Watches

Swiss Watchmakers Execute A Revolution Amidst Tough Times In Its Industry

One of them is offering more value for the price that you pay.

BY Daniel Goh | Jul 25, 2017 | Feature

I listen as Dave Gahan of ’80s electro band Depeche Mode sings to a crowd of 50-or-so ecstatic journalists and friends of Hublot. Although the band is before my time, I revel in the fact that Depeche Mode are used to performing in front of tens of thousands of people, but on that day, I am part of the privileged few that enjoyed a private concert in an underground location in Basel, Switzerland. It’s that time of the year in Basel where rock bands perform in secret, where celebrity artists like Alec Monopoly scale a three-storey structure to tag his name on a massive portrait of himself, and where a helicopter does an adrenaline-filled tango with a Lamborghini at a party hosted by Breitling. This is Baselworld. 

Depeche Mode were at Baselworld 2017 through their collaboration with Hublot for Charity: Water, an organisation dedicated to bringing clean drinking water to developing countries. But back to the question: where’s the revolution? Baselworld is the world’s largest exhibition for timepieces, and certainly, with the fair celebrating its centenary this year, the question is quite a relevant one. What are the watchmakers bringing to the table to revolutionise the mechanical watch for the modern age? 

Looking back, a hundred years ago, you would never have predicted what Baselworld would become. For one, it was called Schweizer Mustermesse Basel (muba) and, at the time, only a section of it was dedicated to timepieces. Just 29 brands exhibited in 1917, and a century later, the 2017 edition of Baselworld plays host to 1,500 exhibitors spanning a space of 141,000sqm. Of course, with such a grandiose gathering of watch players in one place, the journos are bound to follow suit, and so 4,400 of us from 70 countries commandeer the tiny city of Basel, impeccably dressed and riding the trams alongside Swiss folk to get a feel of what 2017 will be like for the watch industry. And this is what Baselworld has become; it’s true, it does get its fair share of buyers (106,000 from 100 countries, to be precise), but for the most part, it is a place where watch brands put their best foot forward, inevitably setting the trends and the mood for the year. 

To understand the exponential growth of Baselworld would be to understand the watch industry itself. Long story short, mechanical watches used to be the most convenient way of keeping time, and through two World Wars, Switzerland emerged as a superpower when it came to horology. Then, in the ’70s, the quartz crisis came about, and the advent of these affordable and easy-to-manufacture movements decimated the industry forcing a great number of brands to close down. It was only when Swatch came about, and through the consolidation of brands which would eventually form the Swatch Group, that the Swiss watch industry stabilised. What used to be a product of necessity, had now transformed into one of luxury through the act of shifting the industrial construction of a mechanical watch to more of an artisanal craft. Just to give you an idea, in 2016, Swiss watches took up only three percent of the market share in terms of units, but in terms of value, Swiss watchmaking exports represented 60 percent of the global market. That certainly says something about the price of each of these units. 

Today, the Swiss watch industry is alive and well, but not without its own set of maladies. In 2016, the strong Swiss franc instantaneously raised the price of Swiss-made watches in other currencies; the crackdown on Chinese corruption led to less luxury gift-giving, and with it, a drop in sales from China’s market; tumbling oil prices cut spending in OPEC nations; and the terror attacks in Europe reduced the number of tourists, thus affecting the number of luxury watches sold. Through all of this, the Swiss watch industry clocked exports worth USD19 billion, a 9.9 percent drop compared to 2015, but still a healthy export industry for Switzerland. 

As a journalist, I love these troubled times. Not because I am an anti-capitalist sadist, but rather because it is in these trying times that watch brands, especially the big boys who have enjoyed constant success, start to think creatively in terms of strategies. According to a report released by German financial services firm, MainFirst, Philippe Peverelli, Tudor’s former CEO wrote: “We all felt rich for a few years while watches were selling well everywhere, but now we are back in the real world and every brand is going to have to look in the mirror and recognise its own true value.” This means that, moving forward, we will start seeing watches that provide more bang for your buck. Case in point: TAG’s tourbillon at around USD15,000 and Hublot’s Big Bang with a full sapphire case (now in different colours) that don’t breach the six-figure mark. 

Another vehicle for added value to watches also comes with customisation options. It’s not enough now to be limited to a thousand or a hundred pieces in the world, but consumers are looking for even more personalised watches, one in an edition of one, so to speak. Bvlgari offers an engraving service on the side of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon case, their new Serpenti lets women all over the world pick the colour of the dial and the strap, and the case material before purchasing the watch; independent watchmakers like Armin Strom have a configurator built into their website. It is the made-toorder phenomenon that lets the consumer feel special, like the watch was built specifically for them. 

