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THE show must go on, even you've just been jolted by bad news. Still, the shock of the sudden surge of the Swiss franc on the eve of one of the world's two biggest watch fairs still lingered last week at the annual Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) exhibition in Geneva.
It didn't help that many of the retailers and journalists who made up the 14,500 visitors to the week-long event - 4 per cent up from 2014 - found the new timepieces showcased by the 16 luxury brands mostly underwhelming.
For the SIHH, which turned 25 this year, there was no birthday party to celebrate.
The Swiss central bank's move to unpeg the Swiss franc from the euro was only the latest shocker for the Swiss watch industry. The SIHH 2015 was already staged against a backdrop of high costs and low growth in many key markets.
Even the organisers, who have every reason to paint a happy picture, conceded that the exuberance flaunted in recent years was gone, along with the double-digit growth in Swiss watch exports. Classical and low-profile watches were the main staples at the fair, they reported after the exhibition ended two Fridays ago.
Still, some of the new timepieces launched by the brands - 12 owned by Swiss luxury goods group Richmont - did cause a minor stir.
Richard Mille's RM 19-02 Tourbillon Fleur seduced some visitors with a Magnolia flower that opened and closed in sync with the movements of a tourbillon in flight. Montblanc won admirers with its Heritage Chronometrie Ultra Slim, which had one fan gushing over its "incredible looks and impressive quality with a shockingly low price tag" .
The simple but elegant timepiece, fitted with a 38mm case 5.8mm thick that houses a Montblanc movement, is listed at 1,900 euros (S$2,850) in steel and 5,500 euros (S$8,250) in solid red gold. Jaeger-LeCoultre's 38mm Master Ultra Thin introduced some years ago is selling for around S$11,000 in steel and S$20,000 in red gold, though the watch made by this sister brand (Richmont owns both Montblanc and Jaeger-Lecoultre) is still thinner.
Another novelty was Officine Panerai's Mare Nostrum, a 52mm giant of a chronograph first created in 1943 for the Royal Italian Navy. While the vintage model had a dark green dial, the updated version is tobacco brown. Instead of steel like the original, the new one is made of titanium and is powered by a superior movement.
Yet these notables failed to lift the "quiet" mood that appeared to pervade SIHH 2015. They lacked the innovativeness and surprise element of a number of the timepieces launched at last year's fair. Pieces like Van Cleef & Arpels' Midnight Planetarium, an astronomical complication that offers a 24-hour time displayed by a comet; and A Lange & Sohne's Richard Lange Calendrier Perpetual Terraluna, an impressively sophisticated perpetual calendar with a striking orbital moon-phase display seen through its casebook.
Then there was Roger Dubuis' super accurate Excalibur Quatuor, which is capped with the world's first silicone case and its balance wheel regulated unusually by four sprung balances; Cartier's mystery watch with hands that appear to float on air; and Piaget's record-breaking excessively thin Altiplano 38mm 900P watch.
These provided at least some excitement and buzz to an exhibition which otherwise would have been pretty boring. Some of this year's novelties which caught visitors' eyes weren't even deemed to be worth a mention by their brands. Montblanc's Ultra Slim, for one, was left out of the press presentation.
The brands may say the sober-looking watches are what the market want - and they have a point.
After years of excess fanned by an economic boom, a softer and uncertain economic climate now demands to do away with the bells and whistles - just plain but well-made watches will do.
Watch prices, which are already coming down with the more sober mood, continued to stay down to earth with the new timepieces launched at SIHH 2015. Montblanc's is only one example. Baume & Mercier, the self-proclaimed purveyor of "affordable luxury" timepieces, boasted that the average price of its latest collection is under 3,000 Swiss francs (S$4,470).
Novelties with a price tag of a million-Swiss franc or more were nowhere in sight. Richard Mille's Tourbillon Fleur came close at CHF824,500, but then the price reflected largely the diamonds on the watch.
Cartier's Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication, its first grand complication which features also a minute repeater in a platinum case, is going for an estimated 600,000 euros (CHF600,000). That's way below Lange's Grand Complication in pink gold launched two years ago; the Lange complication was then listed as 1.9 million euros.
More tellingly, Greubel Forsey, known for its top quality tourbillons priced easily over CHF500,000, unveiled the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision at an estimated CHF290,000 - its cheapest creation so far.
The watches launched this year were certainly more accessible price-wise, but that did not necessarily come at the expense of quality. Montblanc's Ultra Slim is again a clear indicator.
