Switzerland’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) is awash in affordable watchmaking — relatively affordable watchmaking, that is. Tens of thousands of dollars here can buy you artful craftsmanship, ingeniously precise mechanical movements made using thousands of tiny parts, and a hunk of precious metal to strap on your wrist. This is what the thousands of media, collectors and retailers who visit SIHH sign up for, and they tend to approach such things unfazed.
But the astronomical prices here do something odd: they serve to make a price tag of a month’s rent in NYC seem like a steal. Which is exactly how several watches this year are entering the market.
Take Baume & Mercier’s new Clifton Club dive watch that, in steel and with a black, white, or blue dial, starts at $1,950 — probably the lowest-priced offering at SIHH. Its 42mm case is a moderate 10.3mm thick, which might be large compared to some of SIHH’s razor-thin dress watch releases, but it fits just fine for Baume & Mercier’s target audience, the “gentle sportsman” in the 25–35 age range, according to Marie Chassot, the brand’s product marketing director. “Now that we’ve done it, it seems quite obvious,” she said. “We used to have sports watches within our assortment, and also, it’s very complementary with expectations of the brand, and to our clientele.”
That clientele might be an important one for the Swiss watch industry. In the first quarter of 2016, many high-end Swiss brands, including those under the major umbrella SWATCH and Richemont groups, saw their sales fall by 12 and 18 percent; those numbers continued to plummet throughout the year due to a number of factors, including the rise of smartwatches (despite the luxury mechanical watch industry seemingly refusing to acknowledge that such other watches are their competition, even while smartwatches now out-ship traditional ones). Convincing young people, especially Americans, to buy a mechanical watch might be the best way to stop the bleeding; the steel sports watch, and especially time-only models without the extra complications (e.g., a chronograph or a second time zone) can be made and sold at a relatively lower price, and fits with a younger, active lifestyle.
Several other sporty steel models also landed toward the bottom of the price range at SIHH this year. Montblanc’s Timewalker Chronograph UTC, a fan favorite with its dark colorway, costs just under $5,000; even Jaeger-LeCoultre, a legendary maker of insanely complicated watches, released an updated version of their handsome Master Control for $5,700. And fans also noticed that brands like Piaget and Parmigiani Fleurier, which both regularly sell watches in the $25,000 price range and upward, had released steel, time-only watches for less than $10,000.
There are still reminders that in high watchmaking, just about anything can be considered a deal. At A. Lange & Sohne — a fan-favorite German brand — employees showed off the new white platinum Tourbograph Perpetual “Pour Le Mérite,” with a perpetual calendar that never needs to be adjusted for the different lengths of months or for leap years that also had a tourbillon spinning away at its heart and a chronograph function. It costs over $500,000. Lange’s employees were wearing a different model, though: the beloved Saxonia Thin 37mm in gold, which has no complications other than telling the time. Its price? A mere $14,800.