The Friday before this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie opened, the Swiss National Bank announced that it would detach its currency exchange rate from the Euro. This seemingly innocuous proclamation sent ripples throughout the Swiss watch industry and was all the talk at SIHH. The Swiss franc immediately shot up in value: good for some, bad for watch brands, whose products instantly became up to 20 percent more expensive abroad. There were rumors of retailers canceling orders, doomsday predictions in the halls of the Geneva Palexpo.
Despite this dark economic cloud, which matched the January sky in Geneva, we still wanted to see the new watches from the 16 exhibiting brands. Among the “novelties” shown, there were a few overriding themes that seemed to reflect market and design trends of the past few years. First of all, gold is back, and not just the “safe” white gold — rose gold, yellow gold and two-tone watches were aplenty, showing that what goes around truly does come back. Watches are getting smaller again, with a few exceptions (see the Panerai below), a trend we can get behind. And there seems to be a return to classic designs — not just “heritage” inspired, but design codes that have stood the test of time. Last year was an orgy of divers and sports watches; there was a noticeable dearth of such brutish specimens this year, giving way to classic complications. Globes seemed to be everywhere, used in innovative ways to show world times and day and night. It was a more subtle show — even IWC’s booth felt more like a chic hotel lobby than an aircraft carrier flight deck (see SIHH 2012), which still managed to be immensely satisfying to anyone who loves high watchmaking. And in that respect, SIHH lived up to its name. Here are 10 of our favorite watches from last week.
Montblanc Orbis Terrarum
Two years into former Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Jerome Lambert’s reign at Montblanc, and it’s pretty clear that the brand is a force to be reckoned with. It wasn’t long ago that people only associated the company with its writing instruments (that’s “pens” to the rest of us), and this underdog role has freed Montblanc to take some chances. Its recent watches have consistently proven innovative, attractive and bold — and affordable. Last year, we saw a full mechanical perpetual calendar for around twelve grand. This year’s followup is a steel world timer for around $6,000, the Orbis Terrarum. That’s getting into Baume & Mercier’s price territory, that Richemont “bargain” sibling — proof that Montblanc can threaten brands at both the bottom and the top.
The Orbis Terrarum is a twist on the standard world timer, which shows the time in all time zones around the globe. In addition to this function, a two-level center disc indicates day and night in an intuitive visual way. On the upper level, the Northern Hemisphere is shown with the oceans in blue and the continental landmasses clear. As the lower level rotates with the passage of time, the hemisphere where it is daytime is brightened while the other is darkened. This representation is surrounded by a 24-hour ring for quick reference, and the hour of the day can be advanced by merely pushing a button the of the 41-millimeter case, which is available in the affordable stainless steel or rose gold. The Orbis Terrarum is further proof that Montblanc is one of the most exciting watch brands to watch.
Greubel Forsey Tourbillon 24-Secondes Vision
Greubel Forsey is perhaps the least recognizable name in the “who’s who” list of watch brands from SIHH. Founded by a Frenchman and a Brit in Switzerland, the company is committed to producing exotic complications in avant-garde precious metal cases, bought only by those who don’t need to ask the price. And while we doubt too many of our readers will be ponying up half a million quid to add one to their collections, it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the astounding creations. These are the Bugatti Veyrons of the watch world: pimply teenaged watch geeks will have posters of Greubel Forseys on their bedroom walls.
While no one denies their mechanical ingenuity, GF’s designs have always been polarizing. Their dials are typically bold and colorful, while cases are asymmetrical with bulbous “tumors” that bulge out of one side housing their massive tilted tourbillons. Let’s just say they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. So their new Tourbillon 24-Secondes Vision is a stark departure: restrained, subtle and downright classical while still housing GF’s trademark tilting tourbillon, clearance for which is accommodated with a bubble only on the clear caseback. The case is round, tapering into elegant lugs, and rather than a fully open-worked dial, it has a two-layer white gold dial with a frosted texture. Of course, these masters of the tourbillon couldn’t resist showing off a little, and the “whirlwind” gets its own aperture at 9:00 on the dial. Tastefully elegant, this is clearly a watch for the understated oligarch.
IWC Portugieser 75th Anniversary 8-Day Hand-wound
IWC has taken a lot of flak in the past few years, with critics complaining that this former “tool” watch builder is inching away from its core principles by pandering to celebrities and building cartoonishly large watches. Well, the Schaffhausen brand responded loud and clear at SIHH with its refresh of the Portuguese family of watches. Arguably its most classic and iconic watch line, the Portuguese started way back in 1939 at the request from clients from Lisbon. 2014 was original line’s 75th, and IWC rebooted it with new movements, complications and subtle design refinements. They’ve even gone back to the watch’s traditional German name, “Portugieser”, in homage to its roots.
