Best in Show

Cigar Aficionado picks the top watches from the 2006 Swiss watch fairs
| By Elizabeth Doerr | From Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

Walking down the broad, carpeted walkway of Hall 1 at Baselworld, the world's largest watch fair with some 2,100 exhibitors, feels a lot like taking a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Marble structures with windows abound to the left and the right containing brightly lit steel and gold, along with other precious metals and jewels. These are not run-of-the-mill timepieces lying in the vitrines. These are the best, brightest and newest of the coming horological year, examples of the advancements that manufacturers have sometimes been working on for several years, presented every spring to an eager public.

The extravagant booths lining the halls are almost as exciting as the new products, perhaps best exemplified in 2006 by Corum's avant-garde model covered in stingray. Not to be outdone, however, were Rolex's Japanese rock garden and Patek Philippe's triple-storied marble and glass structure.

A tour of the spring watch fairs would not be complete without the refined luxury of the Salon International de Haute Horlogerie (S.I.H.H.) in Geneva, which plays host to 16 of the industry's most innovative brands, not to mention the splinter shows that satellite both of the spring's main events.

After seeing thousands of new timepieces and being duly impressed by the overwhelming million-dollar booths, choosing a new favorite watch can easily become akin to looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. All that glitters is not gold, and telling the difference is really no mean feat.

Cigar Aficionado picked through the new offerings for you with a fine-toothed gear wheel—er, comb—choosing 10 of the best and brightest for the coming year. These illustrious wristwatches are currently available to watch enthusiasts and collectors everywhere.

Under $10,000
Most of the watch industry's products sell for under $5,000. It's a hotly contested segment of the market that can also turn into a jungle for the buyer. Plus, it can be difficult to find a great quality watch with a unique look and innovative mechanics for less than five figures, much less under $2,000.

Alpina Regulator Extreme Avalanche
Alpina's Regulator Extreme Avalanche is a remarkable specimen that stands out from its competitors in this price class. Its unique dial visuals are based on the traditional look of the regulator, which was created before the advent of electronic and atomic time for its precise arrangement of displays. The regulator ensured that the hour, minute and second hands did not interfere with one another. In the Extreme Avalanche, the hours are indicated by a subdial at 11 o'clock, the minutes by a sweep hand from the center and the seconds by a subdial at 6 o'clock. Alpina's clever sports watch takes the visual intrigue a step further, incorporating a stainless steel case of stately dimensions that is especially dressed up in its all-black PVD incarnation. This manually winding timepiece on a rubber strap is reasonably priced at $1,990 for both the all-black version and black with rose-gold-plated variations. A rose-gold plated version with diamond bezel is $4,290.

Just kicking into gear in the United States, BRM was founded by French designer Bernard Richards. As the name suggests (just say it out loud three times really fast, and you'll see what we mean), BRM—short for Bernard Richards Manufacture—is all about embodying speed. The new WL 02—so named because some of the brand's WL models truly look like wheels and steering wheels—departs from Richards' usual engine-block look, but exudes true originality in displaying dual time zones. The large stainless steel case houses two small automatic movements placed side by side and visible through the transparent case back. Indeed, the whole watch is characterized by transparency, making the two little displays of time—just the size of each of their movements—seem more like dashboard apparitions than timekeepers, which is the intended effect. Retailing for $5,450, the WL 02 has recently been joined by a reversible version that features one inverted time display (so that each side of the watch shows one time zone and one movement) and a two-colored strap that can be worn on both sides.

Paul Picot Le Plongeur C-Type Chronograph Carré
Taking the brand's classic timepiece, Le Plongeur C-Type Chronograph, and redesigning its case shape was a bold move for Paul Picot, but one that ultimately paid off. The new C-Type Chronograph Carré is an individualistic timepiece that makes a statement both at the yacht club and in the boardroom. Though the bezel no longer rotates as on the original diver's watch, the embossed numerals have translated very well to the square bezel of this automatic timepiece; the numbers frame the black dial, which is peppered with both luminous and yellow elements. Note the canary yellow rubber strap (it also comes in black), whose theme is continued on the gasket of the screw-down crown as well as on the seal separating the bezel from the body of the 42 x 42 mm case. This exceptional chronograph comes with both the rubber strap and a folding stainless steel clasp. Though this incarnation is part of a limited edition of 999 pieces, retailing for $7,200, other color variations are sure to come, judging from the model's success following its presentation at Baselworld.

