The watch world received something of a shock last year: the Swiss reported their first downturn since the blackness that was 2009.
Admittedly, it amounts to a mere 3.3 per cent drop in export value – or 460,000 fewer watches leaving Switzerland than 2014’s mind-boggling 28.6 million – but for a sector rather taken by its own ability to defy the global financial crisis with spectacular year-on-year growth, it was a shock nonetheless.
And sure enough, the watchword at Baselworld (if you’ll excuse the pun) was undoubtedly “caution”. The trade fair’s cavernous halls of gleaming, multistorey brand pavilions thronged as usual with the bold, the beautiful and the downright glamorous, but the timepieces ticking away inside their spotlit vitrines were more about consolidation; evolution rather than revolution.
Which is to say that new mechanical movements and case shapes – the two aspects of watchmaking requiring the biggest investments – were in scant supply. Instead, we were treated to core-collection novelties, updated with cool, high-tech materials (titanium and carbon were everywhere), funky new straps (the nylon “Nato” military strap is still a fabulous trend), and rainbows of colourways (blue and garish dial luminescence, especially).
The larger-than-life head of Tag Heuer, Jean-Claude Biver, has found himself as spokesman for his fellow watchmakers in recent years, and in a pre-Basel interview judged the slowdown as a short-term dip driven by global economical factors, stretching from Ukraine to China. In his words: “…and we did just minus 3 per cent? I say that’s fantastic! I say to everyone in Switzerland, you are all brilliant guys, bravo.”
And judging by the variety and imagination of the watches themselves, we say bravo, too.
1. Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe
A classic example of this year’s core-collection, just-tweaked-enough trend – but all is forgiven when it’s the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe, which could just be the coolest diver’s watch in an overpopulated diver’s-watch marketplace. Cleverly, the newness draws on Blancpain’s Swatch Group sister brands. For a start, the case has been rendered in a special ceramic developed for Rado, whose “plasma high-tech carburizing” process borders on actual alchemy, activating gases at 20,000°C to infuse the case with carbon, to give an ethereal, scratch-free grey sheen. The bezel, in turn, borrows from stablemate Omega and its Liquid Metal alloy technology – three times as hard as stainless steel.
2. Glashütte Original Senator Excellence
While there has been very little in the way of investment in new movements this year, where the investment has been made, it’s been made towards long-term, future-proof workhorse calibres, powering classic timepieces that people will always want. Step forward Saxony’s journeyman watchmaker, Glashütte Original, which has applied a holistic approach to its new Calibre 36, driving this handsome specimen. An anti-magnetic silicon hairspring keeps things ticking rocksteadily for more than 100 hours, thanks to a new, longer winding spring that fits into a barrel of standard diameter. And, cleverly, the movement slots solidly into the inside of the case with a bayonet fixing, like a camera lens. Solid German engineering, on an exquisite level.
3. Chanel Montre de Monsieur
Whether or not you agree with fashion brands getting in on the Swiss watchmaking thing, this really was, hands down, the big news of Basel. Not only is this the first men’s watch from Chanel (and, no, the J12 doesn’t count, despite the brand continuing to valiantly wave the unisex flag), but it is also the first to be driven by an entirely in-house-manufactured movement – created from scratch and five years in the making. And what a beauty it is. There is no rotor to obscure the black anthracite mechanics, which means you can see all the circularly arranged wheels, some of which were supplied by indie CNC-machinist-turned-watchmaker Romain Gauthier. To top it all, dial-side, the design is pure, monochromatic Chanel chic, with a jumping hour and retrograde minutes, in a specially commissioned typeface. Downturn? What downturn?
4. Tudor Heritage Black Bay Bronze
There’s something distinctly noble and romantic about bronze, especially when it is used to encase diving watches, as it speaks of ancient mariners wielding chunky winches, battling the high seas. Watchmakers, especially, like using it (Anonimo, Panerai and Oris all have previous form) as it gradually oxidises, so every watch takes on a unique patina. But what’s even more notable about this handsome sailor is that it’s the first Black Bay model to house Tudor’s in-house automatic movement, launched at Basel last year. Rolex’s little brother is all grown up, it seems.
