The Swiss watch industry is suffering its biggest downturn since 2009 – but no one seems to have told the watchmakers. By Alex Doak
Trudging through the slush and black ice between Geneva Airport and the E62 motorway, the bleak, iron-clad hangar that is Palexpo Convention Centre looming ever closer, it’s easy to imagine why the world’s biggest motor show happens here every March, but almost impossible to appreciate what lies in wait come mid-January.
This year, an especially cold and bitter winter between the Jura and the Alps, combined with 2016’s startling downturn in Swiss watch exports (mostly thanks to an enforcement of Chinese anti-bribery laws) made for an even greater contrast between the climate both literal and economic, and the exquisitely appointed cocoon of champagne-hued luxury that lay in wait beyond the doors of Palexpo – Pommery on tap, sushi always within reach, and gleaming vitrine after vitrine of hand-crafted gold watches.
The Richemont Group’s so-called “Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie” (SIHH) is like every single Bond Street showroom merged with every one of Heathrow’s first-class lounges, airlifted to Geneva for five days and filled with 10,000 invite-only retailers, journalists, influencers and super-wealthy VIP clients. It’s the most luxurious trade show in the world.
Yes, there were the predictable signs of reining-in, consolidation and renewed focus on entry-level collections, with younger and sportier trends showing strongly this year. But the counterpoint to all this was the extreme opposite: a return to the cuff-busting supercomplications of the mid-Noughties, proving that the very top end will never suffer, come what may.
“Complication” isn’t our word by the way – despite the core tenet of engineering being simplicity, horological engineers are put on this earth to make things complicated on purpose; to prove the watchmaking chops of the most storied brands. If you think that latest app you downloaded on your iPhone is pretty clever, here are some handheld devices that do far cleverer things with nothing more than a mindboggling array of tiny cogs, springs, ratchets, levers and screws…
A. LANGE & SÖHNE TOURBOGRAPH PERPETUAL POUR LE MÉRITE (€480,000)
The day after this symphony of horology, innovation and painstaking hand-finish was unveiled, the sad announcement of Walter Lange’s death was announced. Sad, but almost appropriate that it chimed with the ultimate expression of his original vision, when he revived his east-German family firm in 1994 after decades of wallowing in the GDR-ruled doldrums. Like that year’s Pour Le Mérite debut, this year’s still boasts a tumbling tourbillon, whose tick-tick-tick is meted-out with constant energy thanks to a conical fusée and chain of over 500 microscopic links (the principle is identical to a bicycle derailleur). But added to the mix is a chronograph, a calendar that’s always accurate despite leap years, and that extraordinary “dipping” bridge from which the tourbillon cage is suspended. Each example’s perfect “black polish”, where reflections are either white or black, nothing in between, takes over 100 hours by hand.
Venturing into hitherto unfamiliar female territory, IWC this year reboots its Da Vinci dress watch range with some decidedly dainty 36mm-diameter numbers – some even with diamonds. (“Sacrilege!” cry purist collectors of the ‘engineered-for-men’ brand; “hurrah!” cry women who actually prefer something that isn’t necessarily pink and a shrunk version of an existing men’s piece.) But at the top of the tree, things remain decidedly masculine, especially in the case of this chronograph which flies back to zero instantly and – here comes the science bit – boasts improved pallet geometry for its escapement, now renedered in diamond-coated silicon for self-lubrication and almost infinite resistance.
MONTBLANC TIMEWALKER CHRONOGRAPH 1000 (ca. £150,000)
A childhood memory of a rolling hoop, hit with a stick inspired Montblanc’s prodigal watchmaker Barto Gomila to develop an innovative chronograph mechanism of unprecedented precision. Whereas a frequency of 500 Hz is generally considered physically necessary to capture the thousandth of a second in a mechanical watch, this genuine chronograph accurately measures down to the 1/1,000th of a second – read from the scale at 12 o’clock – nwith a frequency of only 50 Hz. The Timewalker collection was completely reduxed this year to shift the brand’s attention more towards the younger aspirational sort, but this reminds you, if needs be, that there’s a lot more to Montblanc than pens and notebooks.
VACHERON CONSTANTIN LES CABINOTIERS CELESTIA ASTRONOMICAL GRAND COMPLICATION 3600 (ca.$1,000,000)
That pricetag may seem astronomical in itself, before you’ve even got your head around the celestial wizardry at play here, but that’s before you appreciate that this is a one-off piece, which has taken a single very talented watchmaker five years to realise, which also could well be the most complicated wristwatch ever made – an accolade that makes its dazzling array of indications seem almost pared-back. Chief among this particular bow’s many strings is the linear sunset and sunrise function at 6 o’clock (like something you’d find on a valve amp), the mareoscope tidal indicator combined with 3D moonphase at 11 o’clock and the equation of time complication. Audemars Piguet managed this first in a wristwatch as far back as 2000, but it remains a Holy Grail function for the majority of Switzerland’s most talented horlogers, allowing for the erratic orbit of the Earth about the Sun and as a result being able to tell the “true” Solar time, the “civil” Mean time that we go by according to atomic clock, the difference between the two (at most 17 minutes twice a year) and the “even-truer” Celestial time, which atomic clocks must occasionally adjust to – like on NYE this year, when we added a leap second. Simple, really.