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Uality Time

This year's watch fairs in Switzerland reflect a new era of optimism. we pick the 10 most interesting timepieces.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

Switzerland is the center of the earth for wristwatches. Every April, the two most important watch fairs in the world—Salon International de Horlogerie in Geneva and Baselworld in Basel—host tens of thousands of international visitors who come to view and to purchase what's new and wonderful in the world of precision timekeeping. It's a trade-only event that attracts jewelers and journalists alike.

The 2004 events were more upbeat than those held last year, when sales of all luxury products, including watches, were depressed by the start of the war in Iraq, the SARS scare in the Far East, and the downturn in the global economy. During my six-day trip to both fairs, more than four dozen watchmakers reported increased interest and greater sales. Some even said that they had reached the same sales levels by April as they had for all of 2003. Most also commented on the potential growth in sales of Swiss wristwatches in the United States.

"Just think about it for a moment," said Stanislas de Quercize, president and chief executive officer of Cartier, whose company launched one of the most spectacular men's watches of both shows, the large Santos 100 (featured in the August 2004 issue of Cigar Aficionado). "Fifty percent of luxury cars made in the world are purchased in America, but only 15 percent of the fine watches made are purchased there. There is room for growth."

American men will almost certainly buy more watches this year with the impressive new products offered by top manufacturers. The trend remains large and bold, both in size and in shape. Very few watchmakers seem interested in reducing the size of their dials. "Large watches are here to stay," said Fawaz Gruosi, founder and president of De Grisogono, which makes large men's watches in its Doppio line. "They are comfortable, attractive and easy to use."

One noticeable trend this year was the embellishment of already popular models in new materials, such as rose gold or titanium or with more elaborate movements such as longer time reserve, fly-back and retrograde functions. Time reserves are more and more popular on high-end watches lasting anywhere from a few hours to more than a week without winding. Fly-back and retrograde movements are slightly less practical but more complex. The former works with a chronograph function (a stopwatch is one example) and allows the user to push the same button to start the timer and return it to the beginning, while the latter is a movement that uses hands to point to days and time rather than numerals on the face of the watch.

Second time—zone functions were also very popular at this year's shows, with bezels, pointers and second-time dials that enable users to check more than just the local hour. Some of these watches also come with alarms. "Time-traveler watches are incredibly popular right now, and we can't keep them in stock," says Carol Levey, senior director of marketing and public relations for Maurice Lacroix. The watchmaker had a number of new time-zone watches at the fair. "We sell them to executives who live in one time zone and work in another."

In addition, there were interesting combinations of high-tech components with precision mechanical ones. For example, watchmaker Richard Mille was the talk of both shows as a result of his tiny-production, ultra-expensive watches that look like something out of Star Wars. "You need to make a mechanical watch as near as possible to a quartz watch because it is the most reliable movement, but it is not noble," Mille said in Geneva. "So you need to use new materials in mechanical movements—ceramic, titanium, brass—whatever gives the best performance."

Below are 10 models that caught my eye this year in Basel and Geneva. They illustrate why 2004 is a very good year for wristwatches.

A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Automatik
At the moment, there are few watches classier or more in demand than those from this Germany-based firm in the town of Glashütte. Its wristwatches define tradition and precision workmanship. The 1815 Automatik is an improvement on the highly sought-after 1815, which was first launched in 1995 and has become a classic watch among collectors. The Automatik has a self-winding "Sax-O-Mat" movement that sets the second hand to zero when the crown is pulled. That function allows the user to adjust the watch to the most accurate time possible. It comes in yellow gold, pink gold and platinum cases with a bright solid-silver dial, Arabic numerals and blue steel hands. The yellow- and pink-gold models retail for about $14,400 and the platinum goes for $22,600.

Carl F. Bucherer Patravi Tonneau
Even though Carl F. Bucherer had never previously exhibited at the Switzerland shows, the watchmaker has a pedigree that dates back to 1888 when Carl Friedrich Bucherer opened his first jewelry store in Lucerne. The founder's grandson Jorg G. Bucherer now owns the company, which is headed by chief executive officer Thomas Morf. It is just starting an international push, particularly in the U.S. market. The most attractive of the men's line was the Patravi Tonneau, an elegant oblong watch with an extra 24-hour display that can be used for a second time zone. It also shows the date and includes a power reserve. The base model, in stainless steel with a black leather strap, has an automatic mechanical movement typical of all Patravi Tonneaus. It starts at about $4,500.

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