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Watches To Watch For

Cigar Aficionado Scours Switzerland's Watch Fairs to Find the Best New Timepieces
| By Elizabeth Doerr | From Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

Weave your way through the crowds in front of the Rolex booth; go around to the exhibition windows at Patek Philippe to see what's new with one of the watch industry's premier manufacturers. Gawk through the glass at Zenith's defiant new offerings, then make your way back to the Swatch Group's gargantuan complex of showrooms set up for the group's 18 famous brands, while passing TAG Heuer and Japanese giants Citizen and Seiko on the way. After that, continue exploring the more than 2,100 exhibitors from 45 countries debuting watches at Baselworld, the world's largest watch and jewelry fair, in Basel, Switzerland.

When you've seen as much of Baselworld as you can possibly muster, head to Geneva's Salon de Haute Horlogerie (S.I.H.H.), the luxury-class fair that features watches shown by 18 of the industry's top leaders in technology. And don't forget the city's satellite exhibitions, which just may be home to some of the most interesting timepieces of all. But you'll never know until you get there.

Needless to say, choosing the spring's 10 best new watches is a difficult task. But Cigar Aficionado visited every corner of the Swiss spring fairs and found 10 watches to make your heart tick a little bit faster.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Alinghi Team Chronograph
In 1972, avant-garde freelance designer Gérald Genta designed something that turned the established watch industry on its head: the world's first luxury sports wristwatch. What's more, the watch, designed for Audemars Piguet, was made of stainless steel, which was unheard of in that price class at the time. The Royal Oak's octagonal bezel design can be described as nothing short of iconic and continues to be one of the industry's leading wristwatch models in its various evolved versions.

Combining this legendary design with a feel for the new materials and technologies now available to manufacturers, Audemars Piguet has created the ultimate Royal Oak. Three new versions of the watch commemorate the company's sponsorship of Alinghi Team, champions of the 2003 and 2007 America's Cup. It is available in a platinum or 18-karat rose gold case complemented by a carbon fiber bezel, or forged completely from carbon fiber.

But the luxury doesn't stop there. The back of the case is crafted in black PVD titanium, with an engraving of Alinghi Team, and black ceramic buttons and a crown top each version. Eight beveled screws holding the carbon fiber bezel to its case are made of black PVD-coated steel, while the black dial boasts Audemars Piguet's own Mega Tapisserie pattern, as well as luminous numerals. Completing the ultra-cool look is a rubber strap.

Naturally, this chronograph stops the time, but it also offers some extra perks: not only does the watch have a flyback function, allowing it to be reset without having to first stop and start, but it also features regatta start and countdown functions that correspond perfectly with its nautical theme. All in all, an iconic watch model with a unique look is an unbeatable combination. The Royal Oak starts at $23,100.

Bell & Ross BR O1 Instrument
Since its debut almost two years ago, Bell & Ross's unique BR 01 Instrument has been stealing the spotlight—and wrists—of not only aviation fans, but of guys who want something different. This timepiece grabs the attention and directs it to your wrist with its 46-mm circle-in-a-square case, which can be removed from its frame to serve as a small desk clock should you wish.

The watch was inspired by the instruments found in the cockpit of a small aircraft; it took guts to transfer the design to the wrist, and a lot of skill to do it right. Since its introduction, the BR 01 Instrument has been available in steel and rose gold, but it was this year's phantom and blue versions that have really made it an alternative for the regular guy—one who doesn't want to stand out too much, but who sometimes thinks, "Yeah, why not."

Bell & Ross's Instrument Phantom combines the subtlety of an all-black dial (a reoccurring theme in this season's timepieces) with the supersharp legibility of a photo luminescent dial, which is entirely in keeping with the original concept of aviation instruments. The brand's designer, Bruno Bellamich (the "Bell" of the brand's name; his partner and general manager, Carlos Rosillo, is the "Ross"), says that he was inspired to create this all-black model by stealth bombers: elusive, yet not totally invisible. This is in great contrast to the blue and orange models, whose faces are prominently visible and entirely legible with their uniquely colored photo luminescent numerals, markers and hands.

All three variations, which are housed in stainless steel cases made black by a carbon powder coating, are available as three-handed models showing the hours, minutes and seconds ($4,000) or as chronographs ($6,000). Each variation is limited to 500 pieces worldwide.

BRM R-50-T
The models that this young company brings forth have improved each year since its founding in 2002, which goes to show that founder, creator and designer Bernard Richards' concept is one that works. This man loves the automotive world, and every watch he designs mirrors his feel for mechanics even better than the last. At Baselworld 2007, BRM was one of the few brands to present a whole set of new watches. Two of these watches are outfitted with movements that Richards has been working on for several years. They were specifically researched and designed with his concept in mind, and they reflect it perfectly.

BRM's new R-50-T looks and feels like a moving engine. "If you look at the base plate," BRM's U.S. president Frédéric Gasser explains, "you will see that it has been featured as an engine or a cylinder of a motorcycle, and the movement is kept in place by fiberglass and carbon fiber triangles. This is reminiscent of the designer's enthusiasm for cars and motorcycles.

