Watches have evolved over the past century from mere timepieces to works of visual and technological art. We present some of the more provocative products featuring in the BaselWorld show in Switzerland, an international showcase of the year’s best watch designs.
As we wrapped up this issue, the organisers of the 2009 BaselWorld Watch and Jewellery Show were finalising their arrangements for the timekeeping industry’s most important event of the year. Some 2 000 exhibitors are presenting their product innovations over a surface area of 160 000 m 2, arranged according to watches, jewellery, related brands and national pavilions.
Against the backdrop of the uncertain global economic climate, 2009 is a year with a number of question marks for the luxury goods industry. But the harsh realities of tightened budgets has not come even close to denting the enthusiasm of the watch designers, whose work ranges from the sublime to the utterly outrageous.
As an insider tells it: “The art of a good watch designer lies in capturing the spirit of the times in the space of just a few square centimetres. A colourful timepiece on a chain, hanging right down to the navel, brings back memories of the wild, hippy years of the Seventies. Elegant restraint, by contrast, conveys the feel of the Sixties. Watches are a reflection of their time, a ticking piece of history.”
In the watch sector, experts sum up the trends for 2009 as follows: anything that is theoretically feasible from the design angle is being taken up and implemented by the watchmakers. On the masterpieces emerging from the manufactures, materials and techniques alike are being mixed, merged, combined and varied – with creativity knowing virtually no bounds. And it is the big watches, in an especially wide variety of materials, that continue to dominate, offering a direct view of their frequently minimalist-design dials. The predominantly round cases, often featuring square components, are both flat and elegant.
Oh, the memories
Forget diamonds – one Swiss watchmaker is betting on watches made from Moon dust, parts of the Apollo 11 space shuttle and bits of spacesuits to capture consumer cash as an economic slowdown bites. It’s all about differentiation: more than 600 watchmakers carry the Swiss brand stamp, so Geneva-based Romain Jerome has opted for “inaccessible materials” to set its products apart from rivals such as Richemont’s Vacheron Constantin and independent watchmaker Patek Philippe. “ is gives value to the product and the brand,” explains chief executive Yvan Arpa. “But the material must also be well known and it must be luxurious. ” Two years ago, the group sparked controversy with its “Titanic DNA” watches, made from steel and coal from the ocean liner that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, with some critics saying the timepieces were in bad taste. However, demand for the Titanic watches has been strong, and the privately owned group has an order backlog of over R400 million for the watches, which range in price from around 7 000 francs to 500 000 francs. Says Arpa: “We had to launch
the second collection faster than we wanted to because otherwise Romain Jerome would have become the ‘Titanic’ brand.” The group will make 1 969 watches – matching the year of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s fi rst journey to the Moon – for its “Moon Dust-DNA” collection.The dials, which feature tiny craters, will contain material from the Moon rock taken from the first visit to the Earth’s satellite. Steel from the Apollo 11 space shuttle will be used for the case and the strap will be made up of fibres from a spacesuit worn during the ISS mission, Arpa says. Romain Jerome says it has four types of customers: the investor, the collector, the fashionista, and fans of history and art. But the collection has one major omission – watches for women. “I don’t know how to make watches for ladies,” admits Arpa. “I love ladies. But I don’t understand them".
If maritime history is your thing and rare timepieces your passion, you can’t go wrong with Romain Jerome’s limitededition Titanic Day&Night II watch. It follows the successful launch of the manufacturer’s Day&Night concept – a watch that doesn’t tell the time (yes, we also think it’s a bit weird). It features a steel and titanium case, black ceramic claws, a double Tourbillon and – here’s the important bit – a black carbon dial created with coal recovered from the wreck of the Titanic. Even the bezel recalls the tragedy of the “unsinkable” passenger liner: it’s fashioned from stabilised oxidised steel from the wreck. Oh, and it’s water-resistant to 5 atmospheres (against that, the Titanic lies some 3 840 m beneath the surface).
Fancy one? You’ll have to move quickly; it’s available only in a limited edition of nine pieces. So you’re looking for something even more eye-catching, complete with the shipwreck memories thing? Then check out the Titanic-DNA by Cabestan, a limited-edition collaborative eff ort by Romain Jerome and Cabestan with a display featuring engraved rotating drums. This distinctly avant-garde creation is the work of designer Yvan Arpa – who, in addition to covering his timepieces with rust, gives them the invaluable distinction of containing the “DNA” of a legend – and Jean François Ruchonnet, the man behind the vertical Cabestan Tourbillon. The unique movement is characterised by a third wheel based on the design of the large wheels in the main transmission shaft of the Titanic’s engine. And there’s more: the clear cover reveals a movement fl anked by bronze plates and copper tubes sunk into the base plate – nautical decorations reminiscent of the machinery and piping used in the construction of liners from the period.
