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A Return to Classic

After a decade of progressive technology, the watch industry returns to most of its classic values
Elizabeth Doerr
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

(continued from page 1)

The philosophy of this German company could not be more aptly described. Upon its relaunch in 1994 (following a forced 50-year break due to Germany's division after World War II), A. Lange & Söhne introduced four new models-all inspired by the company's long and rich history-one of which was destined to become the definition of German luxury timepieces. The Lange 1, well proportioned at 38.5 mm, combined the "classic" look of a gentleman's wristwatch with an innovative off-center dial layout that immediately set it apart from the rest-and has kept it fresh for 16 years and counting, though the company did make a concession to the trend of large wristwatches in 2003 with the introduction of the Grand Lange 1, which comes in at a 41.9 mm diameter.

While in the last decade of horology the tendency has been to highlight technical advancements by proclaiming them outwardly on the dial, Patek Philippe has naturally never succumbed to this temptation, preferring to base its concept and continuing reputation on the grand quality of its products. A very good example of this is the 10-day tourbillon by Patek Philippe, that was introduced in 2005. Housed in platinum, this Art Deco example of haute horology is pure understatement: the tourbillon cannot be seen from the dial unless the observer glimpses the miniscule word "tourbillon" printed within the subsidiary seconds dial; the tourbillon escapement-an element of the highest technical art-is only visible through the sapphire crystal case back when the watch is flipped over.

Patek Philippe cases are usually equal parts understatement and classic beauty: cases in platinum-the most valuable of all precious metals, whose look hardly differs from steel-are denoted by the placement of a single diamond between the lugs at 6 o'clock on the case.

The brand's latest introduction is called Ladies First Chronograph. This is surprising because the watch's complicated movement-designed to replace the brand's current standard chronograph movement-is housed in a unique cushion-shaped case measuring 35 x 39 mm that emulates a design from 1929. The "cushion" was a typical case shape at the dawn of the wristwatch era when watchmakers feverishly looked for new forms to set the trendy timepieces apart from pocket watches. Also available without diamonds, this chronograph's size and design make it a classic choice for either sex. The movement is slated to be used in the near future in complicated men's models.

H. Moser & Cie, a luxury watch brand not yet 10 years old, also operates according to similar principles. Developing traditional complications using advanced engineering technology, much of which is proprietary, this brand maintains über-classic watch dials and cases using no unnecessary embellishment, maintaining an openly classic and understated air.

Another brand that has not strayed far from its original concept is Vacheron Constantin. The Les Historiques line is a collection of Vacheron Constantin watches released once a year to express its heritage by reviving vintage models emblematic of the company's long past, but with contemporary reinterpretations. It is after all the oldest continuously manufacturing Swiss brand.

Following the Chronomètre Royal 1907 and the Historiques American 1921, this year sees two new introductions each outfitted with ultra-flat mechanical movements: one hand-winding and one automatic, respectively ticking in the Historiques Ultra-Fine 1955 and the Historiques Ultra-Fine 1968. These two timepieces are as classic as classic can be in appearance, one round and one square, both housed in gold and featuring white dials with applied gold elements and hands.

Zenith, on the other hand, strayed from the brand's winning game, eschewing its 145-year history opting instead to venture into the risky-and high-priced-world of experimental aesthetics. The move was not very successful. Not only did it manage to scare off some the brand's most loyal followers, but, coupled with the economic crisis, it led to the exit of Zenith's CEO in 2009.

Changing A Winning Game
Zenith's new CEO, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, has many years of experience in the watch industry with a variety of brands. Dufour now plans on taking Zenith back to its roots. "Fashion and all economic domains have realized that classic features are the more requested in these difficult times. People want to acquire long-lasting objects that have a real value," he explains. "Since my start with Zenith in June 2009, I have been traveling all over the world-and have visited over 200 points of sale-listening to what my clients and sales people ‘in the field' think about Zenith. I was very pleased to hear that they want to see what Zenith really is, where it comes from, and discover our real values. So for us, this is not fashion but a real need to communicate and show our roots and 145-year-long history in classic precision watches."

Thus, Zenith returns to the style and measure of reliable technical competence that it made its name on. "This is a very important basic factor that will be continued devotedly by all our watchmakers, engineers and entire teams," he promises.

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