty convinced myself,” said Mr Babin. Will LVMH leave Baselworld? He was asked. “We will decide after Baselworld in May,” he replied.
Even ardent fans of Baselworld — and WatchPro is on record as a staunch (albeit weakening) defender of the show — will concede that, were all LVMH brands to follow Swatch Group and others out of the door, the exhibition’s owner, MCH Group, will have nobody body but itself to blame.
Fresh leadership in the form of Michel Loris-Melikoff has brought new ideas along with long-overdue humility to the organisation. The previous administration was consistently described as aloof, arrogant and greedy as it pushed the price of exhibiting up by double digit percentages every year. Swatch Group’s tab was reportedly around $50 million per year before it left.
Mr Loris-Melikoff is open and approachable. He listens. But his first major decision might have come from listening too much, or to the wrong advice, because moving Baselworld to the end of April so that it could run back-to-back with a rescheduled Watches & Wonders Geneva (formerly named SIHH) was catastrophic.
Jean-Claude Biver, the former head of LVMH Watchmaking and CEO of TAG Heuer, describes January as a key month for watch launches, and attacked Baselworld and Watches and Wonders Geneva — for taking place far too late in the year.
As if to underline the point, Hublot said that 50% of its 2020 novelties were unveiled at the Dubai event, and the aim is to have all of them hitting retail before the end of April.
Zenith also introduced 20 watches out of 55 slated for launch this year at the January gathering, and CEO Mr Tornare matched the Hublot commitment to start delivering them to retailers in April.
The remaining 35 new Zenith references will be shown for the first time in Basel where the likes of Rolex, Patek Philippe and Tudor will make their first announcements of the year.
Not all of Richemont’s watch houses align their launch schedules, but the vast majority are expected to hold up their key 2020 announcement until Watches & Wonders Geneva and will not start delivering those watches until the third quarter.
Swatch Group’s luxury watch brands, Omega and upwards, were set to show their first watches of 2020 at their own event in Zurich in early March until the coronavirus outbreak made them think again. Retail partners of Hublot and Zenith will have many months’ head start on them.
Newness is not everything in the watch world. Mr Guadalupe revealed that fresh models typically make up around 15% of annual sales. However, he added: “Novelties are important. Our consumers want innovation.” Retail partners want something new to tell their customers even more.
A glimmer of hope for Baselworld’s mission to persuade LVMH brands to stay and Swatch Group to return is that Mr Guadalupe believes the Swiss watch industry would be poorer without a global show. “We need one big event that gathers the whole industry together. That would be ideal,” he says, but stressed this is only his personal opinion, not the official LVMH line.
Away from the constant chatter about whether LVMH Watch Week sounded the death knell for Baselworld, there were watches to be launched.
Hublot made a crowd-pleasing move into integrated metal and ceramic bracelets for its Big Bang family, providing an alternative for Audemars Piguet fans tiring of sitting on long waiting lists for the most desirable Royal Oaks.
Big Bang was launched with rubber straps in 2005 as a radical alternative to steel and precious metal watches on bracelets. The combination of rubber with other materials such as gold and ceramic was part of the Art of Fusion mantra of the brand, so switching to matching watch heads with integrated bracelets is a significant strategic shift into a highly competitive part of the market.
Three Big Bang Integral models have been unveiled: one with a titanium watch head on a titanium bracelet, a second in black ceramic on black ceramic (limited to 500 pieces) and thirdly a piece in King Gold on King Gold, a Hublot-invented alloy of gold, copper and platinum.
“Fifteen years of the Big Bang and a new first. A unique, fully integrated bracelet and a redesigned case for a different clientèle. The Big Bang Integral and its integrated architecture have propelled this model into a whole new universe,” says Mr Guadalupe.
The collection’s dial and bezel are identical to the existing Big Bang 42mm model but indices replace Arabic numerals and its pushers return to the design of the original model from 2005.
They house HUB1280 – UNICO chronograph movements in a 42mm case. Models are priced at £17,300 for the titanium model, £19,100 for the ceramic piece and £43,500 for King Gold.
Bulgari aimed its main announcement at its key target market of affluent female watch lovers in the form of a new Serpenti Seduttori Tourbillon. It is a far cry from the days when women had to put up with smaller versions of men’s models, often housing quartz movements. Squeezing a tourbillon into the same sized case as the core Serpenti collection was a statement that everybody, regardless of gender, should be treated to complex mechanical watchmaking.
