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Same, yet different

Over-the-top complications peter out. Instead, watchmakers focus on sure bets, often variations on successful themes.

Tourbograph Perpetual Pour le Merite (above), the flagship complicated watch introduced by A Lange & Sohne this year.

Zenith Defy El Primero 21.

The IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph is priced at about S$40,000 – a hefty sum by any standard but reasonable for the combination of complications that are built on a proprietary movement.

The Rolex Cellini Moonphase has a date and phase of the moon display.

It can pay just to have fun, which is what Konstantin Chaykin is doing with his Joker.

Back of watch Panerai LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days.

THE top-most end of the luxury watch market hasn't been exempted from the slowdown that has afflicted the industry since 2014. Unsurprisingly, the mantra of value that is quoted religiously for basic watches is also repeated, albeit in a discreet whisper, at the high-end of the business.

Consequently, over-the-top and imprudent complications have petered out. Instead, watchmakers are focusing on sure bets, often variations on successful themes.

Consumers, on the other hand, emerge the winners, since in most cases they can get more for less, or more for the same price.

Take for instance the Tourbograph Perpetual Pour le Merite, the flagship complicated watch introduced by A Lange & Sohne this year. It costs a hefty 480,000 euros (S$771,003), but is arguably superior in value compared to the first Tourbograph introduced in 2005. The new Tourbograph has an added perpetual calendar, and comes 12 years after the original. Yet the two share the same price tag, a feat unthinkable in better times.

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IWC took the same route with its new Da Vinci collection, made up of a diverse selection of classically styled watch priced competitively - in some cases priced lower than the equivalent model they replace. The Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, for example, is priced at about S$40,000 - a hefty sum by any standard but reasonable for the combination of complications that are built on a proprietary movement. By comparison, the earlier generation Da Vinci with the same complications costs about the same but was built on a low-cost Valjoux movement.

Even more aggressively priced is the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 that's slated to cost just over S$16,000 in its simplest form when it reaches stores later this year. A mechanical chronograph with an additional regulator that controls the 1/100th of a second function, the El Primero 21 is the most affordable fraction of a second chronograph to date, costing less than half its closest competitor.

The El Primero 21 is merely the opening salvo by Jean-Claude Biver, the watch impresario who took charge of the brand in January 2017. Also in charge of TAG Heuer and chairman of Hublot, Mr Biver promises a radical new movement with no balance wheel or hairspring that will make its debut in September 2017, making Zenith a brand to watch.

While not as cutting edge, the strong showing put on by Ulysse Nardin this year was surprising and welcome, the brand having been somnolent for a spell. It unveiled a slew of well-priced timepieces powered by in-house movements, including the Marine Tourbillon Manufacture for just over S$40,000 and an annual calendar - with a vitreous enamel dial no less - for under S$20,000.

One of the best finishers in the value stakes is the Tudor Black Bay Chrono, which costs under S$7,000. Powered by a chronograph movement made by Breitling (which in turn buys simpler movements from Tudor) the Black Bay Chrono boasts an integrated movement with a column wheel, vertical clutch and free-sprung balance, features typically found in mid-range or high-end chronographs. With the closest similarly spec'd rival priced at almost 50 per cent more, the Black Bay Chrono is the affordable watch with such features.

Beyond the value propositions, a handful of brands also managed notable technical achievements, fewer than in previous years but significant in their own ways. FP Journe debuted the Vagabondage III, which boasts an unusual jumping seconds as well as jumping hours, the first of its kind in watchmaking. The third in a series of watches with novel time displays, the Vagabondage III is equipped with a constant force mechanism to manage the energy needed to keep the twin discs for the seconds display jumping every second.

More sombre visually but technically intriguing is the Panerai LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech 3 Days. Because its movement is constructed from novel materials such as ceramic and silicon, its mechanics function with almost zero friction (a concept also explored by Breitling with its Chronoworks of 2016). That allows the watch to go without lubrication and run reliably for extended periods, explaining the 50-year warranty that comes along with it.

High-tech engineering also defines the Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time Advanced Research, which is the fifth in the series of watches conceived to implement the Geneva watchmaker's latest innovations. The key feature of the Aquanaut is the compliant mechanism that sets the second time zone display.

Used for the first time in watchmaking, it's essentially a one-piece structure with flexible joints that replaces the network of levers and springs in a conventional mechanism. The new movement requires just 12 parts for the second time zone thanks to the compliant mechanism, compared to 37 in the conventional version.

One of the most significant complications of the year is one of the plainest. The Rolex Cellini Moonphase has a date and phase of the moon display, a pairing that is commonplace enough in watchmaking to be pedestrian. The last time Rolex made a moonphase watch was in the 1950s, with those vintage moonphases commanding six or seven figure prices at auction.

The new Cellini matters not so much for the complication itself, but the fact that is comes from Rolex. The watchmaker is the biggest luxury watchmaker in the world and its watches typically lean towards the functional side of practical, offering functions such as a second time zone or annual calendar. A moonphase, in contrast, has decidedly little utility, but offers a good serving of horological romance.

And since the downturn looks set to stay, it can pay just to have fun instead, which is what Konstantin Chaykin is doing with his Joker. Showing only the hours, minutes and phase of the moon, the movement inside is a basic ETA but with an added module conceived to have the indicators to form a silly face with sub-dials for the eyes and the moon as the tongue. Produced in a limited edition of 100 watches by the Moscow-based watchmaker, the Joker was priced at 6,990 euros and sold out swiftly, proving that watch collectors appreciate a good joke.

  • The writer has his own blog, "Watches By SJX", which ranks in the world's top 10 websites in the English language. He writes for over a dozen publications in Asia and advises watch companies, auction houses, institutional investors and collectors.