The hands-down favorite of this year’s collection was the limited-edition 75th Anniversary 8-Day Hand-Wound. The watch looks like it emerged from an Iberian time capsule, with design elements inspired by the 1939 original like a railroad track dial, small seconds subdial, domed crystal and 43-millimeter case — which may sound like IWC continuing its obsession with oversized pieces, but 43 millimeters is in fact the exact diameter of its historical forebear. Around back is the gorgeous pocket watch-inspired calibre that, when fully hand-cranked, delivers a full 8 days of power. The watch is available in either a rose gold or steel case, both lovely and both of which won’t be around for long. Clearly IWC is back. Or maybe they were never gone.
Panerai Mare Nostrum Titanio
Near the end of World War II, Officine Panerai, which had been building rugged watches for Italy’s diving commandos, designed a chronograph for naval deck officers. Only a couple of prototypes of this watch, named the Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea” in Latin), were built before the war ended, and their rarity ensured their place in legend. Panerai has built a couple of limited-edition reissues of the watch in the past couple of decades, none of which fully captured the full essence of the original (a tachymeter on a naval officer’s watch?). So this year’s Mare Nostrum Titanio was a welcome surprise.
Panerai has always been known for its giant watches — it arguably started the trend back in the ‘90s — but the Mare Nostrum takes it to the next level. At 52 millimeters, this is a dinner plate on a strap, an impression only accentuated by the wide blank bezel. This diameter, however, is true to the original; clearly the Italian navy was compensating for something during World War II. But while the original was stainless steel, the new one is milled from lighter titanium, making it more comfortable on the wrist, even if it will never fit under a shirt sleeve. Behind the historically faithful solid caseback slowly ticks a classic Minerva-built column-wheel movement that gives the chronograph a lovely and precise actuation. In its limited edition of only 150, the Mare Nostrum is going to sell out quickly, to be snatched up by giant-wristed men and Italian deck officers alike.
Piaget Altiplano Chronograph
If the Panerai Mare Nostrum has an exact opposite, it is the Piaget Altiplano Chronograph. Piaget has long been known for building the slenderest mechanical watches on Earth. In fact, last year’s sensational 900P holds the title of the flattest mechanical watch, full stop. This year’s Altiplano Chronograph continues that theme: according to Piaget, it is the world’s thinnest mechanical flyback chronograph. At 8.25 millimeters in height, we’re not going to argue.
The watch is a study in minimalism, and not only dimensionally. The dial is a stark white expanse punctuated by simple stick markers and hands that look like they were drawn on with a single stroke of a pen. One counter tallies elapsed minutes and the other is the watch’s running seconds display. A third subdial is proof that Piaget really overachieved with the Altiplano; a second time zone display adds practical functionality without jeopardizing its svelteness.
Cartier Rotonde Annual Calendar
While Cartier has set the watch world on fire in the past few years with its parade of high-complication horology, historically it is better known for its iconic designs. (Case in point: the Tank, the Santos and the Ballon Bleu.) But when its watchmaking firepower is combined with beautiful aesthetics, the results are downright formidable (said with a proper French accent). While Cartier introduced a new case shape this year with much fanfare, it was the more classic Rotonde Annual Calendar that caught our fancy.
An annual calendar is much more than a poor man’s perpetual calendar; in fact, we often prefer it. Indicating time, day, date and month, it only needs correction for Leap Year Februaries, a small tradeoff for what amounts to a simpler dial layout, less complexity and lower prices. The Rotonde makes use of Cartier’s well-known round case with pointy spinel-tipped crown combined with that iconic (yes, we can use that word here) Roman numeral dial. The days of the week are indicated in apertures around the perimeter of the dial, with the current day underlined in red. An oversized double-digit date window sits at 12:00 and the month is indicated in an aperture at the bottom of the dial. The overall design gives the watch a depth and three-dimensionality while remaining utterly classical. While it’s available in steel, we like the rose gold case with creamy dial. Of course, inside is a Cartier-produced movement that should stand the test of — well, time.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Calendar Meteorite Dial
A few billion years ago, a meteorite spun out of an asteroid belt between Jupiter and Saturn and hurtled into Earth’s atmosphere. It crashed into a mountainside in what is now a remote corner of northern Sweden. Over the millennia, the meteorite was carried by a glacier and deposited in a moraine where it was found by meteorite hunters (yes, they exist) and christened with an awkward Latin name that escapes us. Jaeger-LeCoultre got hold of a few slivers of this extraterrestrial rock and decided to make the dials for its Master Calendar watches out of it.