"This is one of BRM's ultimate timepieces," he adds, "even after only two years of research. It belongs right up there with [last year's] Bi-Rotor." At $21,450 this watch is not cheap. But it will guarantee that no one is going to be able to take his eyes off your wrist.

Carl F. Bucherer Patravi Travel Tec GMT 4X
"I believe overall that it is this watch's design that people are attracted to," explains Thomas Morf, the charismatic CEO of Carl F. Bucherer, of the avid interest in the company's flagship timepiece. "The Travel Tec is now the epitome of the whole collection. It's the overall look. People like the design. It's not necessarily something crazy. It's a timeless-looking watch, but it makes a bold statement. Even if you wear the Travel Tec for 10 years, you'll never get bored. There are a lot of brands bringing out this ultra-crazy stuff, with crazy colors, but that's a trend. The Travel Tec will remain. It's going to be a classic. Timeless, bold design, and it is this combination that people really like."

You might think Morf is boasting, but once you see the brand's new Patravi Travel Tec GMT 4X, you know he's not. What used to be a steel and/or rose-gold case has now turned into rare palladium and black ceramic for a look so stunning that everyone will be doing double takes. Not only is this bold watch a looker, but it also contains some of the most practical new technology to enter the watch market in recent years. The 4X has the ability to master three time zones as easily as most watches do one, as the crown innovatively sets the local time's hour hand both backward and forward. Pushing the titanium button on the left side of the case sets the second and third time zones on the inner bezel and the red GMT hand—also forward and backward in increments of one hour. A little window on the side of the case (incidentally, one of the most complicated to manufacture in the entire industry) allows you to watch the inner workings of the watch.

Quality has its price, however, and Carl F. Bucherer's new model is no exception. The fantastic 4X version can be yours for $48,000.

Cartier Ballon Bleu
Think elegance, think Cartier. This brand is truly a style icon, and the showing it had at the 2007 edition of Geneva's S.I.H.H. did not disappoint those gentlemen looking for style, class and a grand name. Available as large as 42 millimeters in diameter, this is no sissy watch, and in 18-karat yellow gold it simply looks stunning on the wrist. It makes a bolder statement than one might think, yet remains as elegant as a Cartier should at all times.

On the wrist, the watch seems weightless—like the balloon it was named for—but the shape of its case is more complex than it might seem, which helps it fit the wrist absolutely perfectly. The "Bleu" in its name derives from a crown topped by a polished, yet unfaceted blue sapphire, which is a type of stone known as a cabochon. This crowning cabochon is framed by a perfect circle that both protects it and ensures that it sticks out in a crowd.

The timepiece's soft curves are deceiving: the watch remains as masculine as can be, with the unusual crown's artificial influence on the dial vaguely reminiscent of Cartier's popular Roadster model. Cartier's Ballon Bleu, outfitted with an automatic movement, is available in small (28.5 mm), medium (36.5 mm) and large (42 mm) and in a variety of metals: two-tone stainless steel and gold, starting at $7,300, and 18-karat yellow, white or rose gold, starting at $28,200.

Gérald Genta Gefica
By the late 1980s, Gérald Genta was one of the watch industry's premier designers. He worked not only on his own brand's pieces, but also with some of the watch world's most respected names to create a number of classics that still represent those brands' evergreens to this day.

In 1988, Genta went on an African gaming hunt with three friends. Discussions about what would make a good timepiece for the hunt led Genta to create the Gefica, the first timepiece ever to be housed in a bronze case. Genta chose bronze because PVDs and ceramics were not yet available and this watch needed a case that would not reflect the sun at an inopportune moment. Additionally, bronze is a beautiful metal that contains a masculine patina all its own. The odd moniker, Gefica, comprised the first two letters of each of the last names of Genta's hunting buddies.

During Baselworld 2007, the Gérald Genta brand (owned by the Bulgari Group) introduced a reissue of the original that also features a bronze case. But with its urban vibe and earthy shapes, materials and colors, the new watch decidedly looks and feels as if it belongs to the twenty-first century. Though the dial features the Gérald Genta brand's hallmark retrograde displays, it is the bronze case that is the definite eye-catcher. An alloy comprising copper and pewter, bronze was invented some 4,000 years ago. Modern metallurgical techniques have allowed Gérald Genta to alloy the original bronze with titanium, making it lighter and more resistant to wear. This did not do anything to change the material's wonderful patina, though, making the 46.5-mm case an eye-catcher that will refuse to remain under the cuff.

Automatic Caliber GG 1004 allows the dial to display the unusual combination of jump hours (in the window at 12 o'clock), retrograde minutes (the scale stretching across the upper half of the dial), retrograde date (the smaller scale near 6 o'clock) and normal sweep seconds. Starting at $14,200, this is an awful lot of haute horlogerie for the price. And don't forget the cool look.

