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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

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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.”

BIG MONEY The start­ing price for a

Lange and Söhne watch is Dh75,000.

Its new “grand com­pli­ca­tion” will take six years to make.

EX­PERT HANDS Most of those work­ing on the watches are me­chan­ics.

WATCH WISE Clockwise, from right, a

Ro­tonde de Cartier, Ge­orges Kern, the CEO of IWC with Kevin Spacey, and an il­lu­mi­nated ad.

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