In an age of digital innovation swiss watch makers are finding new ways to make a statement and grab the consumers attention, as we report.
“In this often gloomy world I think it’s important to put a smile on the customer’s face,” says Jean-Marc Pontrou, the CEO of Roger Dubuis. “We’re here to provide emotions. We’re in the love business, the gift business - even if that gift is to yourself.”
Many in the Swiss watch industry will acknowledge the functional outdatedness of the mechanical watch in the light of smart-phones. Few will stress just how much success in that industry is about getting people excited. “The fact is that you need to make a statement,” Pontrou adds. “People may like it. They might not like it. But they remember it.”
That may be all the more important seeing as, Pontrou predicts, there is something of a cull among watch brands on the way: Switzerland has some 700 of them, relative to just 12 major car manufacturing groups, he notes. “We can’t forget that the last 10 years have been exceptional ones for the business,” he adds.
Perhaps this is why Roger Dubuis, like many of the companies unveiling wares at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva - the high-end watch world’s catwalk shows - has taken such distinctive position: in its case by focusing on watches for women. And not the usual scaled-down men’s watches: dials with flowers and leaves in laser-cut enamel, models inspired by the Chanel-owned shoemaker Massaro, even ones with the first diamonds set in carbon - and super-rare Paraiba diamonds at that - all feature in the collection.
Certainly, while SIHH offered up some trends, as far as watches at this end of the market follow trends - yellow gold and skeleton dials most notably - many watchmakers have gone out of their way to be stylistically or mechanically inventive. Richard Mille’s RM 50-02, for example, sees the company team up with Airbus to make, fittingly, its most streamlined model to date, with the case made from the same alloy used to make Airbus’s turbine blades and screws holding the watch together the same as those used to hold the airframe together.
Audemars Piguet, meanwhile, has now launched a production version of its patented Royal Oak Super Sonniere minute repeater, just a year after it unveiled the concept: it uses the science of instrument making, including a sound board, to produce a watch with a chime 10 times louder than anything on the market to date and cleverly circumventing the typical problems suffered by minute repeaters, notably a tinny sound deadened by being on someone’s wrist.
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“We have historic legitimacy in the making of minute repeaters - lots of companies have introduced one over the last five years - but still we knew we had to make a strong statement in this area to really re-think how a modern minute repeater might work,” explains Olivier Audemars, head of the company’s R&D. “We spent a lot of time talking with physicists and musicians about harmonics...”
The show even revealed what could prove a genuine game-changer for anyone really fixated on the notion of cogs and wheels being in some way a superior form of timekeeping to circuits and batteries. Parmigiani Fleurier, at 20 years old this year still a young brand, has made a major splash with an innovation called Senfine - that’s ‘eternally’ in Esperanto.
It is still in concept, though the company says it will have a production model on the market by 2018. The big idea? It replaces the usual classic watch regulator - the several parts of which burn through energy as a consequence of friction - with a virtually frictionless silicon oscillator that combines balance, balance spring and pallet fork.
If that all still sounds like technical gobbledegook, the upshot is a mechanical watch with a power reserve measured not in the usual few days, but in months. Or at least one-and-a-half of them. Perhaps the most curious - and telling - aspect of the innovation is that it’s the brainchild of Pierre Genequand, a scientist who never trained as a watchmaker. In that is a lesson perhaps for the closeted and insular Swiss watchmaking industry to think outside the case more often.
Indeed, SIHH - usually a showcase for the long established and internationally known brands - seems to be embracing this notion itself: for 2016’s show the organisation opened a new area for the expanding generation of young, progressive niche players the likes of Urwerk, MB&F and H.Moser. These are the companies making waves by placing innovation over refinement, and successfully charging big bucks for the results.
Hautlence, for example, has produced a watch with stained glass panels, designed in conjunction with, of all people, Eric Cantona; Urwerk has its T-rex, the dial of which is almost entirely covered by a bronze carapace, cut into tiny jags to mimic, what else, but dinosaur skin. It is not your usual Swiss conservatism, and yet it is not without craft: the metal cover - which will develop a patina, thus itself becoming a more poetic expression of passing time - was painstakingly hand-cut using sandblasting and acid washes.
Of course, SIHH also offered the less adventurous, if no less technically sophisticated or well-crafted. Cartier’s new men’s model, the Drive, for example, is pure classicism - with its cushion case, guilloche dial, blue hands and Roman numerals. IWC’s stand-out piece is the Timezoner Chronograph, the kind of high function, higher machismo watch that the company specialises in: it’s the only pilot’s watch that enables the user to set another time zone, together with the date and the 24-hour hand, in a single movement.
“Something like the Timezoner is simple to use but very hard to pull off, mechanically-speaking. But it’s always hard to find something technically new to do with a pilot’s watch and I’m rather worried about the next collection,” as IWC’s technical director Stefan Ihnen jokes, “because I’m not sure what else we can do. So far I have no ideas...”
Perhaps the answer, even for a brand regarded as a master of minimalism, is to nod to the aesthetically extreme. That may make the guardians of brand values shudder to think on, but the fight for consumer attention seems to be what the watch market is increasingly about these days.