Corum Admiral's Cup Competition 48
Continuing the aqueous theme, Corum also presented a revamped timepiece at Baselworld 2006 that was originally invented for use during regattas. Displaying the hours with nautical pennants instead of numerals is only one of the retained design traits typical of this classic. The case, which has mutated over the years to a prominent dodecahedron (12 sides), is now massive in size at 48 mm, though kept light and comfortable on the wrist through the use of the light metal alloy titanium. The case is jazzed up on some versions by the addition of a solid 18-karat rose gold bezel—a stunning contrast to the broad navy blue dial and its nautical theme. The crown protector both protects the screwed-in crown from unwanted shocks and adds a striking design element, being the same color of vulcanized rubber as the watch's strap. The Admiral's Cup Competition 48 is available for $4,995 in a solid titanium case and $8,295 in titanium featuring the rose gold bezel.

Under $20,000
This price class enables the consumer to pursue some real mechanical specialties, including timepieces containing authentic manufacture movements made by centuries-old firms hailing from the heart of Switzerland's traditional watch-making region, the Jura.

Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith are two prime examples of this, at home respectively in Le Sentier and Le Locle. Both companies have been making their own movements—and selling them to household names in watchmaking—for more than a century and a half.

Jaeger-LeCoultre AMVOX 2
Jaeger-LeCoultre introduced so many fantastic new products this year that it might have been just as easy to fill this whole list with the brand's own offerings. In terms of originality and use in everyday situations, the AMVOX 2 was our pick. This is an automatic chronograph (the term used for a wristwatch that incorporates a stopwatch function), but not just any chronograph. Its movement, which the watchmaker calls Caliber 751B, is outfitted with a brand-new vertical trigger mechanism that should belong more to the future than the year 2006. Just press the bezel down at a certain point and, voilˆ, the chronograph starts. Press it again, and it stops. Though this might sound simple, remember that this is done mechanically. Pressing the bezel sets a series of levers into motion that transmit mechanical, not electronic, impulses to the chronograph mechanism located deep within the movement to start, stop and reset it. The large 44 mm watch is part of the series Jaeger-LeCoultre has created in conjunction with the automaker Aston Martin. The AMVOX 2 has been released in three sets: 500 pieces in black steel and titanium ($14,950), 750 pieces in brushed and polished titanium ($12,750) and 200 pieces crafted in titanium and the precious metal platinum ($28,000).

Zenith Defy Classic Open
"My work is a mix of tradition and modernity," says Thierry Nataf, chief executive officer of Zenith. "I looked to the tradition of what we have done before, and we had this fantastic sports collection. And I said if I do sport, I should reinvent it so that it is something that is very, very new. And I said to myself, you know it's like I'm defying myself to find the best name for it, as well as the best design. So I called it Defy." The new Defy collection reaches throughout Zenith's range, ranging from simple three-hand models to exceptional tourbillons, dividing them into "Classic" and "Xtreme" categories. Nataf's first creation upon joining Zenith in 2001, after its takeover by LVMH, was to create the Open models, essentially making an extra window in the dial to show off the manufacture calibers' beating hearts. Combine Open with Defy and what you get is a phenomenal timepiece outfitted with the best that this manufacture's technology and Nataf's design sensibilities have to offer. The Defy Classic Open, a chronograph crafted in stainless steel that also displays the amount of power remaining in its automatic movement, is a solid timepiece of stunning design and lasting quality. With a black or a silver-colored dial, it can be purchased for $10,500.