Neither has a more conservative pricing policy stopped major brands from launching of high-cost complications and hand-crafted artistic works. There were several grand complications - and the minute repeater appeared to be the 'in' thing.
Besides Cartier, Audemars Piguet presented the Royal Oak Concept Recherche Acoustique, a grand complication with a minute repeater conceived in AP's lab for acoustic research; it produces a sound volume never reached before.
IWC's Portugiese Grande Complication has a minute repeater function as well. Similarly for Jaeger-Lecoultre's Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication.
A Lange & Sohne deployed know-how picked up from its Grand Complication to make the Zeitwerk Repetition Minutes, a minute repeater housed in a platinum case.
In the art and craft department, Roger Dubuis showed off its skills in crafting skeleton timepieces in pieces like the Excalibur Spider Double Tourbillon Volant Squelette EX0481, which is powered by a hand-winding skeleton movement. Even newcomer Ralph Lauren has a skeleton watch in its new Automotive collection, the RL Automotive Skeleton. Vacheron Constantin displayed its expertise in engraving in two models: the Metiers d Art Mecaniques Gravees - 14-Day Tourbillon and the Metiers d'Art Mecaniques Gravees.
For the detail hungry, check out our snapshot of what the participating brands offered at SIHH 2015.
A Lange & Sohne
In addition to the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, the German brand also presented updated versions of the Lange 1 and Saxonia, two of the four models that made their debut when Lange was revived in 1994.
The new Lange 1 is driven by a new hand-wound movement, which has an escapement with a balance wheel that features eccentric poising weights and a freely oscillating balance spring. Apart from narrower bezel, a precisely jumping outsize date now graces the dial - this advances by one day exactly at midnight and delivers a doubt-free reading.
The Saxonia is reduced to 35mm, making it the smallest member in the Saxonia line. The markers on the dial are tweaked, rendering it easier to read.
A Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, 440,000 euros (S$660,000)
The star piece in its collection is not for sale, at least not yet. The Royal Oak RD#1 concept watch is a grand complication with a minute repeater that's so outstanding it overshadows the other two features of the timepiece: a tourbillon and chronograph. The minute repeater is the result of an indepth eight-year sound research programme. Those who heard it said it's the loudest they heard so far.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept RD#1, price not available
Baume & Mercier
After two ultra-thin models, chronograph and tourbillon, its Clifton collection, the brand that prides on its relatively low prices added two more novelties this year with hints from the 1950s: The hand-wound Clifton Huit Jours with 8 days' power reserve; and the automatic Clifton Grande Date Reserve De Marche which has a power reserve indicator and large date in double window.
Baume & Mercier Clifton Big Date and Power Reserve, S$5,450
Perhaps the most prolific of the brands, Cartier launched its most complex watch, its first shaped movement and a new line in addition to an assortment of other new complications and artistic timepieces.
The first, the Cartier grand complication, took five years to finish. The minute repeater-flying tourbillon-perpetual calendar combo is powered by an automatic slender in-house movement.
The shaped movement came in the form of the Crash Skeleton, a spinoff of Cartier's iconic Crash watch introduced in 1967.
The new line - the Cle De collection for men and women - has, as its name suggests, a key-like crown and new shape that's described as "tightly-drawn curve, arched streamlined and sleek".
Rotonde De Cartier Grande Complication Squelette, 600,000 euros (S$900,000)
The name that spells pricey tourbillons has, surprisingly, a new offering that's 10 per cent cheaper than its lowest entry-level creation - the Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision.
Greubel Forsey Tourbillon 24 Secondes Vision, CHF290,000 (S$435,000)
IWC marked the 75th anniversary of its best-selling Portugieser line with its first annual calendar, the Portugieser Calendar. There's also the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month 75th Anniversary Edition and the Portugiese Hand-Wound 8 Days 75th Anniversary Edition.
IWC Portugieser Annual Calendar, S$32,900 in steel
The moon is where Jaeger-LeCoultre turned to for inspiration for this year's collection, creating timepieces like the Duometre Spherotourbillon Moon, Master Calendar and Rendez-Vous Moon. But the piece that stands out is the Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, which has a flying orbital tourbillon, a minute repeater and a dial displaying the sky chart of the Northern Hemisphere.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Grande Complication, 269,000 euros (S$403,500)
Probably the first to have taken a stab at making a smart watch in the luxury range, the brand unveiled the TimeWalker Urban Speed e-Strap which has a strap whose features include an "integrated technology device" that offers an activity tracker and smart notifications, fuelled by a Bluetooth connection to an iOS or Android smartphone.
