Watches & Wonders opened its doors for the third time in Hong Kong and welcomed a surge in visitors, all eager to discover—and buy—the latest timepieces and jewellery from the 12 exhibiting brands. Sean Li takes a closer look. Additional reporting by Char
A certain malaise has been evident in the Asian watch market in recent months. Most brands report mixed numbers, with the declines varying between countries. Long gone is the heyday of double-digit growth when it seemed watchmakers could do no wrong, and the more complicated and expensive the watch, the better. The current state of the market was some months in the making, however, and brands have anticipated the new landscape by focusing on pricesensitive segments, with collections no longer chasing the crown of the highest complications, but the ones that appeal to the impulse buyer.
This market realignment was the backdrop as 12 of the world’s top luxury watch brands were preparing for the third iteration of Watches & Wonders, which took place, once again, in Hong Kong from September 30 to October 3. The first two shows were affected by external factors: in 2013, a typhoon caused frayed nerves at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and delayed flights; in 2014, the early days of Occupy Central caused transport headaches around the venue and led to the cancellation of some related events, though attendance matched the previous year.
On opening day this year, the 12 exhibiting brands—a. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Jaeger-lecoultre, Montblanc, Officine Panerai, Piaget, Richard Mille, Roger Dubuis, Vacheron Constantin and Van Cleef & Arpels—were more than ready to greet the visitors, trade and press. It was clear that any trepidation about attendance was unfounded; it was as if people wanted to make up for lost time from the previous years. The energy levels were palpable in the convention centre and online, with a continuous feed on social media that established Watches & Wonders as the place to be in the watch world for those four days.
Most visitors were already aware of what had been introduced in previous months, starting with the Salon International de
la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva in January, so a new exhibition meant there was a significant expectation for new timepieces to be unveiled. A number of brands not only took the wraps off their latest offerings, but the pieces were also available immediately in boutiques. The strategy proved highly successful, social media buzzing with clients eager to show they were among the first in the world to acquire the new watches.
Watches & Wonders incorporated more knowledge-building content than ever, with a cultural exhibition organised in conjunction with the Geneva University of Art and Design, which displayed modern interpretations of the ever-so-swiss cuckoo clock created by a number of its students. Watchmaking and
métiers d’art workshops were again offered by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) and a few of the brands, and proved very popular. New additions were guest speakers, including yours truly, with lectures delivered every few hours on topics ranging from the history of watchmaking to technical explanations of various complications.
There was also a rare opportunity to see, shortly after its official unveiling just two weeks earlier, the Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260—the most complex mechanical watch ever made, with 57 complications and more than 2,800 components. Before he takes delivery of the watch later this year, the private collector who commissioned the piece has allowed the brand to show off the results of eight years of fulltime work by three of its best watchmakers.
When the doors closed on Watches & Wonders, the FHH announced that some 20,000 visitors had attended the fair, a welcome increase of 25 per cent on the previous year. It has certainly given the brands’ managements and watchmakers much to think about, even as they all now turn their attention to SIHH 2016. It would certainly seem that the exhibition was a better reflection of the worldwide state of the watch market—that is, a continued level of interest and a healthy demand—than what many observations would lead you to believe.
The fact is that with the right product mix and watches that are more affordable (they’re still expensive, but not out of reach), clients continue to be very interested and willing to buy. The next few months will determine whether Watches & Wonders will return in 2016; it’s not a trivial exercise to prepare for it, and the brands have to face the reality that the days of annual double-digit growth are unlikely to return any time soon. But the energy and enthusiasm at this year’s Watches & Wonders, not only from Asia but globally, shows that there’s plenty of life in the market and that the interest in fine watchmaking is certainly as strong as ever.
On the following pages are highlights from this year’s Watches & Wonders.
BUSINESS AS USUAL Watchmaking demonstrations, meetings and creative visual displays at Watches & Wonders 2015