March 26, 2014 9:05 pm

Watchmaking industry prepares to unveil its showstoppers

Workers polish illuminated display cases on the Rolex ahead of the Baselworld watch fair in Basel, Switzerland, on Wednesday, March 7, 2012©Bloomberg

Preparation: Baselworld opens this week

At time of writing the doors are closed, the turnstiles locked and the stands under construction. But behind the scenes, 2014 is shaping up to be a year of surprises with a flurry of new releases from watchmakers.

Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe, sounds a warning. “2014 is going to be a challenging year, in particular for companies that made opportunist, short-term choices of moving all interests in new markets,” he says.

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“For us it was important to help our established markets before trying to develop new ones. This pays off today. The US market is catching up in a strong way.”

Among new launches from Patek Philippe at Baselworld will be what Mr Stern calls “interesting premiers in the segment of men’s steel complications”.

“This year we introduce a new steel Nautilus complicated model, combining the chronograph and two-time zones Travel Time indication,” says Mr Stern. “We also launch a first version in steel-on-steel bracelet of the Annual Calendar chronograph.”

2014 promises to be an interesting year for Jean-Claude Biver. Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH, has appointed Mr Biver to oversee TAG Heuer, Zenith and Hublot.

Hublot, a sponsor of the Fifa World Cup, is launching a football chronograph. José Mourinho, the manager of Chelsea FC, is scheduled to present the watch at Baselworld.

Hublot has a knack for using new materials and this year will show osmium crystal in a watch.

“Osmium is the rarest metal on our planet,” says Mr Biver. “It is crystallised using a highly sophisticated process. This enables it to reach its melting point [3,033 degrees centigrade], changing its structure and transforming it into osmium crystal.”

Hermès is strengthening its presence in what it calls “time-to-dream territory”.

“For us the major highlight will be the presentation of a new complication which we call a singular complication,” says Luc Perramond, chief executive. This year’s launch, L’Heure Masquee – or veiled time – appears to show only passing minutes but on the press of a button the hour hand is revealed.

Jacquet Droz, the niche brand at Swatch Group, is more esoteric. The brand was known in the 18th century for automata – mechanical models – that were the centre of attention at the royal courts of Europe.

Last year, the brand created The Charming Bird, a moving sculpture captured in a timepiece. This year it is showing a “signing machine” the size of a smartphone. It promises to be the articulation of what Jacquet Droz calls “the art of astonishment”.

But such technical jeux d’esprit are underpinned by a serious mood.

The drift in recent years towards smaller watches is industry-wide and is noticeable in women’s watches. Dior, for example, has signalled a return to the petite femininity of small cases with the launch of a case that measures just 25mm across.

In men’s watches this trend has led to records being claimed for thinness. This January at the SIHH fair, Piaget claimed to have made the world’s thinnest mechanical watch and there will be similar claims at Baselworld this week.

Christian Lattmann, vice-president of Breguet, says: “We will present the final version of the extra-thin tourbillon that was presented last year as a prototype.” He describes it as “the thinnest automatic tourbillon in the world”.

However, Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive of Bulgari, says that his brand’s new Octo Finissimo model “will be the slimmest tourbillon movement in watchmaking history, at 1.95mm, a world record”.

Nicolas Hayek’s an­nounce­ment about 12 years ago that the Swatch Group would cut back on supplying its movements to competitor brands sent shockwaves through the industry.

Many new movement launches, such as the six movements announced over the past year by Ulysse Nardin, have their roots in decisions taken up to a decade ago, as the brand’s chief executive, Patrik Hoffmann, explains.

“Roll back 10 or 12 years ago when Hayek made the announcement and at that time Rolf W Schnyder [Ulysse Nardin’s late owner] made the decision to become independent.”

The vertical integration that many companies boast today can be traced to Swatch Group’s decision. While controversial at the time, there is a belief that it has shaped a more mature and interesting horological industry producing ever more advanced models.

Mr Hoffmann speaks for many when he says, “I think it is about more depth – not just complications. The history of a brand is very important and it matches what we are doing today.

“Today’s consumers value that and those true values count more than they did five or six years ago.”

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