Keeping it real
It’s not all good, though. Despite the industry’s best efforts, knock-off s of their most famous brands are still displayed on roadside stalls in Bangkok, New York and many other cities. In a bid to fight back, the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) and the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry have forged a new anti-counterfeiting campaign to reach out to the public on an international scale. Their rallying cry, “Fake Watches Are For Fake People”, puts out a potent message concerning the damage created by this illegal industry, making the point that complicit buyers (is anyone blushing?) are the number one reason why such illicit businesses continue to thrive. According to the FHH, counterfeit watches are part of an illegal multi-billion dollar industry that accounts for between fi ve and seven per cent of all international trade. The estimated 40 million counterfeit Swiss watches made each year actually outnumber genuine Swiss watch exports by a considerable margin. Negative effects of this fake luxury watch deluge are considerable, including damage to the reputation of fi ne brands and the resultant siphoning of funds for the purpose of protecting intellectual property rights. The FHH also points out that governments lose out in tax revenues while fighting counterfeits, while huge sums of money flow into the coffers of organised crime.
‘A touch of the crazy’
Watchmakers Hublot have produced what they call “the quintessence of invisible visibility” in a uniform range of black tones, using only black diamonds. It’s a world first, claims the company, as well as a technological and artistic achievement – with just a touch of the crazy. They call it the One Million $ Black Caviar Bang. The setting is very complex, partly because of the watch’s unusual lines – round, with sharp angles. The one-piece case is made from 18 K white gold and the 322 black diamond baguettes, cut in “mysterious ways,” seem held together as if by magic.Creating this unique timepiece, which houses a flying Tourbillon, demanded over 2 000 hours of meticulous work.
So where’s the emergency?
Thanks to its built-in miniaturised transmitter operating on the 121,5 MHz aviation distress frequency, the Emergency by Breitling is universally appreciated by aviation professionals. The Emergency Mission is a new variation of this instrument for pilots. Featuring a design more similar to that of a traditional chronograph, it’s intended to be a more “civilian” version than the original model: polished steel is used rather than titanium, and an analogue display replaces the digital indications. Nonetheless, beneath this apparently “tamer” appearance, the Mission chronograph remains an impressively efficient instrument and the performances of its transmitter are equivalent to those of the distress beacons that are mandatory aircraft equipment. Your money buys a bidirectional rotating bezel, sapphire crystal and electronic quartz movement. Mechanical rules Watchmaker DeWitt has enhanced its legendary constant force tourbillon with a system that relays energy to its associated power reserve indicator. Rotating the crown when winding the barrel-spring drives a miniature chain, which in turn uses an intermediate wheel to activate the power reserve indicator sliding on a worm screw. ree years after developing an ingenious patented regulating system – three extra wheels transmitting impulses of identical force to the tourbillon, whatever the barrel’s degree of tension – DeWitt has now taken innovation to even greater heights. The case is constructed from platinum. Naturally.
Significant dates in the history of watches
1838 Louis Audemars invents stem winding and setting mechanism
1868 Patek Philippe makes the first wrist watch
1871 Aaros Dennison of International Watch Company (IWC) invents waterproof case
1888 Cartier produces ladies’ wrist watch with diamond and gold bracelet
1902 The first Omega wrist watch is produced
1904 One of the most famous early wrist watches appears – the Santos-Dumont produced by the house of Cartier
1914 First alarm wrist watch is made by Eterna
1923 Invention of the automatic wrist watch by John Hardwood
1925 Patek Philippe produces the first wrist watch with a perpetual calendar
1927 First water-resistant Rolex Oyster produced
1933 First watch made for children by Ingersoll (featuring Disney’s Mickey Mouse)
1936 Omega and Breitling supply military with watches during the war years
1945 Rolex Date is the first watch with a date display on the watch face
1953 Lips produce the first battery-powered watch
1969 Longines produces the first quartz cybernetic wrist watch
1969 Neil Armstrong wears the Omega Speedmaster Professional on the Moon
1972 Audemars Piguet makes the first stainless steel luxury wrist watch
1978 Vacheron Constantin Kallista is sold for $5 million
1983 Swatch is launched
1983 Longines launches the Conquest range, accurate to one minute in five years
1985 TAGHeuer brand appears on the market (Heuer actually dates back to 1860)