IWC Da Vinci Chronograph
The Da Vinci has been one of IWC's most important model families since its inception in 1985. Seeing as this line, housed in a round case designed by Hano Burtscher, has projected a certain design philosophy during the last 22 years, IWC thought it was time to update its look—and how right the company was. Now housed in an elegant tonneau-shaped case—tonneau being the French word for barrel, which aptly describes the shape that came about during the dawn of wristwatches at the beginning of the last century—the new Da Vinci was designed by Guy Bove and can be purchased in a number of styles: as a simply elegant three-handed watch; as an exceptionally complicated perpetual calendar, the date of which need not be adjusted if kept wound until the year 2100; and a stunning chronograph.

The chronograph is so unobtrusive that it hardly seems like one at first glance. The two totalizers for counting the accumulated 60-minute and 12-hour periods, located together at the 12 o'clock position, balance out the dial opposite the subsidiary seconds display that simultaneously houses the date window. The Da Vinci features a brand new automatic manufacture movement and is available in a variety of case metals to suit diverse tastes: stainless steel, 18-karat rose gold, 18-karat white gold and a platinum version limited to 500 pieces ($12,500 to $47,000).

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor Diving Pro Geographic
Leave it to Jaeger-LeCoultre to come up with a new diver's watch with a serious innovation: a mechanical depth gauge. This depth sensor chamber, visibly located on the left side of the case, functions entirely mechanically—and like all great watches, it is based on a simple principle. Basically taking the concept behind the company's 80-year-old Atmos clock (which is literally wound by air thanks to a gas capsule that expands and contracts when the slightest variation in temperature is registered), Jaeger-LeCoultre came up with a mechanism to measure depth that is governed by aquatic pressure rather than air. The Master Compressor Diving Pro Geographic contains a membrane that expands and contracts according to the water pressure it experiences, forcing the large blue depth gauge pointer to move accordingly.

Additionally, this versatile timepiece shows world time by means of a reference city in an aperture on the flange at 6 o'clock, the setting of which also triggers the correct time on the 24-hour subdial located at 9 o'clock. This innovative timepiece housed in Grade 5 titanium also displays the movement's remaining power (at 6 o'clock) and the date (at 3 o'clock). It is available on a rubber ($22,000) or alligator skin strap ($20,800).

To accommodate a wide variety of tastes, this forward-thinking company has also introduced three models without the depth gauge: a simpler titanium model, the Master Compressor Diving GMT ($7,850—$9,150); a chronograph in either rose gold or titanium called the Master Compressor Diving Chronograph ($9,750—$22,500); and two incredibly attractive ladies' models (Master Compressor Diving Ladies)—all of which include the striking blue-on-gray look of the innovative Diving Pro.

Officine Panerai Radiomir Black Seal
Officine Panerai has been waving the flag of Florentine watchmaking since 1860, though it was the 1930s—when the brand was chosen as the official supplier to the Italian navy—that constituted its heyday. The 1936 Radiomir was the brand's first wristwatch, and the company has been capitalizing on the simple, functional look of this timepiece ever since.

Ten years ago, Panerai was bought by Richemont, the industry's largest luxury watch group, and catapulted the cult brand into true stardom among watch companies.

Celebrating a decade under the Swiss giant's roof, Panerai presented a palette of wristwatches this year to make the watch fan drool, among them an all-black version of the Radiomir housed in a high-tech ceramic case. Needless to say, the fires of the Panerai phenomenon have only been fed by this new introduction. CEO Angelo Bonati explains the fascination: "We arrived with a very simple dial; this big, huge simple watch that was easy to understand, had good quality, good design, was original and authentic, and had a true history—one that links to heroes, to men, to real people. And especially in the United States, this brand generated curiosity, became hot. Another reason may have been that from the beginning I declared we would only produce 50 to 60 percent of the market's demand: we provide our clients with better quality every time; we upgrade with every model."

This new and improved Radiomir's black ceramic case is a stately 45 mm in diameter and features what Bonati calls a sandwich dial that makes the luminous Arabic numerals, markers and subsidiary seconds really stand out. This certified chronometer is limited to 1,000 pieces and retails for $6,200.

Pierre Kunz Tahiti Moon
Pierre Kunz, a true artist among watchmakers, didn't name his new watch for the way the moon looks in the sky over Tahiti. The name of his striking timepiece has a much simpler origin. The moon phase display found at 6 o'clock on the dial, which shows the current phase of the moon by using two little gold moons on a revolving disk, is framed by a thin slice of precious black Tahitian pearl.

This is not the only unusual element of this watch's appearance. Kunz, a master watchmaker at home in Geneva within the Franck Muller Group, specializes in complications, with the retrograde being his signature. A retrograde display sees a hand moving toward the end of an arc—which can display the seconds, minutes, hours, date, a second time zone, anything really—and when it reaches the end of its scale, it jumps back to the beginning so quickly that the eye can barely follow it. Needless to say, a retrograde display guarantees a fascinating dial thanks to all the movement it creates.

And Pierre Kunz is really masterful at this. His Tahiti Moon model not only features the imminently beautiful moon phase display within its shimmering bed on the dial, but also two retrogrades to show the minutes and seconds—in the most playful way imaginable.

The Tahiti Moon is available in stainless steel, rose gold, white gold and platinum starting at $14,000.

Elizabeth Doerr is a watch journalist based in Germany.