The one question doing the rounds at this year’s Baselworld was: have you seen any Chinese? This is an understandable concern, considering the continued fall in Swiss watch exports to China, which shrank by almost 7% in February while shipments to Hong Kong dropped 25%. Asia’s struggling economy provided the undercurrent for the entire week. For exhibitors, this meant back to a reality that leaves no room for smug satisfaction. Speaking in Basel, Marc Hayek, who is at the head of Breguet, Blancpain and Jaquet Droz, offered this thoughtful analysis: “In 2003, we had to contend with the outbreak of SARS. Then in 2009, the subprime crisis sent exports crashing by more than 20%. The situation today implies multiple factors, from terrorism to territorial wars, turbulence on the stock markets and in oil prices, but the effects are still the same. It’s almost cyclical, as though every six years something comes along that sets us back. So instead of acting surprised, let’s tackle the situation head-on. At times like this, we need to be the best we can be, and let our creativity shine through.”
From high-tech to old-school
Creativity is something the exhibitors at Baselworld certainly weren’t lacking, particularly now that customers expect more bang for their buck, with the added temptation of smartwatches thrown in. As far as connected watches go, there were few surprises this year, except for the sudden arrival of de Grisogono in the segment, arm-in-arm with Samsung. Others returned with products introduced last year, albeit with new functions. Bulgari’s Diagono Magnesium has the particular advantage of allowing its wearer to make payments at MasterCard terminals without a smartphone, using only the watch.
In a similar vein, Breitling has put its B55 Connected chronograph at the centre of its smart solution; the phone serves solely to increase user-friendliness. The two devices communicate with each other, forming a duo in which each does what it does best.
At the other end of the timescale, vintage models are popping up like daisies. This is horological heaven for those who regret the days when a watch was only ever mechanical, and all the more welcome as most have neither the means, the time, nor – more importantly – the understanding to venture into the sometimes murky waters of the second-hand watch market. Brands are therefore mining the rich seam of reminiscence and dusting off watches whose deliciously rounded forms are sure to please, provided they can be brought up to date without detracting from their original nature. This is mission accomplished for Girard-Perregaux, which has released two limited editions of its Laureato from 1975, as part of celebrations for its 225th anniversary. Rolex has also done an excellent job of putting its Air-King back in the spotlight, a model that “epitomizes Rolex’s privileged ties with the world of aviation during its golden age in the 1930s.”
Meanwhile, TAG Heuer is marking the 40th birthday of the Heuer Monza with a version in black PVD-treated steel. More vintage delights are to be found at Omega with its Speedmaster CK2998; the original – sought-after by collectors for its Alpha hands – dates from 1959. Several of Zenith’s collections have let the years work their magic, beginning with the Heritage Pilot Café Racer for biker fans of these “engines with a seat on top”.
This craving for the watches our fathers wore finds fertile ground in the myriad anniversaries being celebrated this year, some more significant than others. For Patek Philippe, the twentieth anniversary of its patented Annual Calendar is the cue to unveil the twenty-second version of a complication that has served it well. Elsewhere, Hublot is marking the first decade of All Black, a concept whose debut coincided with Jean-Claude Biver’s typically flamboyant declaration that when someone spends that amount on a prestige watch, it isn’t to tell the time, driving the point home in a burst of laughter. It’s no joke that the Big Bang Unico Sapphire All Black magnificently captures the brand’s “fusion” philosophy. Chopard has not one but two jubilees this year, with the 20th anniversary of Chopard Manufacture and 40 years since the launch of the legendary Happy Diamonds, revisited for the occasion in a cushion shape that stays true to the original. As for Blancpain, its Ladybird has reached the even more venerable age of 60, and can look back on a glorious past as the smallest watch in the world at the time of its launch.
Of course, the watch industry does more than make nods to the past. For over a decade, mechanical watchmaking has thrived on innovation that has found outlets in timepieces from the simplest to the most complex. More on what Baselworld had to offer in part two of this article.