Late last year, and continuing all throughout Baselworld, brands were also shining the spotlight on entry-level models. The plan here is to provide an entry point into the brand, an affordable way to get acquainted with the philosophy behind the manufacture and, with it, possibly peruse the other, more expensive watches on offer. Also, the lower prices will definitely appeal to youths who will then go on to become the next generation of watch enthusiasts. 

Speaking of the next generation, the digitisation of our world also affects an industry as traditional as watchmaking. For starters, in 2016, 11,000 people followed the Baselworld press conference in real time; this year, that number grew to 86,000. The Speedy Tuesday phenomenon, which started online, helped Omega sell a record 2,012 watches in just four hours. Online watch website Hodinkee collaborated with Vacheron Constantin to sell 36 watches that cost USD45,000 a piece in under 30 minutes. All over the Swiss watchmaking landscape, e-commerce platforms are appearing on brand websites. Corum even announced a surprising partnership with Amazon to be an official retailer for their watches. Whether they actually move a huge number of units online, no data is forthcoming at time of writing, but as it stands, it’s a pretty convenient option for consumers. 

Even with the entire industry on the pessimistic side, that doesn’t stop brands from going all out to impress their guests as highlighted at the beginning of this story; but then again, when you are dealing with products that appeal more to the emotions rather than practicality, I am not at all surprised. So without further ado, here are the noteworthy pieces to come out of Baselworld 2017.
 

THE INNOVATORS



Bell & Ross BR-X2 Tourbillon Micro-Rotor 

When they first said that the watch was going to be a watch without a case, I was sceptical to say the least. But lo and behold, the BR-X2 is indeed a watch without a case. Basically, what Bell & Ross have done is to shift the entire focus to the movement, so the middle section of the watch is the movement itself, sandwiched between two crystal-clear sapphire blocks. Retaining the iconic square shape, you still get a feel of the brand, but in a more avant-garde way.



Hublot MP-09 Tourbillon Bi-Axis

After Hublot unveiled their sapphire watch last year, they have managed to further perfect and industrialise the process of working with said material. This year, there are two other colours of the full sapphire watch, but what impresses me most is this MP-09 that comes with a very cool sapphire crystal sloped at the six o’clock position. And the reason for this is to reveal Hublot’s new and mesmerising bi-axis tourbillon. Apparently, the crystal is pegged as a three-sided sapphire glass, but looking at the watch in your hands, it looks like one continuous piece.



Zenith Defy El Primero 21

The 1969 El Primero movement from Zenith is a legend in its own right, but when you are building watches for the 21st century, the movement has to match the case. Which is why, this year Zenith decided to update a movement that was long considered the cornerstone of the brand with the launch of the Defy El Primero 21 that comes with an incredible 1/100th of a second chronograph. This means that as you start the counter, the second hand of the El Primero 9004 will complete one full rotation every second, making it a joy to watch on the wrist.



Longines Conquest VHP

This watch may not be as flashy as the rest in its group (or as expensive), but Longines is taking a huge risk with this new quartz watch. The beauty of the new Conquest VHP lies in the quartz movement, which was made by ETA exclusively for Longines. The movement offers several interesting features like the ability to jump an hour when setting the time with a quick twist of the knob, and also the fact that, even if the hands are displaced by a magnetic field, the movement will keep the precise time and readjust the hands later on.

Best of all, the watch keeps time with an accuracy of plus or minus five seconds per year.


WEIRD AND WONDERFUL



Corum Big Bubble Anima 

All the Bubble watches in Corum’s revived collection are unique, but this Big Bubble Anima really takes the cake. Done as a collaboration between Corum and Italian DJ, composer and producer, Matteo Ceccarini, the watch is based on the eye as a lucky charm and protective symbol. Seen in real life, this watch looks like an eyeball on the wrist! The dial works as the iris, while the crystal replaces the cornea. And if you’re wondering, yes, its gaze does seem to follow you no matter which way you look at it.



Hermes Slim d’Hermès L’Heure Impatiente
 

This watch is called the “Impatient Hour”, because it stays true to Hermes’ unique approach to watchmaking. At face value, the watch tells the time like any ordinary watch would, but at the six o’clock position, you get a cool function that lets you set a specific time and the retrograde sub-dial starts counting down the hour leading up to it. The excitement builds as the counter goes from 60 minutes to 0, climaxing with a subtle strike of a gong. Hopefully, the rendezvous that you are counting down to is more exciting than watching a hand of a watch.



Hautlence Pinball 

If you remember the Labyrinth from Hautlence last year and loved it, you’ll love the new Pinball even more. The watch—I don’t know if you can even call it a watch—lets you play a game of pinball on your wrist. It’s actually more like the Japanese game Pachinko where you pull a lever that activates the various knobs and systems on the watch and,  when you release it, the ball shoots out from the side and falls into brackets with different point valuations. It’s quite an alternative to actually reading the time.



