Anyone who believes that ‘less is more’ might have enjoyed last month’s Baselworld watch show — because it was the smallest for decades. From a high of around 1,500 exhibitors in 2016, the 101-year-old annual expo fielded just 650 stands this year. Many areas of the industry are still struggling to recover from the downward sales spiral triggered in 2014 by factors including China’s bribery crackdown, terrorist attacks in Europe, worldwide currency fluctuations and the rise of the smartwatch.
But things are on the up once more, with Swiss watch makers posting a 2.7 per cent rise in exports last year and the big groups that own many of the major brands emerging from the downturn as strong as, if not stronger, than ever. One of the biggest of the big is Swatch Group, owner of more than 15 dial names. Its most famous is Omega — James Bond’s choice — and this year it unveiled no fewer than 111 new references, including ‘anniversary’ versions of the Seamaster Diver 300m (1). First launched 25 years ago, this was the original model worn by Pierce Brosnan when Omega began their partnership with the 007 franchise in the 1995 film Goldeneye. Fans of the watch are happy to see a return to the distinctive wave-pattern dial which is housed in a new 42mm case with a transparent back (the first on a Seamaster). This reveals a Master Chronometer movement that’s ultra-antimagnetic and certificated for accuracy. A tough ceramic bezel and a helium release valve add to the Bond-worthy credentials of the watch, which starts at £3,600.
Notable Baselworld reveals from other Swatch Group brands included a new version of the retro-cool Legend Diver model from Longines (2). Based on an archive model from 1960, this watch combines a classic dial design with a sleek, black PVD finish, a rubber mesh strap and a new automatic movement — at a price of around £2,000.
Breguet, the group’s flagship high-end manufacturer, unveiled a typically exceptional array of new models aimed at the connoisseur, including the beautifully understated Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatic (3), a watch that measures just 7.45mm thick and has a dial finished in fired white enamel. Just 100 examples will be made each year, priced at £110,000 in rose gold and £121,000 in platinum. Less well-heeled Breguet fans can, however, buy in to the name through the entry-level Classique two-hand, self-winding watch in white, red or yellow gold that starts at ‘only’ £14,100.
Rado, meanwhile, appeals to a different type of watch lover with its use of high-tech materials. This year there is a new version of its Hyperchrome chronograph (4) featuring a bronze ceramic insert. It goes on sale in June at £4,190. The brand also unveiled a couple of retro designs — the £1,630 Tradition 1965, which is a re-edition of one of the first square-cased, water-resistant watches and the £1,830 Captain Cook MKII which replicates a 1962 model complete with ‘box glass’ crystal, rotating inner bezel and a modest 37mm case.
Chanel provided some surprises with demonstrations of mechanical mastery that ranged from a £595,000, one-off, diamond-set pocket watch to a new version of its popular Boy Friend model that addresses a growing interest among women buyers in what goes on inside a watch as well as in the way it looks. As a result, the Boy Friend Squelette (5) contains a skeletonised, hand-wound movement that took three years to develop, a case made from ‘beige gold’ and a starting price of £31,500.
Japanese maker Seiko, which opened a London boutique last summer, also celebrated its horological prowess with the launch of a range of new models in its premium Grand Seiko line that was once available only in the brand’s home market. Especially notable are three limited-edition pieces that mark the 20th anniversary of Seiko’s famously accurate Calibre 9S movement. Offered across all price ranges, the commemorative watches start at £6,300 for steel-cased versions (6), limited to 1,500, rising to £27,000 for 150 gold models and topping-out at £53,000 for each of just 20 platinum examples that will also feature a special ‘VFA’ (Very Fine Adjusted) version of the movement that is precise to plus three seconds/minus one second per day.
The ‘big beasts’ of Baselworld, however, have always been Patek Philippe and Rolex — and they seldom disappoint with their new creations. Rolex pleased fans of its celebrated GMT Master dual time zone watch by reintroducing a steel version with the so-called ‘Pepsi’ red and blue bezel at £6,800 — and surprised everyone by also introducing a bi-colour, Everose gold and steel model (7) with a delectable chocolate brown and black bezel. It costs £10,350 or, for £26,950, you can have an all-gold case and bracelet.
The renowned firm also pulled the wraps off new versions of its Deepsea extreme dive watch containing the latest Calibre 3235 movement (from £9,300) while Patek Philippe produced what, for many, was the ‘watch of the show’ in the form of its new, £28,000 Aquanaut chronograph featuring a blue dial with perfectly nuanced orange highlights and a choice of two straps — one in matching blue rubber. Other highlights from Patek included 50th anniversary versions of its delectable Ellipse dress watch (the c. £20,000 rose gold interpretation with black ‘sunburst’ dial is superb) and the beautiful, vintage look Reference 5270P hand-wound, perpetual calendar chronograph (10) with platinum case and ‘salmon’ dial. There is already a waiting list, despite its £120,000-plus price tag.
January’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva serves the high-end watch brands of the Richemont Group, with this year’s stand-out offerings coming from Cartier and IWC. The former, which instigated the SIHH in 1991 as a more prestigious competitor to Baselworld, chose this year’s show to unveil new versions of what is often considered to be the world’s first commercially available wristwatch for men — the Santos, launched in 1904. The new Santos models go on sale this month in large and medium versions with a choice of steel (8), gold, or steel and gold cases. Multiple quick-change strap variations are also offered, along with Cartier’s ‘Smartlink’ easily adjustable bracelet.
IWC, meanwhile, marked 150 years since its founding with its extensive Jubilee collection encompassing five key models from the brand’s history. The most talked about was the ‘Tribute to Pallweber’ edition (9) paying homage to an IWC pocket watch of the 1880s that, instead of conventional hands, used a ‘jumping’ digital display to show the time.