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.
Panerai Radiomir 8 Days
To some, the oval watches of Panerai have become the tough guy's watch following their success with Hollywood stars such as Sylvester Stallone. Others have shied away from their overtly sporty style. The new Panerai Radiomir 8 Days model in rose gold with a black dial and dark-brown crocodile strap should change some minds. Think Rocky in a Gucci dinner jacket. The watch takes its inspiration from the debut of the Radiomir range, which was introduced with 60 examples in 1997. Its sandwich dial with luminous numerals is classic Panerai, and the eight-day power reserve is a nice added feature. The latter can be seen through the watch's skeleton back. It retails for about $18,900.
Richard Mille 005
This watch enjoyed the most buzz during the fairs in Switzerland. Richard Mille is taking time to a different level, designing watches like carmakers build automobiles for Formula One racing. "Nothing is spared for performance," he says. The 005 is his base model with the classic Mille skeleton dial that looks like a NASA design. In fact, he uses many materials that were developed for America's space shuttle, ranging from titanium arms and flanges in the movement to ceramic ball bearings in the rotor. He says that the self-winding mechanism will adapt itself to your movements whether you are serving aces on the tennis court or writing out checks at your desk—nice touch. It comes in titanium as well as white or pink gold. The titanium is the entry-level model, costing about $25,000.
Zenith Grand Chronomaster XXT Tourbillon
Zenith CEO Thierry Nataf calls this new Tourbillon watch "a tribute to abstract art," but the Grand Chronomaster XXT Tourbillon is certainly not theoretical. It keeps perfect time, with two extremely complex functions working together. To begin with, the watch includes Zenith's fast beat movement, which is the key to the success of its regular Grand Chronomaster. The watch keeps time to the nearest tenth of a second, beating 36,000 times an hour. A normal watch usually beats 18,000 times an hour. However, what makes the new Zenith timepiece even more special is its magnificent Tourbillon movement, in which its escapement is held in a rotating cage that counterbalances the effects of gravity. The function is evident at the top of the watch through a tiny hole. It took Zenith's designers and watchmakers three years to create the Grand Chronomaster XXT Tourbillon. It comes in a white-gold case with a black dial or pink-gold case with a silver dial. Zenith made only 70 of the watches, and prices in the United States are expected to be just over $100,000.
Gérald Genta Retro Sport
Unlike Genta's new Arena Sport Bi-Retro watch, whose fluorescent blue-and-orange net-like dial is a must for any well-to-do hipster, last year's Retro Sport might be more to people's taste, with the same idiosyncratic movements but in an altogether more elegant style. The Retro Sport comes with a steel and yellow-gold case with a row of 60 diamonds and a row of 78 yellow sapphires embedded in the bezel. It retails for about $20,200. Both watches include a jumping hour function as well as retrograde date and minutes—which means that hands on the dial jump back and forth, indicating the time and the date. This is not the easiest watch to read, but it's certainly one of the most modern and stylish on the market. Bi-Retros start at about $8,800.
Oris Artelier Worldtimer Centennial Set
Oris celebrates its 100th birthday with a limited-edition boxed set, complete with wristwatch, small desk clock and hardcover book detailing the company's history. The first item is reason enough to buy it. The Artelier Worldtimer is individually numbered with a special engraving of the Oris factory in 1904 to commemorate its centennial. Only 1,904 watches were made for the set. The traditional yet sophisticated Worldtimer has a small dial that keeps an additional time zone, and another dial for seconds. The time zones can be quickly adjusted with two push buttons, which resemble a fly-back movement. The watch comes in a three-piece stainless steel case with a white dial, rose-gold hands and indices, and a skeleton back that exposes the red rotor in the main movement. It's a great buy at $3,395 for the set.
Bedat & Co. No. 8
This was my favorite watch of the show for its rugged elegance. This is the watch that you wear on safari while dining in black tie. The steel case is simple and refined while the interwoven, dark-brown alligator strap gives the watch a rustic individuality. It's an automatic movement and available with either a silver or black face. It also includes a calendar as well as a second hand. The watch retails for just under $5,000. Creator Christian Bedat noted that it was his first round watch and that he wanted to do something different, less boring than similar watches. He has succeeded.
IWC Aquatimer Cousteau Divers
I have friends who claim to use their IWC Aquatimers for skin diving, but they secretly feel more comfortable wearing them with their city suits than their wet suits. Aquatimers are chic wristwatches for people who want to show that they are serious outdoorsmen, whether scuba divers plunging 100 meters in the Caribbean or backyard chefs manning the barbecue. The new Cousteau Divers, a tribute to French marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau's first expedition, is the cream of the crop with its unique blue/orange dial and dark-blue rubber strap. The back of the stainless steel case is engraved with the signet of the Costeau research vessel Alcyone, and each timepiece is individually numbered. The self-winding watch comes with a second hand, mechanical rotating inner bezel and day indicator. Only 1,953 watches were made. It costs about $4,100.
Maurice Lacroix Double Rétrograde
The ML watch company prides itself on the highly complex movements in this watch: the retrograde date and 24-hour display. Its technicians developed and produced them from scratch. Or as one employee told me at the watch fair in Basel, "We made the machines, that made the tools, that made the parts, that made the watches."
Without getting into the minutiae of the coiled resetting springs of the retrograde movement, hands point to the date and the hour time display instead of the revolving numerals on cylinders that are often used in other watches. The latter function is particularly useful for travelers who need to keep time in dual time zones. It also has a power reserve indicator (45-hour capacity) as well as a second hand included on the dial. The entry-level watch comes in stainless steel and sells for about $6,500. The Double Rétrograde is also available in limited-edition models in platinum, pink gold and white gold. The latter is only for the U.S. market.