5. Nomos Glashütte Tetra neomatik tiefblau
Over the road from Glashütte Original in the picture-postcard village of Glashütte, the old railway station building is occupied by Nomos – the first high-end brand to establish itself in the old home of German watchmaking after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in just 25 years it has achieved great things, always dressed in unmistakably cool Bauhaus style. This is an unusually colourful creation from the brand’s design studio in east Berlin (where else?), driven by the new DUW 3001 movement – an ultra-slim automatic launched last year, designed and made entirely in that old train station. It’s difficult to overstate how impressive this cocktail of style and substance is, for a brand over a century younger than its neighbours.
6. Seiko Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph Black Ceramic
You might usually write Seiko off as mass-market fare, but you’d be wrong. As well as the ubiquitous, quartz-powered sports watches, the Japanese giant has always harboured a top-flight fine-watchmaking facility, making “Grand Seiko” pieces on a par with Omega or Rolex. Indeed, Seiko’s Shizukuishi studio, nestled in the evergreen hills of Morioka in the Tohoku region of northern Japan, could easily be mistaken for a Swiss atelier in the subalpine Jura Mountains, complete with lab-coated, tweezer-wielding watchmakers hunched at their workbenches. The green dial and hints of green in the strap of this unusually trendy ceramic piece pays tribute to its birthplace, echoing the verdant foliage of its surrounding forest.
7. Hublot Classic Fusion Berluti
The Parisian shoemaker Berluti may date back to 1895, but it’s the current, fourth-generation custodian, Olga Berluti, who is to be credited for the brand’s signature style: Venezia leather, tanned laboriously by hand to give a unique, wooden-looking patina to every shoe. It’s a progressiveness and skill that chimed with Hublot, giving us this 250-piece special edition of the Classic Fusion dress watch, fitted with Scritto calf-leather straps, and each complete with a gorgeous shoeshine kit. What’s especially clever is the leather dial – you can’t usually seal organic material in a watch case, so a neutralisation method was developed specially, removing its moisture but keeping the sheen.
8. Oris Williams Chronograph Carbon Fibre Extreme
Lightweight, super-tough carbon fibre is a no-brainer choice for motorsport watches – it’s used for every monocoque, wing and body panel of every Formula 1 car, and its woven black sheen looks cool, plain and simple. However, carbon is notoriously tricky to craft to the tolerances demanded by a watertight watch case, so watchmakers usually make do with applying carbon inserts to a metal carcass. Not so Oris, which has developed a manufacturing technique with its long-term Formula 1 partner, Williams, to yield a fully carbon monocoque case middle, weighing just 7.2 grams. The titanium case back and sapphire crystal can be mounted straight on, without special gaskets.
9. Tag Heuer Carrera Heuer-02T
If the unveiling of this extraordinary watch had waited until Baselworld itself, it might easily have trumped Chanel’s Monsieur as the talk of the fair, not to mention the most controversial. It has ruffled feathers because not only is it a Tag Heuer with a tumbling tourbillon escapement (the brand is usually considered a starter for youngsters getting in on the Swiss thing), but it’s also a proper in-house, Swiss-made tourbillon that costs a mere US$15,950 (Dh58,500) – the cheapest on the market, and roughly a quarter of what the big boys usually charge for one of the most prestigious badges of horological honour. Which throws quite a bit into perspective, if you catch our drift…
10. Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust 41mm
If you retired from the boardroom of a blue-chip corporation in the 1980s, you may well have been presented with something like this. Well, believe it or not, bicolour watches – and that’s bicolour using yellow gold, no less – are most definitely back, shoulder pads and all. Rolex is embracing its reputation for such flashiness with this subtle but effective reboot of its classic “Rolesor” Datejust, which was introduced in 1945 and was the first wristwatch to display the date through an opening in the dial. Up to 41mm diameter to suit contemporary tastes, it’s also fitted with the new calibre 3235, embracing every horological innovation of Rolex’s recent research and development efforts.
Source: art & life