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The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) traditionally offers the year’s first – admittedly partial – snapshot of the state of the watch industry.
On the evidence of this year’s show, which took place in Geneva at the end of January, another uncertain 12 months lie ahead.
On the face of it, the numbers look encouraging. According to the organising committee, about 14,000 guests attended this year’s event, an increase of 9 per cent on 2013.
But numbers rarely tell the whole story, and among the executives and guests milling around the sleek exhibition booths in the city’s Palexpo centre there was a noticeable sense of caution.
“The watch sector is in a consolidation phase,” says Fabienne Lupo, chairwoman and managing director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, which organises SIHH. “We’ll have some growth, as in previous years, especially in Asia. But I think that brands are more cautious at the moment, and I think they’re right.”
François-Henry Bennahmias, chief executive of Audemars Piguet, one of 16 watch brands exhibiting in Geneva, takes a similar line. “I think SIHH in 2014 confirmed the trends of SIHH in 2013, which is that the industry is in a period of transition,” he says.
One of the main reasons for the uncertainty hanging over the industry has been the drop in demand in China, after a clampdown by the country’s new leadership on the practice of gifting, and several participants noted a smaller Asian contingent at SIHH than in previous years.
However, Jon Cox, head of Swiss equities at Kepler Cheuvreux, said this could be down to the fact that SIHH last year launched an Asian spin-off called Watches and Wonders, rather than reflecting diminishing Chinese interest in Swiss watches.
“Given that SIHH held a fair in Hong Kong in September, maybe some people decided to stay closer to home,” he says.
Other regions turned out in force, however, and Mr Cox says the mood among North American and European retailers was “very bullish”. ”Perhaps the most optimistic they have been for five years,” he adds.
The main themes of the fair, according to Ms Lupo, were similar to those in recent years. “We saw more and more mechanical watches; lots of ultra-thin watches; more and more watches for women. And we also saw a lot of activity in métiers d’art,” she says.
Analysts broadly agree. “If I had to sum up this year’s themes, I would say: thin, female, understated,” says John Guy, an analyst at Berenberg.
Ultra-thin watches had attracted a lot of attention before the show – and records duly fell.
“This was the most important trend,” says René Weber, an analyst at Bank Vontobel in Zurich. “Piaget broke the record for the thinnest mechanical watch, Jaeger-LeCoultre came with some very thin watches, and Cartier produced the thinnest divers’ watch.”
Watchmakers have also spoken for several years of the need to do more to attract women to haute horlogerie. Analysts and executives said this year’s SIHH suggests that there has been some success.
“Over the past three or four years there has been an evolution. Watches are on women’s radar. You see this in fashion shoots, you see it in advertisements. Watches are becoming part of a woman’s wardrobe,” says Mr Bennahmias.
As well as the excitement surrounding women’s and ultra-thin timepieces, the caution surrounding the industry was evident in the more understated nature of this year’s offerings.
“Last year, sales of solid gold watches came under pressure, as customers put more emphasis on white gold or platinum pieces,” says Mr Guy. “That fed through at SIHH.”
For the long-term, however, watchmakers remain optimistic. “We are still very far from reaching our potential. There are tens of millions of millionaires in the world, and the number is growing – but [the industry] only did SFr21bn ($24bn) of exports last year,” says Mr Bennahmias. “And those millionaires all have at least two houses, they all have two cars – but very few of them have a nice watch.”
Show-stoppers: Eye-catching pieces
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon
One of the most striking ultra-thin watches is by Jaeger-LeCoultre. At 7.9mm thick, the group says it is the thinnest minute-repeater on the market, with a flying tourbillon, a flying balance and a self-winding system.
Cartier Ballon Bleu Floral-Marquetry Parrot watch
Petals might not seem an obvious material for watchmakers, but Cartier used them on its latest Ballon Bleu. The eye is emerald and beak onyx. Cartier will make 20. The price has not been disclosed.
Montblanc Meisterstück Heritage Perpetual Calendar
Montblanc’s latest range of watches includes this Perpetual Calendar. Strikingly, it is also available in steel for $12,800.