It was a remarkably restrained show put on by the 30 exhibitors, a record number, at the 27th Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in January. While the reasons so many decided to “keep it simple” have been widely scrutinised by industry observers, one number tells the whole story and that is the figure for Swiss watch exports in 2016. They fell 10% to CHF 19.4 billion, returning to the same level as in 2011 and effectively wiping out the 15% growth recorded between 2011 and 2014. Furthermore, this 10% drop is based on statistics supplied by Swiss customs authorities and as such does not reflect sales to end customers, estimated to have declined by more than 15% given the inventory buy-back that weighed heavily on many brands’ books last year.
Price is a prime consideration in this context, as is the need to present a range of affordable products that are best able to convey the values of the brand. For the more established names, this meant building on styles with a proven track record. Lavish displays of horological science in the form of complications gave way to a more intimate luxury, in which classicism, elegance and discretion prevail. The popularity of vintage-inspired designs confirmed that buyers are no longer in the market for extravagance (on this note, it’s worth remembering that pre-quartz nostalgia is stronger among the babyboom generation, who are nearing retirement, than their offspring). The métiers d’art, meanwhile, kept a lower profile this year with timepieces that favoured function over decoration.
The visible consequences were a marked reduction in case size, greater emphasis on dial legibility, and designs that eschewed all forms of excess. All of which lent greater credibility to vociferations of elegance. Unsurprisingly, steel was the metal of choice, followed by red gold and white gold.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, in this instance the carbon used to produce ultra-lightweight sport watches at Richard Mille (RM 50-03), Panerai (LAB-ID™ Luminor 150 Carbotech™ 3 Days – 49mm) and Roger Dubuis (Excalibur Spider Carbon), titanium as an upmarket alternative to steel, or hard-wearing bronze whose “olde world” charm found favour with Montblanc (1858 Chronograph Tachymeter), MCT (Sequential Two S220 Bronze) and again Panerai (Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Bronzo – 47mm). Forays into colour were few and far between, with the majority of brands opting for a subdued palette of blue, black or white, leaving the Altiplano anniversary collection to stand out with its vivid shades, alongside the patriotic red and white of H. Moser & Cie’s Venturer Swiss Mad.
In the complications department, the ever-functional chronograph – alone or as part of a package such as at IWC (Da Vinci Tourbillon Retrograde Chronograph) or Vacheron Constantin (Traditionnelle Chronograph Perpetual Calendar) – was out in force. It reappeared nautical-style in regatta watches at Ulysse Nardin (Marine Regatta) and Panerai (Luminor 1950 Regatta), while Montblanc ventured into the realms of extreme precision with its TimeWalker Chronograph 1000. Staying with “small” complications, moon phases have lost none of their appeal, particularly at Jaeger-LeCoultre (Rendez-Vous Moon), while “grand” complications lean towards striking watches: Greubel Forsey’s Grande Sonnerie offered a particularly fine example.
The once invincible tourbillon has been done to death, and has lost some of its aura as a result. Certain timepieces rose above the rest, with two Les Cabinotiers watches from Vacheron Constantin, including a Celestia with 23 astronomical complications, a Rotonde de Cartier with double mystery tourbillon and minute repeater, or the Tourbograph Pour le Mérite featuring a chrono, perpetual calendar and constant-force transmission with tourbillon escapement at A. Lange & Söhne. Eight years in the making, the Automate Fée Ondine “Extraordinary Object” at Van Cleef & Arpels provides a fitting conclusion.