But Montblanc's main attraction was a collection inspired by the explorer Vasco da Gama. And the star piece in it was the Villeret Tourbillon Cylindrique Geospheres Vasco da Gama Limited Edition 18, which unites a cylindrical tourbillon and unique, functional world time indication. Connecting the Northern and Southern Hemispheres - as Vasco da Gama did in journeying to India - world time is read on two sapphire crystal spheres, which show the course of day and night around the world.
Montblanc Tourbillon Cylindrique Geosphères Vasco da Gama, 250,000 euros (S$375,000)
Fans of the brand were treated to new timepieces that included the Laminar Submersible 1950 Carbotech, an automatic watch made from a new composite material based on carbon fibre; the Radiomir Firenze that spots a hand-engraved case; and the Radiomir 1940 Equation of Time. The stand-out piece is the Mare Nostrum Titanio.
Panerai Mare Nostrum Titanio (52mm), S$58,200
This year Parmigiani put its creative juices to work on all its key collections, expanding the automotive Bugatti line with its transversal movement, the Kalpa collections dedicated to women and Tonda, which knows how to please women and men in an elegant way. Three watches were created to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Parmigiani's partnership with Bugatti: the Bugatti Mythe; Bugatti Revelation; and Bugatti Victoire.
Parmigiani Bugatti Mythe, price not available
After breaking Jaeger-LeCoultre's record for an ultra-thin hand-wound timepiece last year, the brand seen more as a jeweller than watchmaker presented yet another ultra-thin creation - the Altiplano Chronograph, a chronograph that's the first complication in its Altiplano line and carries an attractive price tag. The price is around S$40,000, not much higher than the simple ultra-thin model launched in SIHH 2014.
Piaget keeps pushing to make slimmer timepieces because it wants to tell the world that it's also a watchmaker, according to the brand's CEO Philippe Leopold-Metzger.
Piaget Altiplano Chronograph, S$41,700
Its Automotive collection of six watches is inspired by the designer's rare 1938 Bugatti sports car. The use of burl wood defines the timepieces, echoing the Bugatti's steering wheel and dashboard, along with exposed screws on the bezel and polished and shot-blasted cases. IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre movements drive some of the watches.
Ralph Lauren Automotive, S$8,200
The brand dedicated SIHH 2014 to the ladies. The two complications among its novelties in SIHH 2915, including the Tourbillon Fleur, were also aimed at them.
But what's really news at the Richard Mille stand this year was bracelets - a first for the brand. These were made for two existing models: RM 07-01 and RM 11. But you can't buy the bracelet for your RM 07-01; it comes only with the watch. You can buy the titanium bracelet for your RM 11, though. It costs CHF58,000 (S$87,000), half the price of the timepiece.
Richard Mille RM19-02 Tourbillon Fleur, CHF824,500 (S$1.24 million)
Its focus this year is on skeleton movements designed in the brand's signature star shape. The collection demonstrated not only Roger Dubuis' skills in crafting skeleton timepieces, but also its artistry and inventiveness in producing works such as the Excalibur Spider Skeleton Double Flying Tourbillon. Made out of titanium, black DLC-titanium and red aluminium elements, it looks and feels great.
Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Double Tourbillon Volant Squelette, S$395,000
The brand celebrated its 260th anniversary by unveiling a new Harmony line made up of seven cushion-shape timepieces powered by new in-house ultra-thin mono pusher chronograph movements. The line was inspired by a VC chronograph introduced in 1928 - and one of the Harmony pieces, the Chronographe Monopusher Pulsometre, which has a pulsimeter scale, is an updated version of it.
The other variations are a flyback chronograph, a tourbillon, a ladies' double-pusher chronograph and a trio of dual-time watches.
Vacheron Constantin Harmony Chronograph, S$105,600
Van Cleef & Arpels
After a successful foray into men's watches in SIHH 2014 with the amazing astronomic Midnight Planetarium and the Pierre Arpels Heure travelling timepiece, Van Cleef returned to its feminine roots. It brought back the Cadenas with two gem-set versions: one on an alligator strap and the other on a gold bracelet.
Van Cleef & Arpels Cadenas, 15,000-114,000 euros (S$22,500-S$171,000)
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