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Timeless brillance

"Affordable luxury" is now the mantra of luxe watch brands, but some have managed to buck the trend

Grande Sonnerie

RM 50-03 McLaren F1

Chronometrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1

Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-Thin Openworked

Reference 5320G

Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600

LUC Full Strike

Big Bang Unico Blue Sapphire

PUSHED against the wall by declining sales, luxury watch brands in recent years have resorted to rolling out new timepieces at lower prices to save their business. Sky-high prices have come down, making way for “affordable luxury”. The descent was at first less obvious for some of the big names, which started to offer better value to customers. Patek Philippe, for instance, launched a white-gold watch in 2016 that combines two of its favourite complications: the world-timer and chronograph. The price of the watch was a tad under S$100,000 — still stiff, but you would have paid nearly double to buy the worldtimer and chronograph separately.

For many other luxury brands, the move to introduce less expensive timepieces was more overt. Montblanc’s publicity machinery was cranking overtime when it rolled out a S$16,800 stainless-steel perpetual calendar watch in 2014. It was the most affordable of such complications by a big name – and at least five times cheaper than the next cheapest perpetual calendar.

Last year, TAG Heuer also made a big splash when it unveiled a stainless steel tourbillon-chronograph model at an unheard price of S$21,800. A gravity-defying tourbillon watch alone would have cost at a minimum four to five times more.

Yet, such efforts at making luxury timepieces more accessible appear to have been confined to the more complicated models. Simpler and so-called entry-level luxury watches, which used to be priced at S$3,000-S$5,000, now sell for S$7,000-S$10,000.

Even the prices of complicated timepieces have not come all the way down – and most stopped at levels (S$100,000 and above) still unreachable to many people. Prices continue to be propped up by smaller production and added novelty features. We present samples of such pricey timepieces launched in the past year:

Greubel Forsey has displayed its watchmaking virtuosity in tourbillons and, more recently, perpetual calendars with prices to match. Now the super brand has gone to where few watchmakers have – the rarefied field of grand sonneries. These are chiming watches which combine a quarter striking mechanism and a repeater. It has taken Greubel Forsey 11 years of research and development before completing the 855-part Grande Sonnerie (US$1.13 million). This is not simply a chiming timepiece with 11 safety features; it’s also one of the very few grand sonneries to have room in its 43.5mm titanium case for an automatic winding mechanism, instead of a handwound equivalent.

Richard Mille timepieces are hot in Asia, where a RM watch on your wrist marks you out for envy. They are even a status symbol in Singapore, commanding prices from S$115,000 to north of S$3 million. The RM 50-03 McLaren F1 (S$1.37 million), a split second tourbillon chronograph, sells for over S$1 million – if you can get your hand on one. It’s a limited edition of 75 pieces. The watch is marketed as the product of a tie-up with McLaren, which the brand’s car-mad founder Richard Mille says is “one of the biggest names in automotive and F1 history”. The collaboration provided Richard Mille access to cutting-edge technical materials. So the RM 50-03 incorporates not just titanium and carbon TPT, originally developed for the sails of racing yachts, it also introduced a new carbon material – Graph TPT – into the world of watch making.

The name is not familiar even in the small circle of watch collectors, but Ferdinand Berthoud was a master clockmaker in the 18th century, especially in marine chronometers. Thanks to Chopard’s co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, the name has been revived with the creation of the Chronometrie Ferdinand Berthoud FB1 (S$310,000 in white gold case) – a high-precision tourbillon timepiece distinguished by an imposing 44mm octagonal case with watertight portholes, reflecting the inspiration of a Berthoud-made marine clock dated 1777. The watch was the 2016 GPHG grand winner.

A work of high complication, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-Thin Openworked boasts a gravity-defying mechanism which minimises the impact of the force from the earth’s centre on the watch’s accuracy. And you can admire the working of this tourbillon device through a delicately handcrafted skeletal dial, which is a work of art in itself, encased in solid pink-gold with a matching integrated pink-gold bracelet. The brand famous for launching the first luxury sports watch in 1972 when it rolled out the first Royal Oak model, identified by the exposed screw heads on the bezel and unique case design, has unveiled a platinum version of the Royal Oak Tourbillion Extra-Thin Openworked in 2011 to mark the Royal Oak’s 40th anniversary. A yellow-gold version appeared last year. The latest Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-Thin Openworked In pink-gold case is priced at around S$299,200 - the high price no doubt also reflects that only 50 watches of this model are made.

A Patek Philippe timepiece is always desirable, more so when it’s a perpetual calendar, one which tells not only the hour but also the day, date, month, year and moon phase – and automatically correct for the different lengths of months and leap years. A pioneer in the field, Patek Philippe has been making such wristwatches since 1941. The Reference 5320G (S$109,000), inspired by two 1950s’ Patek models, look very much like the vintage Patek perpetual calendars that regularly set new record prices at auctions. Patek’s latest perpetual calendar, in a larger modern-sized 40mm white-gold case, seems pricey but it’s a steal compared to those prices.

Probably the most expensive watch rolled out in 2017, Vacheron Constantin’s Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600 costs over US$1 million, one of the very few timepieces launched in the past year priced in that range. Rarer still is the watch itself, which is a one-of-a-kind two-face grand complication that’s the most complicated VC wristwatch to date. It packs 23 complications - most relating to astronomy - in a white gold case only 45mm in diameter and 13.6mm thick. The watch displays civil, solar and side real time indications – thanks to an ingenious incorporation of three separate gear trains, one designated to emulate the Earth’s rotation around the sun in actual time.

The sound produced when Chopard’s LUC Full Strike (S$351,330) strikes the hours, quarters and minutes is literally crystal clear. Indeed, the judges at the 2017 Grand Prix d’ Horlogerie de Geneve were so enthralled that they presented the chiming timepiece in a rose-gold case the luxury watch industry’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Academy Award. Chopard has succeeded – where many failed – in installing a steel hammer striking sapphire crystal instead of the usual steel or gold gongs to produce a minute repeater that tells the time loud and clear. What’s more, the watch, which is Chopard’s first full acoustic timepiece and most complicated creation, is equipped with other world-first features, including three security devices protecting the minute repeater from damage by mishandling.

Hublot cut a sapphire case of an unprecedented scale two years ago, mastering a complex material which is both ultra-resistant and totally “invisible” thanks to its transparency. It has now turned the case to blue with the new Big Bang Unico Blue Sapphire (S$120,400) in a limited edition of 250 pieces. There’re coloured synthetic sapphires in the market, but none exceeding 2kg. It’s very difficult to produce bigger ones – and in perfectly uniformed colour. Pushing the limits of engineering and chemistry, Hublot has developed a sophisticated and costly process to lick the problem. The result is the Blue Sapphire which retains all the desirable properties of the material.

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