Victorinox Swiss Army INOX Carbon 

As you can probably tell from the paracord bracelet, the INOX is a pretty rugged watch. The collection is by no means new and, when it was developed, it was tested extensively so it could withstand a boatload of punishment including, interestingly enough, being run over by a tank. The novelty with the 2017 INOX comes with its carbon composite case that has protected space shuttles from temperatures in excess of 1,260°C. Although I think no human hand can withstand the same amount of stress, it’s good to know that your watch would probably outlive your body.

CLASSIC GOOD LOOKS



Grand Seiko SBGW251

Famous for being the luxury arm of Seiko, this year, Grand Seiko has decided to break away from the parent brand to stand on its own two feet. And in order to celebrate the occasion, they’ve gone back into their archives to re-issue the very first Grand Seiko watch ever made in 1960. This time around, the case will be available in platinum, gold and steel. The platinum version pictured here uses a special 999 platinum which is higher in purity, and its 9S64 movement has also been adjusted to a higher precision level of -1 to +5 seconds per day.



TAG Heuer Autavia

This is a watch chosen by the people, for the people… literally. Months ago, TAG Heuer ran an online campaign that offered fans the chance to pick the exact model that they wanted to be re-issued. And the winner, as promised, was launched this year at Baselworld. Based on the Autavia “Rindt” from 1966, this model was worn by F1 Champion Jochen Rindt. A little bit of history about the Autavia: it was the first wrist chronograph with a rotating bezel and, back in 1962, it was designed by Jack Heuer. The name Autavia is a portmanteau of “automobile” and “aviation”.



Patek Philippe Reference 5320 

Like with every watch that the brand does, when Patek Philippe does vintage, it does so with incredible attention to detail. Although the cream-coloured dial of the reference 5320 gives it a vintage look, the design of the dial with two date apertures and moonphase is actually a nod to Patek’s perpetual calendar design that began in 1941 with the reference 1526. This style of the dial design continued until the early ’80s. Those new to the brand will adore its appearance, but for serious collectors, it represents a chance to own a piece of Patek Philippe’s storied history.



Omega 1957 Trilogy 

Why buy one watch when you can buy three? This year, Omega pays tribute to 1957, the year in which they launched three watches for professionals that would go on to be staples of the brand: the Seamaster 300, the Railmaster and the Speedmaster. The trilogy of watches has been re-created as faithfully as possible, offering the classic broad arrow hands of Omega along with black “tropical” dials and a retro Omega logo on the clasp. Although each of these watches can be purchased separately, the word “Trilogy” will only be printed on the dial if all three pieces are bought together.


AFFORDABLE LUXURY



Edox Delfin Fleet 1650 

With more affordable watches, it’s often quite hard to find one with historical roots, but Edox’s latest Delfin Fleet 1650 accomplishes just that. The watch is a result of a collaboration with the Arquenautas fashion brand to support an Indonesian organisation’s effort to preserve a shipwreck of five ships that once sailed under the Dutch East India Company.

The fleet left Batavia, Java in 1650 but never made it to their destination; they were driven into a reef in south-west Sulawesi. Now 367 years, Edox is proud to be a part of a detailed survey of this historical site.



Rado True Thinline Colours 

These watches are great if colour coordination is your thing. You’ll get all the benefits of Rado’s high-tech ceramic technology—scratch resistance, durability, adaptability to body temperature—and options to match your outfit of the day. Through advancement in technology, the surfaces of Rado timepieces and matching bracelets can now be matte or polished and, as demonstrated by their latest True Thinline collection, offer a vast array of colours as well.



Tissot ballade Powermatic 80 COSC

Tissot have done it: they have managed to make the cheapest, if not one of the cheapest, chronometer-certified watch on the market to date. Through big brother, The Swatch Group, the Swiss brand has been granted access to silicon balance springs, a technology usually reserved for watches much higher up in the food chain and, with it, managed to produce an affordable watch that has the precision level on par with the other watches certified by the COSC.



Mido Belluna Blueray

This year, blue dials have once again been a trend at Basel and, if you don’t already have one in your collection, the Belluna Blueray from Mido might be an affordable buy-in option. Of course, the first thing that will catch your attention is the sunray guilloché-style pattern on the dial, but not just a pretty face, Mido powers the watch with their Calibre 80 movement that has a Nivaflex NM mainspring, Elinchron II balance-spring and a massive 80 hours of power reserve. This means that you can put the watch down over the weekend and, when Monday arrives, pick up a timepiece that keeps perfect time.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, June/July 2017.


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