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After three years of stellar growth, 2013 was a year of inconsistency and uncertainty for the watch industry. Sales fluctuated month by month as the vicissitudes of the global economy and, in particular, a slowdown in Chinese purchases of luxury goods, hampered watchmakers’ progress.
As such, the industry’s first big event of the year, La Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), which has kicked off the watch industry’s calendar since 2009 and opens in Geneva Monday, will be of particular interest to those hoping to gain a first glimpse of watchmakers’ plans and prospects for 2014.
In the lead-up to this year’s fair, which plays host to 16 premium brands – 11 owned by Richemont, the Swiss luxury conglomerate, as well as the independents Audemars Piguet, Parmigiani, Greubel Forsey, Ralph Lauren and Richard Mille – a degree of caution has been perceptible.
“2014 is a transition year for the industry and even more so for Audemars Piguet,” says François-Henry Bennahmias, chief executive of the 138-year-old family-owned company which is among the independent brands exhibiting.
“We don’t forecast any major changes at this stage, most brands will keep focusing on their core messages, while we will be consolidating our strategy.”
The mood of caution is understandable, given that Swiss watch exports in the 11 months to November were up just 2 per cent year-on-year according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, a far cry from the double digit growth the industry had enjoyed since 2010.
This lull was foreshadowed last year by an SIHH that had few genuine novelties, and analysts will be watching closely for any signs of a pick-up in activity this year.
“What will be interesting for me is the number of new launches,” says John Guy, retail and luxury analyst at Berenberg Bank.
In terms of content, areas of watchmaking that have seen development in recent years are likely to remain prominent, according to Philippe Léopold-Metzger, chief executive of Piaget, one of Richemont’s stable of brands.
Ultra-thin styles have become a theatre for change, he says. “There will be a lot of activity at SIHH. We hold a lot of records; some will fall, and we will establish new ones.”
He also expects to see a shift towards greater “elegance”, under which he includes a focus on jewellery watches and on “skeletonisation” – removing as much of the bulk of a watch’s movement as possible.
Mr Léopold-Metzger regards the development as a reaction against a period during which watches became larger and larger, to the point that some, he reckons, “looked liked Star Wars”. “We probably went a bit overboard,” he reflects.
Two other developments worth watching, according to Mr Guy, are the materials used by watchmakers, and the balance between watches designed for men and those designed for women.
“Some brands have been making more models in cheaper materials, such as stainless steel, in an attempt to gain exposure to the growing middle class markets around the world. Others are likely to offer a more understated prestige collection in white gold and platinum,” he says.
“The female market remains underpenetrated and brands such as Jaeger-LeCoultre have been focusing on building up their women’s line.
“These trends have been going on for a while, but it will be interesting to see if there has been any noticeable commodity or demographic reweighting,” says Mr Guy.
Perhaps almost as telling as the changes to the watches shimmering in their display cabinets will be the composition of the crowds of guests.
Watch executives expect a similar number of retailers to attend as last year. But they expect a larger number of visitors from the countries of Latin America and eastern Europe – a sign that the industry’s geographic reach is growing, even as its sales slow.
The best of the fair: Standout offerings at SIHH 2014
Audemars Piguet: Royal Oak Concept GMT Tourbillon
The Royal Oak Concept was first unveiled in 2002 as an avant-garde, 30th-anniversary tribute to Audemars Piguet’s octagonal Royal Oak. Its latest descendant, the Royal Oak Concept GMT Tourbillon, breaks new ground of its own, using white ceramic not just on the bezel, crown and push pieces, but also in the movement itself.
Piaget: Altiplano 38MM 900P
If there is one thing that Piaget is known for, it is ultra-thin watches, and at just 3.65mm, the Altiplano 38MM 900P fits firmly into this mould. Ultra-thin models have come back into vogue recently, with the likes of Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Graff all releasing such timepieces over the past year. But Piaget claims that this is the thinnest on the market.
Roger Dubuis: Velvet Haute Joaillerie
The latest addition to Roger Dubuis’s Velvet collection is paved with 304 diamonds adorning the dial, case-band, decor and flange, as well as two rubies on the decor. The watch is available with both a satin and a satin-finish strap. Like all models in the Velvet collection, it is stamped with the Poinçon de Genève.
Baume & Mercier 43MM Clifton Chronograph
The appearance of this self-winding chronograph harks back to the watch industry’s 1950s heyday. In addition to showing the hours and minutes, the watch shows the day and date, and, when pressure is applied to its push pieces, functions as a timer.