'This new piece reaches for no less than the heavens and returns to earth with the solar system that fits on a wrist.'
- An admirer on the Midnight Planetarium by Van Cleef & Arpels, a watch that surprised with its novel concept
IT was one of the two biggest annual watch shows on earth, and as expected, it was time to roll out the big guns. Which was exactly what nearly two-thirds of the 16 luxury brands taking part in the 2014 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva did as they unveiled their newest, finest tourbillons - the ultimate test of a watchmaker's prowess.
While these revered gravity-defying complications took centre stage at the show a fortnight ago, the grand complications, on the other hand, were noticeably absent. Sure, you can't produce a new multiple complication every year, but the lack of buzz created by the two new grand complications at last year's SIHH - A Lange & Sohne's Grand Complication and Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication - was almost palpable.
Jaeger-LeCoultre tried to save the day with the Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater, which it claimed was the first ultra-slim grand complication ever created. But while impressive, the timepiece didn't quite live up to the traditional definition of a grand complication. It has only two complications - a tourbillon and a minute repeater (a mechanical watch that chimes the hours and often minutes at the push of a button) - just short of the minimum three criteria.
As a result, there was no speculation of "Which is the most expensive watch?" this year. Grand complications cost millions. A Lange's Grand Complication (a combo of tourbillon, minute repeater, chronograph, perpetual calendar and moon phase) launched last year came with a $2.56 million price tag, the priciest watch at the 2013 SIHH. This year's most expensive watch was probably Greubel Forsey's Diamond-Set Tourbillon 24 Secondes Contemporain, priced at 750,000 Swiss francs (about S$1.2 million) - a huge chunk of it goes to paying for the diamonds on the watch.
Surprisingly, some of the brands were instead talking about lowering prices in 2014. This has been almost taboo in the past. Prices only go up but not down in the luxury watch market. Indeed, brands such as IWC and Roger Dubuis stuck to their guns and continued to raise prices.
"At IWC, we follow a reverse strategy, which is to upgrade our products and increase our average price, which we have done dramatically in the last couple of years," IWC president Georges Kern told JCK magazine. Prices of IWC's redesigned Aquatimer collection, the brand's focus in 2014, are up by 25 per cent on average.
Yet quite a few have broken ranks this year. Parmigiani Fleurier's chief executive Jean-Marc Jacot told The Business Times that the brand's new Metro collection, aimed at younger buyers, would be about 15 per cent cheaper than the 2013 novelties. Alain Zimmermann, CEO of Baume & Mercier, took pains to explain that his is still an "affordable luxury" brand selling watches mostly in the US$1,500-5,000 price range - though, ironically, its highlight this year is a US$57,000 flying tourbillon.
Even Panerai announced it has brought the prices of watches driven by its in-house movements - which are more in demand than those with movements sourced elsewhere - down to more earthly levels, while Cartier's much-anticipated first diver's watch in steel is going for an accessible 5,500 euros.
Offering more reasonable prices is key in Montblanc's strategy to reach out to a wider market under its new CEO Jerome Lambert. "The overall strategy we are following is that we would like to share our passion for fine watchmaking," said Jens Henning Koch, Montblanc International's executive vice-president for marketing.
The brand's Meisterstuck Heritage watch collection, launched to mark the 90th anniversary of the brand's classic Meisterstuck pen, includes a perpetual calendar of exceptional high quality and specification. The complication is priced very competitively at 16,900 euros in red gold and 10,000 euros in steel.
Speaking of perpetual calendars - watches that self-correct for shorter months and the leap year - at least seven new models were seen at the 2014 SIHH: A Lange's Richard Lange Calendrier Perpetuel Terraluna and the Lange 1' Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar; Cartier's Rotonde Astrocalendaire; Greubel Forsey's Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar QP a Equation; IWC's Aquatimer Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month; Jaeger-LeCoultre's Master Grande Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique a Quantieme Perpetual Watch; and Montblanc's Meisterstuck Heritage Perpetual Calendar.
Greubel Forsey's creation is perhaps the most complex and intriguing, combining a unique perpetual calendar with an Equation of Time (the difference between the time shown by clocks and the time shown by sundials). Yet it's easy to read and use; though not necessarily easy to afford at 520,000-540,000 Swiss francs (around S$780,000).
Cartier's new perpetual calendar is interesting because it presents the day, date and month in a display depicting three concentric circles.
One of Cartier's more exquisite creations on display is the Ballon Bleu de Cartier Floral-Marquetry Parrot Watch, featuring a dial adorned with the image of a parrot intricately assembled from the delicate petals of flowers.
The Richard Lange perpetual calendar is impressively sophisticated, but it's the striking orbital moon-phase display seen through its sapphire-crystal caseback that steals the show.
There were innovations, but not of the breakthrough kind seen last year when Roger Dubuis wowed the watch world with the super accurate Excalibur Quatuor - thanks to a world's first silicon case and unusual four sprung balances. And Cartier, whose mystery clocks still amaze with hands that appear to float in rock crystal, unveiled a downsized version of it in a watch. What did the brands have to offer this year? Parmigiani presented an "oversized" date display - probably the world's biggest in a wristwatch - in a new minute repeater, the Toric Resonance 3. Piaget's perennial quest to produce ever thinner timepieces yielded the world's slimmest watch.
