How times change. Only yesterday, or so it seems, new markets were like low-hanging fruit, easily plucked from the boughs by brands ready to distil the sweetest nectar. The past two years, however, have left a sour taste and as exports return to 2011 levels, the Swiss watch industry has been forced back down to earth, diverted from its upward trajectory by the slippery slopes of Hong Kong. Denied its former heights, the profession has assembled its troops on the plains, dropping the “heavy weapons” and arming itself with the functional, precise instruments best suited to the challenges that lie ahead. From a show of force, watchmaking has been forced into a show of restraint, compelled to find new ways to stay profitable in a less than favourable climate, further marred by production that was out of phase with demand. The industry has received its orders, and they could not be clearer.
Past exuberance has thus been reined in, as evidenced at Baselworld 2017 which lost a massive 200 exhibitors. New releases were thinner on the ground, and the watches that were on display put functionality first. As though the good old three-hander had suddenly revealed previously unsuspected virtues. Similar observations were to be made in the materials used, with steel outshining other metals. In a word, anything that could contribute to greater “accessibility” with a corresponding emphasis on lower entry price points. At the other end of the spectrum, the métiers d’art were more rarefied and grandes complications more discreet. By the end of the week, definite trends had emerged, confirming observations already made in January at Geneva’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. The first is for extra-thin watches, which provide requisite simplicity but also the classic elegance that has them rise above the crowd. Chopard (L.U.C XP), Hermès (Slim), Patek Philippe (Calatrava Ref. 6000G) and Blancpain (Villeret Day Date) all had something to offer in this department, although Bulgari outdid them all with the Octo Finissimo Automatic, which secured a third “world’s thinnest” record for the brand.
The old and the new
The second trend to come out of Basel this year was vintage. It’s a tendency that has been building up for some considerable time, and one that few brands can afford to ignore. Those that aren’t fortunate enough to have a Speedmaster or a Sea-Dweller in their back catalogue are tapping into the craze with neo-retro designs. Glashütte Original is one, with its Iconic Sixties Square Collection. Zenith is another, with the Pilot Extra Special. Some are giving an old-school feel to existing styles, such as Tudor and its Heritage Black Bay. Others have conjured up ghosts from the past: think TAG Heuer’s Autavia. None of these feature anything more complex than a chronograph, hence they fit perfectly into the newly desirable entry-level price range. Another explanation why vintage is so popular.
In this context, Hublot was one of the few brands to venture into highly technical terrain with its Techframe Ferrari Tourbillon Chronograph and the MP-09 Tourbillon Bi-Axis. Breguet and its Marine Equation Marchante 5887 with running equation of time, and Harry Winston with Histoire de Tourbillon 8 also flexed their mechanical muscles, but there is no denying that the circle of collectors, those prepared to pay out for the truly head-turning watch, isn’t recruiting many new members. A third trend to emerge this year, and one that is gaining ground, is for ladies’ watches with substance. Leaving aside the more obvious gem-set watch, horology’s every register or just about now extends to versions for women. There are now dive watches for women at Carl F. Bucherer, skeletonised at Chanel, openworked from Romain Gauthier. Indeed, by putting “ladies first”, Baselworld succeeded in instilling a welcome touch of glamour into an edition that tended to play it a little bit too safe.