Watches and Wonders is the first watch fair of its kind to be staged outside Switzerland. Brand heads of all the Maisons were present.
JUST how important is Asia to the makers of high-end Swiss watches? Enough for the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie - an organisation dedicated to preserving the craft and traditions of high-end watchmaking - to head east as it takes its annual Geneva-held Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) halfway across the world to stage an intimate edition of it in Hong Kong. After all, Asia remains the No 1 market for Swiss watches.
Watches and Wonders (W&W), which ended last Saturday, is the first watch fair of its kind to be staged outside Switzerland but unlike SIHH, it was less trade-oriented and more customer-focused.
The invitation-only, four-day event featured 13 of the world's biggest and most recognisable watch Maisons - A.Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Officine Panerai, Piaget, Richard Mille, Roger Dubuis, Vacheron Constantin, Van Cleef & Arpels - all under one roof at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The brands are also SIHH regulars.
Over 16,000 people, mostly from Hong Kong and mainland China, visited the fair; a sign of the growing appreciation for high-end watchmaking and the industry's health.
According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, Asia accounted for 54 per cent of exports last year with China totalling 1.6 billion Swiss francs (S$2.2 billion), Hong Kong 4.1 billion Swiss francs and the rest of South-east Asia 2.4 billion Swiss francs.
While those numbers look rosy, the industry is also coming to grips with reality after enjoying a boom over the last couple of years. Singapore, which is the eighth-largest market for Swiss watch exports, fell 2.8 per cent for the first half of this year while Hong Kong and China experienced more significant dips at 9.6 per cent and 17.5 per cent respectively.
With the market softening slightly in recent times, W&W couldn't have taken place at a better time as the industry looks to recover lost ground.
There's also more good news on the horizon; a bilateral trade deal signed between China and Switzerland in July that removes or reduces customs duties applicable to Swiss watch exports for the next five to 10 years will also come into effect next year. It is hoped that this will gradually bring the business back to China as affluent mainlanders are now beginning to buy abroad while on their travels.
But it's not as if the brand heads have reasons to lose sleep yet. As Jerome Lambert, who recently moved from Jaeger-LeCoultre to now head Montblanc as CEO, observes, there are still plenty of opportunities for growth in Asia even with the slight Chinese slowdown as other emerging markets in the region develop.
"We've done OK up north (in China) but in south - say, between the regions of Bangladesh and Singapore - I've been approached by various dealers about things we can do so it's starting to look interesting," replies Mr Lambert, when asked if the recent dips are a worrying sign. "We are still far from realising the full potential of Asia."
Jean-Marc Pontroue, CEO of Roger Dubuis, say W&W gives Maisons like his the opportunity to reach out directly to watch aficionados and be in the heart of a city where the people don't shy away from spoiling themselves with luxury goods. "To be in the wine business, you need to be in Bordeaux," he notes. "The same way Art Basel saw it was necessary not only to be in Miami but also Hong Kong; so it's important for us to be here."
From watch workshops to demonstrations by engravers, enamellers and gem-setters, visitors were given the chance to immerse themselves fully in the world of haute horlogerie as the exhibiting Maisons brought along not only their most precious and rare timepieces and but also the craftsmen who put them together.
Understandably, the novelties were few and far between as compared to SIHH but that's because unlike the fashion industry which puts out two collections every year, the watch industry is only capable of doing it once at the beginning at the year at SIHH and Baselworld.
The slower output is mainly due to the technical complications that's involved in haute horlogerie - A.Lange & Söhne's Grand Complication, which boasts a minute repeater, split-second chronograph and perpetual calendar, is so complex to construct that only one can be made each year.
The timepiece took seven years to develop and was unveiled at SIHH early this year. Only six will be produced and, as expected, demand has outstripped supply with more than 20 enquiries being made for this 1.92 million euro (S$3.26 million) watch.
Like the A.Lange & Söhne's Grand Complication, many of the other timepieces on display were making their Asian debut outside of SIHH at W&W. It was enough to drive collectors abuzz as VIP customers and collectors crammed into meeting rooms for the rare opportunity of seeing the watches in the flesh first.
The booth of Vacheron Constantin, which has a rich historical link of making and selling watches to China, was constantly crowded as its clientele clamoured to view the new Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra Thin Calibre 1731, the world's thinnest minute repeater.
"We've had many customers who, after seeing the watch, went straight from here to the boutiques to put down their deposits," beams Ellen Sorensen, Vacheron Constantin's Southeast Asia managing director.
The Maison's classic-looking slim watches is one reason why it's a favourite among Asian collectors who prefer thin timepeices compared to chunky sports models. As Vacheron Constantin's artistic director Christian Selmoni observes, "What's become very clear is the trend for low-key luxury products - things like discreet watches."
Likewise, Piaget, another brand that's extremely popular with the Chinese (it boasts almost twice as many boutiques in China than Europe) because of its ultra-thin movements, also drew large crowds at its booth with the Emperador Coussin Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater.
Not only that, its bejewelled Limelight Gala collection was also a hit with female visitors, a rare sighting at most watch fairs. The number of women browsing the exhibits intently at W&W suggests a fast growing interest in ladies' timepieces.
Roger Dubuis' Mr Pontroue reveals that its Velvet collection already accounts for 20 per cent of their group sales. To mark the occasion at W&W, the Maison unveiled the Velvet Haute Joaillerie Boutique Exclusive with red rubies.
Van Cleef & Arpels' booth also drew so many female visitors eager to try on the Maison's latest creations that many pieces spent only less than a few minutes in their glass showcases before they were taken out again on the request of another well-coiffed tai-tai.
When asked what women look for in timepieces, Van Cleef & Arpels' Southeast Asia managing director, Elise Gonnet-Pon, shares: "They want elegance and something different - when we make our watches, we don't just take a men's design and make it smaller; which is what happens very often (in the industry)!"
She half-jokes: "Women are not small men and they don't like to be considered that way. Similarly, if we take a ladies watch and just made it bigger for men, I don't think guys would appreciate it either."
Ms Gonnet-Pon adds the French Maison also takes a very unique approach to watchmaking where it's not the movement or complication that necessarily sets the tone for their novelties but feminine inspirations such as fairies, flowers and butterflies that give their watches a poetic dimension.
The dial of its Lady Arpels Jour/Nuit Cerfs-Volants which premiered at W&W, for instance, features a romantic image of a couple launching a kite into the sky before transforming into a star-lit night as the disc rotates throughout the day.
But novelties such as those as well as the world premieres of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Duometre Spherotourbillon Blue and Panerai's Panerai's PAM532 Paneristi Forever (which pays tribute to the website set up by the brand's most fervent followers) weren't the only stars of the show.
This being Hong Kong, a galaxy of movie, television and pop stars also made appearances, donning the latest timepieces on their wrists. IWC had the likes of actor Michael Wong, composer Mark Lui and even Singaporean model-actress Ase Wang wearing its latest Portofino Hand-Wound Big Date, Portugese Hand-Woung Eight Days and Le Petit Prince Pilot Watches; while Cartier premiered a new Andy Lau short film before bringing the superstar in to introduce its new Tank MC collection.
When not star-gazing or checking out the latest novelties, visitors could often be seen lounging on the plush sofas of the exhibitions lounge area browsing catalogues they had collected and discussing what they've just seen over coffee with each other.
Yes, the current slump in Asia might be a harsh reality but the presence of a watch fair such as W&W will ensure it's nothing but just a little time out for collectors before deciding on their next buy.