Sometimes, not often, case or dial materials trump movement magic, but with Jaeger-LeCoultre, that’s hard to do. After all, the Le Sentier-based brand is known as the “watchmaker’s watch company” because of its calibre making prowess. But although JLC trotted out some predictably awesome complicated watches this year, the Master Calendar Meteorite Dial was the one everyone was talking about. Announced shortly before SIHH, the jury was still out before handling the watch in the metal and the consensus was that it looks much better in person than in press photos. That may sound like faint praise, but this is a handsome watch. Available in steel or rose gold, no two dials look alike, and both versions are out of this world.
Vacheron Constantin Harmony Monopusher Chronograph
Of the so-called “Big Three” brands (Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin), Vacheron is the one mentioned the least. Yet while Patek and AP turn out icons to great adulation, Vacheron is the quiet, tasteful one, consistently producing subtle, refined watches valued by collectors and coveted by the rest of us. Vacheron also happens to be the world’s oldest continuously operating watch brand. Founded in 1755, it has been building watches for 260 years; when you’ve been doing it that long, there’s no need to shout about it. Still, this year Vacheron is pretty proud of a new collection they’re calling “Harmony”, along with the new movements that were created for it. All of Vacheron’s new pieces at SIHH are praiseworthy, making it was hard to choose just one favorite — but we’re suckers for a monopusher chronograph.
Inspired by a 1928 Vacheron forebear (you know, only 87 years ago), the Harmony Monopusher Chrono features the same tonneau-shaped case, classic two-register dial and a single chronograph push-piece that extends out of the crown. Starting, stopping and resetting the chronograph is all done by pressing that button, and what it gives up in modern functionality, it makes up for with the elegance of the Jazz Age, when monopushers were state of the art. Under the hood is a gorgeous integrated chronograph calibre with column wheel actuation, a movement fully conceived and built on an island in Lake Geneva, as has been done for 260 years and counting.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Self-Winding
At a show floor filled with new complications, movements and designs, it is unusual to choose a watch that has changed little since 1972 as one of the best. In fact, the only thing different this year about the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Self-Winding is the metal from which its case is made. Or rather, metals: rose gold and steel, in what has become known in the watch world, if not the AP catalog, as “two-tone”. And yes, we love it.
This two-tone Royal Oak is not your liver-spotted uncle’s tacky Vegas bling from 1983. This is two-tone we would wear, and that’s because the Royal Oak’s inherent shape wears it well. That iconic and intricate bracelet consisting of large and small links is mostly steel, as it should be, with only the two small rows of inner links made from gold. The case itself is also largely steel, with only that octagonal bezel (famously sketched by renowned watch designer Gerald Genta) rendered in glorious rose gold punctuated by steel screw heads. Set off against this metal mix is a broad white dial with AP’s trademark “tapisserie” textured dial. To be clear, this metal mix isn’t even new to AP, having been an option back in the ‘70s and worn famously by Prince Michael of Kent. Frankly, we never thought we’d see the day when two-tone watches would come back in favor — much less the day we would covet them — but, as the new Royal Oak demonstrates, wait long enough and anything is possible.
A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1
Walking into Lange’s booth at SIHH this year, we were greeted by a 12-foot-high rendition of this year’s prize novelty from Glashuette: the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. And while that is an impressive watch that will be much feted over the coming year, some other news escaped the same attention. The Lange 1, the brand’s first and best known watch, was given an entirely new movement. Going back to the post-Cold War resurrection of the company, the Lange 1 was part of its first collection in 1994. With its offset dial, it quickly became a modern classic and Lange could have gone on producing it unchanged. But these are Germans and that’s not how they think. So they set out to redesign the watch’s movement.
In 1994, when Lange was reborn, it simply did not have the full capabilities the company has today. So the movement in the Lange 1, though designed in-house, made use of a few outsourced components, namely the hairspring. This fact must have stuck in the craw of the watchmakers, and this year the Lange 1, still looking much the same, now had a brand new motor, the L121.1, with an internally produced hairspring. This movement happens to be Lange’s 50th in-house calibre and coincides with the 200th birthday of the company’s founder, F.A. Lange himself. In addition to the hairspring, the movement also has been adapted to allow for instantaneous date change at midnight, no small feat with that giant date feature on the dial. It is this sort of relentless pursuit of perfection and subtle improvement that has endeared us to the Lange. And we’re not alone.