LIMITED TIME ONLY
Held annually in Geneva, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie is where the industry’s elite brands showcase their rarest timepieces – those reserved for the serious collector only. Josh Sims goes behind the scenes at this year’s event
Wilhelm Schmidt apologises. “It’s not easy for us either,” says the CEO of Lange & Söhne. “It’s not about arrogance. In fact, we apologise for the situation. It’s just that we make very limited pieces, so we have a vital interest in giving them to the right people; someone who’s not going to put them to auction for a quick buck. “In fact, if you make it on to the shortlist, we probably already know you as a customer personally.” Unless you already own a few Lange & Söhnes, you probably won’t be invited to buy one. But then, few could consider it anyway: the starting price for a Lange & Söhne is about €15,000 (Dh75,000). Its latest “grand complication” – one of six – will take six years each to make, and will cost €1.92m (Dh9.5m). That, by the way, is for a watch, not a work of art – though some would argue that that is precisely what it is, and that it tells the time less accurately than a Quartz watch bought on the high street. Welcome to the world of haute horlogerie ie couture for the wrist, in which a small coterie of elite companies typically make extreme limited editions of timepieces. And, recession or no, it is seeing boom times. This year’s SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Hologerie), held last month in Geneva, was packed with elite retailers and deep-pocketed collectors.
“Men have always loved mechanical things – cars, aircra , bikes and watches – so it’s not surprising that there’s a growing fascination for top-end watches, especially in an increasingly digital world,” argues Richard Mille, the founder of his own eponymous boutique watch company. “And perhaps more people are now realising that certain watches make for reasonable investments. It’s never a bad thing to buy the kind of watch that can easily be re-sold.”
Christian Selmoni, the creative director of Vacheron Constantin, founded in 1755 and considered by many to be one of the revered grandaddies of watchmaking, cites another change that the watch world has undergone in recent years. “Fi een years ago, watches were not considered part of the luxury business; it was some Swiss guys doing mechanical things,” he says. “But now, they are as much part of luxury as leather goods, jewellery or shoes. And that has put the spotlight on the specialist companies.”
What haute horlogerie is not about is fashion trends, unlike the more mass-market mechanical watch world, with its current shi from the outsized and chunky to the small and slim (ostensibly driven by demand from Chinese buyers, some argue), from cold steel to warm precious metals, from flashiness to a more timeless style. Indeed, if it has a trend it is focused on making more adventurous models that appeal to a knowledgable, typically male shopper. He will be buying less on brand and more on the values best espoused by these niche, ultimate gadgets – watch-cra , technical advancement, hand-making and artistic realisation – and which stand-out from the elegant classicism that inevitably dominates this end of the business.
And perhaps too much so. “There is still an obsession
with movements in the haute horlogerie world, and a kind of Mafia “omerta” about the fact that 80 per cent of people working on these watches are mechanics. “Yet you only hear talk of ‘watchmakers’,” argues theoutspoken Jean-Marc Jacot, CEO of Parmigiani, whose watches top out at around €500,000 (Dh2.5m). “The fact is we live in a visual, design-conscious world, and you can no more sell a car just talking about the engine, no matter how great it may be.” The industry is perhaps only now waking up to the demands of a younger, more progressive watch buyer. Certainly much of the hoopla over 2013’s “novelties” – as haute horlogerie calls its new models, presumably without the suggestion of triviality the word carries – is still based on the idea that true beauty lies on the inside. Among the whizz-bang terminology thrown around excitedly by the haute horlogerists include workings for a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, minute repeater or moon phase. Among the latest expressions of cleverness are the insides of Chaumet’s new Dandy, whose sec- onds display comes in the form of a tiny metronome, or Zenith’s recent Christopher Columbus, with a floating tourbillon that allows the watch’s timekeeping to avoid any undue influence from the force of gravity. But perhaps that emphasis on mechanism over aesthetics is on the wane. More and more watch names at this highest level are targeting a reported growing interest in mechanical watches among women, who have traditionally cared less about the engine as the prettiness of the bodywork, but who still now won’t get too excited about pinions, balance wheels and escapements without striking looks. For example, Cartier, which can lay claim to having invented the wristwatch in 1904, has re-examined the 5,000-yearold technique of Etruscan granulation – working with tiny beads of gold to build up a pattern – and applied it to just 120 watch dials.
Then there are the few, usually niche modernists: Richard Mille, with his Nadal watch, for example; Max Busser of MB&F with his steampunkish “horological machines”; Tag Heuer, with its Carrera Carbon, at just 19g made from the company’s own Carbon Matrix Composite. This is because, as its CEO Jean-Christophe Babin puts it: “Top-end watchmaking may typically be based on tradition, but I don’t see the point of just doing another tourbillon unless it’s a totally new way of doing it. Modern watchmaking should be about using computer simulations to develop several concepts in parallel, like the car industry. And, similarly, most of those concepts won’t make it to market, but occasionally one important idea will.”
‘It’s about getting it back to thinking in terms of tenths of a second, as it was in the watch industry before Quartz came along and all effort to advance precision ceased’
Indeed, increasingly the watch world is posing a question with as yet no definitive answer: just what is a watch of this sophistication for? Status? A good return? To fill a safe? Patronage of art-forms threatened with extinction? Or simply to tell the time? Certainly old habits die hard. The cheap shot of dismissing these special, and especially pricey creations for their comparable lack of accuracy against a plastic digital costing pennies may soon prove inaccurate.
Stephen Forsey, the co-founder of Greubel Forsey, is a man passionate about the idea of timekeeping merely by little cogs, springs and wheels, the basic principles of which date to the 16th century. He says that the haute horlogerie world’s holy grail is about precision.
“It’s about getting it back to thinking in terms of tenths of a second, as it was in the watch industry before Quartz came along and all effort to advance precision in mechanical watches effectively ceased,” he says.
He might well say that. A er a decades-long hiatus, 2011 saw the relaunch of the Chronometre competition – a gruelling gamut of timing trials to discover the most accurate mechanical watch –and one of his own was the top scorer. It was proven accurate to an astonishing 0.3 to 0.8 seconds a day. “It’s easy to ask what’s the point of pushing towards ever greater accuracy with a mechanical watch,” says Forsey. “But we do it until we can prove if absolute mechanical precision is possible. The book is open. And with the right materials, resources and time, I think it is possible.”
EXPERT HANDS Most of those working on the watches are mechanics.
BIG MONEY The starting price for a Lange and Söhne watch is Dh75,000. Its new “grand complication” will take six years to make.
WATCH WISE Clockwise, from right, a Rotonde de Cartier, Georges Kern, the CEO of IWC with Kevin Spacey, and an illuminated ad.