Bulgari also brings a fine goldsmith and gemsetter’s eye to each watch, going so far as to give itself the title of “Jeweller of Time” in recent years.
Serpenti Seduttori Tourbillon models come in rose gold or white gold with diamond pavé and a leather strap or white gold with diamond pavé and a full diamond bracelet. In addition to the tourbillon models, Bulgari also added five other Serpenti Seduttori editions with new snakeskin-like bracelets. One is adorned with diamonds and another has alternating links of rose or white gold with steel.
For men, Bulgari is adding to its ultra-slim Octo Finissimo collection, best-known until now for using lightweight titanium, with the launch of five new models including pieces using sandblast-polished ceramic, satin-polished steel and rose gold for their cases and integrated bracelets.
Zenith was determined to show it can do more than highly complex timekeepers for men. When Julien Tornare took over as chief executive of the brand in 2018, he acquired a pipeline of advanced, precision movements and cutting edge innovation in the form of El Primero chronographs capable of measuring one thousandths of a second and the all new Defy Lab regulator. He also had the 50th anniversary of the El Primero automatic chronograph movement to plan for in 2019.
From the beginning of 2020, however, he says Zenith needs to be more inclusive. He wants everybody to “reach for their star” or “find their star”, a new marketing direction built around the star that appears on every watch face as part of the Zenith logo.
In a round table meeting with journalists at LVMH Watch Week he said the conversation had to move beyond El Primero and Defy, and he wants to remind customers and retail partners that Zenith has a rich archive of ladies’ watches and classical pieces for men and women.
“My main challenge when I came on board was that, outside Japan, Zenith was known only by watch connoisseurs. We need to reach a wider audience. We need to appeal more to people who are not specialists,” he said.
Half of the 20 new references launched in Dubai are for ladies, with a fresh family of 36mm Defy Midnight watches taking centre stage.
There are also 36mm versions of Zenith’s classical Elite watches launching this year alongside new 40.5mm pieces that Mr Tornare expects to be popular with both men and women. Gender-neutral watches are expected to be one of the hottest trends of the year across all brands.
Defy Midnight, priced at CHF 8,900 without a diamond-set bezel and CHF 10,900 with diamonds, is described as a versatile sporty-chic timepiece, thanks to the integrated steel bracelet style that has become so popular in men’s models. The steel bracelet can be swapped without tools for three colours of leather straps, which gives the collection more versatility.
Zenith has stated that all mechanical movements will be made in house, and the Defy Midnight is no exception, housing the Elite 670 SK automatic calibre. The dial uses the Zenith star prominently as part of its logo at 12 o’clock. Customers have the options of a graduated blue or grey dial using printed miniature stars to make it look like the night sky or a mother of pearl face.
Zenith’s Elite is more classical and dressy in its 36mm and 40.5mm versions. They come in a restyled case from the original launched in 2010 and house Zenith’s Elite 670 SK, automatic movement.
The 36mm watches with diamond-set bezels and sunray textured dials come in steel for CHF 7,900 and 18ct rose gold for CHF 14,900. Add another CHF 1,000 for each watch if you want a moonphase model. At 40.5mm, the steel version without moonphase is CHF 5,900 and a rose gold model costs CHF 12,900. Again, the addition of a moonphase bumps the price for either model by CHF 1,000.
TAG Heuer had let it be known in advance of LVMH Watch Week that is would not be using the event to launch major collections of the year (Carerra and Connected).
The theory doing the rounds at the event was that TAG has far more retail partners than Zenith, Bulgari or Hublot, and it ran the risk of annoying most of those partners if they were not invited on the all-expenses paid jolly to Dubai. Inviting all of them would have been near impossible and very expensive.
There was a single watch unveiled by the brand, a silver-dialled limited edition Carrera that kicks off the brand’s 160th anniversary year. TAG Heuer was founded by Edouard Heuer in 1860, which set the production run of the watch at 1,860 pieces.
Collectors can get their names on a waiting list now for the watch that is expected to ship in June. By then, we should know whether TAG Heuer, Bulgari, Hublot and Zenith will commit to appearing at Baselworld in 2021 and beyond.
Judging by the mood of the brands’ executives, retail partners and press in Dubai, the exhibition should brace for bad news.