The Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) is fifteen this year. A decade and a half during which it has gained in stature to rise above the profusion of distinctions now conferred on watches worldwide, some more credible than others and many intended simply as a photo op for their sponsor. The GPHG is clearly in a class of its own, as the media ballyhoo surrounding the event confirms. There was a time, not so long ago, when brands would wait until after the ceremony to comment on an eventual award. Nowadays, many jump the gun with press releases informing that one of their watches is among the six to have been nominated for a prize in one of the 12 categories within the competition. These are the same watches that will go on tour this autumn, travelling to Hong Kong (October 2-3), Seoul (October 6-8), Geneva (October 26-27), London (November 12-14) and now also Dubai (18-21 October) as part of Dubai Watch Week, the inaugural edition of an event organised by retailers Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons. The Grand Prix itself, which is webcast live, has become the who’s who of the profession, with thousands cramming into the Grand Théâtre de Genève on the night.
Now a glittering ceremony, the GPHG hasn’t always been exempt from criticism. It was, in its early days, considered by its detractors as a gauge of advertising spend for the Geneva publishing group that set up the awards, with the more generous brands taking pole position in the race to win. For a good many years, this prompted certain brands to stay away, and some continue to pass up on the chance to compete. Indeed, the essential difference between the GPHG and other awards is that the latter generally leave carte blanche to the judges to decide which timepieces are eligible, whereas GPHG rules state that it is “open to all watch brands, irrespective of nationality”. To take part, brands simply send in their application, which can be for up to six timepieces across the different categories. This year brands had until June 22nd to enter with no fewer than 84 taking the plunge. Of the 193 watches submitted, the judges have pre-selected 72 finalists which are now in the running for the 19 awards.
Which brings us to the second point to have come under fire: with this many prizes, almost everyone can be a winner. The GPHG does indeed take in virtually every genre, with categories for the best ladies’ watch, men’s watch, mechanical complications and artistic crafts. They are joined by prizes for innovation, lifetime achievement, revelation of the year (brand or watchmaker), revival, the best student watchmaker in the canton of Geneva, the public’s prize and, the ultimate accolade, the Aiguille d’Or which distinguishes the best watch across all categories. In other words, the 42 brands still in the race for the 2015 GPHG have practically a one in two chance not to leave empty-handed. Favourable odds indeed. But as the organisers of the GPHG are quick to point out, which other event can claim the title of “watchmaking’s Oscars”? A comparison few would deny.
Over the past five years, the GPHG has indeed undergone a transformation that has erased many of its youthful indiscretions. Since 2011, it has come under the aegis of a foundation, granted public-interest status, which alongside the press group that originally launched the awards comprises the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the City of Geneva, the Musée International de l’Horlogerie de la Chaux-de-Fonds (MIH) and the Laboratoire d’Horlogerie et de Microtechnique de Genève (Timelab). Its stated objective is “to contribute, thanks to its label, to promoting Swiss watchmaking and its values around the world”. Together with the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, whose 26th edition takes place in January 2016, the GPHG thus plays its part in positioning Geneva at the heart of time measurement, not only as an undisputed centre of excellence and production, but as a venue for events which can capture and disseminate its spirit.
The panel of judges is on a par with these ambitions. Its 26 members, presided by the uniquely capable Aurel Bacs, a specialist in collectible timepieces, comprises seasoned professionals from watchmaking circles and specialist media. For greater impartiality, one third of the panel is renewed each year. When making their choice, jurors now see and try the competing watches, whereas previously decisions were based on information provided with applications. Newcomers to the judging panel this year include Marc A. Hayek, who steers the fortunes of Blancpain, Breguet and Jaquet Droz at Swatch Group, James Gurney, founder of QP magazine and sister exhibition Salon QP in London, Pierre Maillard, a much-respected journalist with Europastar and, perhaps more unexpectedly, Eric Singer, drummer with rock band Kiss, and Dieter Meier, founding member of electro band Yello who back in the day helped relaunch Ulysse Nardin. The Jury Commissioner is Ludwig Oechslin, former curator of the Musée International de l’Horlogerie and the creator of extraordinary astronomical watches. Appropriately, as the GPHG undoubtedly has its sights set on the stars.