The surprise was it did it with a hand-wound timepiece, not an automatic watch which is its forte; ultra-thin hand-wound watches are the strong point of its rival Jaeger-LeCoultre which, before it was beaten this year, launched the world's thinnest hand-wound timepiece in 2013.
The watch that's technically - not necessarily in the innovative sense - most dazzling came unexpectedly from Van Cleef & Arpels, a brand better known for women's jewellery.
The watch, the Midnight Planetarium, is an astronomic complication that offers 24-hour time displayed by a comet. It shows the orbits of six of the solar system's planets correlated to an annual calendar. Its rotating bezel also allows you to set a lucky date.
One admirer was so taken by the watch that he offers this poetic description: "This new piece reaches for no less than the heavens and returns to earth with the solar system that fits on a wrist."
Van Cleef & Arpels
The brand famous for its jewellery appears to have outdone itself in the watchmaking department, producing the amazing astronomic complication Midnight Planetarium. It also unveiled the Pierre Arpels Heure D'Ici & Heure d' Ailleurs, a travelling timepiece that features jumping hours, retrograde minutes and a second jumping time zone.
Below is a snapshot of most of the participating brands' novelties at the 2014 SIHH:
Baume & Mercier
B&M has added a competitively priced retrograde and a chronograph to its successful Clifton line which debuted last year. Ironically, however, this year's talking piece for B&M, the purveyor of "affordable luxury", was the US$57,000 Clifton 1892 Flying Tourbillon, inspired by a B&M tourbillon which won a chronometry contest that year.
A Lange & Sohne
As per last year, the brand's 1815 line continued to take centre stage. But the show's star was the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna. The white gold piece retails at 186,000 euros (S$319,000).
The spotlight this year was on the iconic Royal Oak collection, which has much of its rubber material replaced by ceramic. The standout piece was the Tourbillon Royal Oak Concept GMT, in which the movement's bridges are seen full-frontal in the shape of an hour glass where the dial should have been.
After an exciting year that saw the launch of several innovative timepieces, the brand returned to its roots by producing the Homage collection of classically designed watches to pay tribute to its founder - and past watchmakers who had shaped him.
Under a new boss, the brand more famous for pens is integrating its product lines to create more synergy. Thus Montblanc's new Meisterstuck Heritage watch collection is more than a celebration of the 90th anniversary of its iconic Meisterstuck pen. A perpetual calendar and a chronograph that also functions as a heart-beat meter are attractively priced, reflecting the new aggressive marketing strategy.
For International Watch Co AG (IWC), a luxury watchmaking unit of Cie Financiere Richemont SA, in Geneva, Switzerland, this year marks the turn of IWC's Aquatimer collection of diving watches to bask in the limelight. And the piece that's probably had the most attention is the Aquatimer Chronographe Edition Charles Darwin (around $15,000), because it features a bronze case - a reminder of Panerai's very popular "Bronzo".
The tourbillon specialists, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, founders of Greubel Forsey watch brand, continued to branch out into other complications with the Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar QP a Equation, a tourbillon that also has a highly complicated perpetual calendar.
The target this year is younger customers with a busy schedule. And Parmigiani is hoping to hook them with its Metro collection of watches that are suitable for both formal and informal occasions. But it's not going commercial all the way. The Toric Resonance 3, a minute repeater with an "oversized date" is a reminder that the brand remains a serious watchmaker.
The brand's versatility was on full display in 2014 when it launched five new in-house movements and a dazzling array of complications and artistic timepieces in Geneva. But for lasting impact, Cartier's Calibre Diver is most likely to be the most important in the latest collection. It's the brand's first diver watch and signals Cartier's entry into a key segment of the men's market, a market it has wanted so badly to penetrate.
Vacheron Constantin seems to have started a trend in 2013 when it dedicated the year to the ladies with a collection largely for women. RM has followed suit with colourful creations for the fairer sex that includes actresses such as Natalie Portman and Michelle Yeoh.
The brand remains in the race to produce the slimmest timepieces, unveiling the Master Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater which it claims is the world's first ultra-thin grand complication. The Master Ultra-Thin 1907, another new piece, looked like a knock-off of last year's Master Ultra Thin Jubilee in platinum, but the latest version has a pink gold case and features a pricey enamel dial.
Chronographs and timepieces in Panerai's Luminor and Radiomir cases are the focus of the brand with a cult following this year. The limited-edition Radiomir 1940 Chronograph, in platinum and pink-and-white gold cases, were already sold out before they hit the stores.
The railway stations of the 19th century were the inspiration for the skeletal watches that dominate VC's collection this year. The handcrafted pieces, including the tonneau shaped Malte Tourbillon Openworked, are both a work of art and fine watchmaking at its best.
Piaget's relentless pursuit of thinner watches hit pay dirt this year with the Altiplano 38 MM 900P (below), which at 3.65mm thick is thinner than Jaeger-LeCoultre's 4.05mm thick Master Ultra-Thin Jubilee. Piaget achieved the new level of slimness by integrating the watch's movement with its caseback.