Each year for the past decade, Harry Winston has dazzled not with diamonds but with a new and daring take on telling the time, crafted in collaboration with an independent and sometimes little-known watchmaker.
Today, the unveiling of a new Opus is one of the most keenly anticipated rituals of the horological year and it is usually a closely kept secret until the opening day of the Basel watch fair.
This year, however, the brand has broken with tradition and given this correspondent a sneak preview. The first thing that becomes apparent is that the decision to keep the new Opus secret until the opening of the fair has less to do with marketing and is instead due to the fact that, just eight days before the fair opens, the watch or at least its case is still in bits.
However, Denis Giguet, this year’s choice of partner, appears untroubled by this minor detail. A mildly scruffy bespectacled man who looks more like a thoughtful musician than the horological engineer that he is, Mr Giguet is delighted that the movement is working well.
Provided he can put his creation in its case: as of the Basel watch fair, his name will, if not quite go up in lights, certainly become well known to the wider horological community as the technical brains behind the latest horological tour de force from the famed American jeweller.
This is Opus 11 and before we get down to the watch itself, it is worth reflecting that if you had ordered every one of the preceding 10 Opus watches you would have a “greatest hits” of 21st century watchmaking, with pieces by FP Journe, Antoine Preziuso, Vianney Halter, Christophe Claret, Felix Baumgartner, Greubel & Forsey, Eric Giroud and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht among others.
As a series, it has used everything from rotating discs to circulating diamonds to tell the time and has offered a brace of mechanical digitals alongside a variety of takes on the tourbillon.
This year’s Opus is a worthy upholder of the Opus tradition of being, well ... decidedly non-traditional in displaying the time. Featuring 24 small revolving panels, mounted in groups of six on rotating platforms, which themselves perform a further orbit around the centre of the watch: every 60 minutes the position of the little panels changes and reassembles itself in a different way to display the hour digitally in the middle of the watch.
The effect is a little like a cross between a kaleidoscope and a Rubik’s cube.
It is at once simple and fiendishly complex: simple, in that it gives the wearer only hours and minutes (the latter shown on a planetary subdial that bulges bubble-like from the side of the case); complex, in that it has more than 550 components.
It is the kind of technical high-wire act that one has come to expect from an Opus, even though, as its creator freely admits if you want a watch that is horologically efficient in the conventional sense, then you should probably be looking elsewhere.
As he explains, the Opus is about new, different and beautiful ways of giving the time, in effect the creation of micro mechanical kinetic sculpture that happens to move to a 24-hour timetable.
But as well as creating some interesting watches, the Opus series has wrought a profound change on the way that high end watchmaking is perceived.
Begun by the then managing director of Harry Winston watches, Max Busser, at the beginning of this century, as a way of having some fun teaming the big name jeweller with some heavyweight watchmakers, it has proved extremely successful at giving Harry Winston legitimacy and credibility in high-end watchmaking.
David Gouten, Winston’s vice-president of sales, estimates that 80 per cent of the success of Harry Winston watches today can be ascribed the to the Opus effect.
This is of course an unscientific analysis, but he may have a point. When Mr Gouten joined the company 10 years ago, it was selling 800 watches turning over SFr15m ($17m) and now it sells between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces with a turnover in the region of SFr100m.
While, numerically, an Opus series may only account for 100 pieces it can make up as much as 12 per cent of turnover.
But there has also been an effect beyond the brand. First there are the watchmakers with whom the brand has worked; all of them have benefited from the association in terms of reputation or good old fashioned income, to a greater or lesser degree.
Moreover – and maybe it is just coincidence – the Opus programme appears to have initiated a new business model of super-premium-only niche brands predicated on outlandish design and innovation: among them Opus Laureate Baumgartner (whose brand Urwerk is one of the most innovative today), tourbillon experts Greubel & Forsey, minute repeater specialist Christophe Claret and most notably MB&F (Max Busser and Friends), a loose co-operative founded by the Opus instigator after he left Winston in 2005, which has been the keenest exponent of the Star Trek school of watch design. And Mr Busser is not the only former executive to have gone on to further success.
Hamdi Chatti, who succeeded Mr Busser as managing director is now heading Louis Vuitton’s watch division. And until 2006, Mr Giguet himself was a Harry Winston director – in the days before they all became vice-presidents. (This is a US company after all.)
As it enters its second decade, the Opus programme shows little sign of losing momentum.
Barely a week passes without a proposal for an Opus landing on the desk of Didier Decker, Winston’s vice-president of manufacturing, but he is adamant that each Opus must be a collaboration rather than a mere pre-packaged project brought in for the sake of it.
Indeed, it could be argued that the Opus programme has succeeded rather too well. A little more than 10 years ago, 80 per cent of Harry Winston’s watch production was of battery-powered jewellery watches for women. Today about 60 per cent of the company’s output is in mechanical watches for men.
Could it really be that Harry Winston the jeweller now needs an Opus programme for its gem-set watches?