Talk to the elite end of the watch business, and the question of trends is increasingly met with a blank stare. “I have no idea what the trends are. I’m not sure there are any,” says Peter Harrison, the CEO of Richard Mille, one of the more progressive independent brands. “We just do what we like.” Or, as Michael Parmigiani, the watchmaker behind Parmigiani, puts it, “the industry just doesn’t focus on a few big styles anymore – now it’s a question of ever small trends being added to what’s already available, so each watch becomes more like an art work in its own right. It’s more individualistic, because these days everyone wants to be different.”
Indeed, if SIHH – the Salon International des Haute Horlogerie, held in Geneva each January – is anything to go by, the mass market may continue to thrive on consumers identifying with status brands and their iconic models, but at the very top – where prices in six figures are not rare – it is the piece itself that matters; a piece, indeed, which may have taken many years to create. As IWC’s creative director Christian Knoop stresses, ever-longer development times mitigate against trends in a watch industry making ever more sophisticated watches – “this is not the fashion industry”.
This is not to say that the new watches for 2015 don’t reveal certain loose patterns. There is a playfulness with shapes, for example, with watchmakers the likes of Vacheron Constantin (celebrating its 260th birthday this year), Chaumet and Cartier setting round dials in squared off cushion cases.
A push towards more unusual materials is also on the rise, with, according to Knoop, many more unexplored materials set to undergo investigation for their use in watchmaking over the next couple of years, especially those that improve durability and reliability. In the meantime, most are pursued for their visual and textural appeal. Audemars Piguet has used forged carbon in its new designs, Parmigiani meteorite and Piaget onyx, in a re-edition of Andy Warhol’s Black Tie watch.
Ralph Lauren – perhaps, thanks to its fashion foundation, the most willing to push forward on the use of unexpected materials solely for their aesthetic appeal – has introduced models featuring shot-blasted steel, for a distressed effect, and dials ringed with burl wood.
A decade ago TechnoMarine caused outrage for much of this conservative industry by teaming precious jewels with a plastic case – but now the idea returns thanks to Roger Dubuis, which has developed a method for setting diamonds in rubber.
Black and off-white may remain the dominant colours for dials, but blue continues its assent and grey is on the up – even if subtly: A. Lange & Sohne’s Datograph Perpetual brings the colour of storm clouds right across its face, but the company’s first minute repeater with a digital (as opposed analogue) display – in development since 2010 and yours for €440,000 – achieves a similar shade by using blackened German silver.
If you’ve spent that much on a mechanical movement of such exquisiteness you might well want to see it, and show it off, so skeletonised movements, stripped back and fully visible front and rear of the watch, are more widespread too.
Cartier introduces one for its classic Tank, and for its 60s Crash model, Ralph Lauren has created its first and Roger Dubuis has introduced new star-effect and creeping ivy skeleton architectures for its models.
But perhaps the most striking skeletons are from Parmigiani. Its Tonda 1950 Squelette – with clear glass – is also available as a model for women. A skeleton for women may be unusual enough as the industry is only recently coming round to the idea that women are interested in the mechanism that drives their watch, not just the superficial aesthetic, ideally covered in gemstones. But this one comes with a semi-opaque milky glass which, when lit from behind, shows the movement’s parts with all the evocative blurred edges of shadow play.
Indeed, if an overarching trend out of SIHH can be discerned, it might be more one in business culture than in the popularity of certain approaches to the look and feel of the new year’s clutch of timepieces – and that would be the waking up to the potentiality in the growing demand among women for serious craft beneath the pretty exterior of their watches.
“The fact is that women’s attitude to watches is changing,” says Piaget’s marketing and creation director Frank Touzeau. Piaget has introduced a refinement of a bracelet first devised in the 1960s, and comprising some 300 tiny, hand-assembled links. “Compare the industry today with 15 years ago and there’s a distinct change. Then it was men who wanted a strongly recognisable watch with real technical value, and now women want that too. Recognising that is a process that you can see starting now.”
Certainly, as Peter Harrison and Michael Parmigiani hint at, some of the most impressive watches launched for this year are simply going their own way in style and innovation, and, what is more, doing it for women. Cartier, for example, has created a new setting for diamonds that, in effect, mounts them on tiny springs with just the right amount of vibration to give the stones movement and so added shimmer. Tellingly, Richard Mille, meanwhile, offers its first flying tourbillon, and offers it to women: the tourbillon cage is set amid a series of petals which open and close every five minutes, allowing the tourbillon to rise through this mechanical blossoming.
It’s a marvellous little moment to behold. But for how long will such extreme craft be appreciated? Montblanc has produced arguably the single most culturally relevant watch of 2015, and the interest lies less in the timepiece as its strap.
Its Timewalker Urban Speed has what the company is calling an E-strap. This comprises a small touch screen through which the wearer can manage mobile phone calls and texts and monitor their activity. It is high-end watchmaking’s first riposte to Apple’s recently-launched watch, tapping as it does into the younger generation’s obsession with connectivity as well as its general disinterest in wearing watches that simply tell the time, in however artful a fashion. The E-strap is, perhaps, a sign of what’s to come.