Dunhill Parody Stone
Thanks to designer Tom Bolt's bold imagination and a pinch of outrageous British humor, Dunhill could boast an extraordinary introduction at Geneva's S.I.H.H. in 2006. The design of the new Parody Stone models shouldn't actually work, but they do. Bolt has found a way to combine the most famous legends of merry olde England with high-quality watchmaking to come up with an unsurpassed horological tribute to the tale of King Arthur. Its rare obsidian dial, a shield at 12 o'clock carrying the cross of St. George and the date in Gothic script, sword-shaped hands and case lugs formed as parchment scrolls aren't even this watch's most unusual characteristics. This role is assumed by the visor that is opened and closed over the dial, just like a knight's helmet. Or is it the English bulldog engraved on the case back wearing a medieval jester's hat pulled jauntily over one eye? You decide. Bolt also designed a platinum series of 12 of these timepieces, each one engraved with the name of one of the knights of the Round Table on the case back and featuring a jasper dial instead of obsidian. However, for those not belonging to the royal court, there is a series in white gold, limited to 250 pieces ($14,400).

Under $30,000
In this price segment of the watch industry, one can obtain a great deal of mechanical ingenuity, as confirmed by all three of our picks, but which is perhaps embodied most colorfully by independent master watchmaker Martin Braun.

Martin Braun Notos
Based in Germany's Black Forest region, Martin Braun specializes in astronomical complications as evidenced by its breakthrough model from 2000, Eos. Since then, Braun has annually presented mind- boggling timepieces inspired by the heavens, including the Notos, which was introduced at Baselworld 2006. The automatic Notos not only shows the time, but also the current month, the equation of time and the declination. The equation of time shows the current difference between mean time and solar time—a complication usually only seen on timepieces in a price range upward of $75,000 that are made by the industry's biggest names—while the declination is a complication that debuted in watchmaking with the Notos, indicating the latitude that the sun is currently found on. The Notos is available with a white dial made of the rare Cocolong stone in stainless steel ($19,550) or 18-karat rose gold ($29,250). There's also a platinum version ($49,850).

Maurice Lacroix Masterpiece Collection Le Chronographe
"It is my objective to continue to create fascinating timepieces with attractive complications," explains Sandro Reginelli, Maurice Lacroix's product director. "The various models in the Masterpiece Collection should continue to be watches of today, though so compelling in their mechanical and aesthetic perfection that their wearers are still enthusiastic about them decades later." With the latest and greatest Masterpiece model, Le Chronographe, the young team and its firm are well on their way toward achieving this objective. Caliber ML 106, which powers the attractive chronograph, represents the small Saignelégier, Switzerland, company's first autonomous movement, and it contains all the trappings of the art of traditional Swiss watchmaking. It is available this year in a limited edition of 250 pieces in a stunning 18-karat rose gold case ($24,800). Watch enthusiasts with more modest pocket depths have to wait, as the company will be releasing non-limited editions in other materials, such as stainless steel, in future years.

Chopard L.U.C. Tech Régulateur
Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard, has undisputedly exquisite taste, and this is most evident where the models of his manufacture L.U.C. collection are concerned. Retaining a classically sized stainless steel case at 39.5 mm in diameter and 9.75 mm in height, the L.U.C. Tech Régulateur will continue to be "in" for as long as its owner would like to wear it. While its appearance might seem confusing at first, the dial is actually of the same ilk as the Alpina: a regulator. The hours are shown in the subdial at 3 o'clock, the minutes by the large sweep hand and the seconds in their usual place at 6 o'clock. Additionally, the timepiece displays the remaining power reserve at 12 o'clock and a second time zone with day/night indication at 9 o'clock. All of these functions are powered by the manually wound manufacture movement L.U.C. 4RT, outfitted with two sets of twin spring barrels that provide a total of nine days' power reserve. The L.U.C. Tech Régulateur is available in a limited edition of 250 pieces, retailing for $30,590—OK, so I guess you can't have everything for under $30,000 after all.

Elizabeth Doerr is a freelance writer based in Germany.