When it comes to watches, I generally prefer not to talk about trends. This is because, while marketing rhetoric might try to lead you astray, trends are fleeting and buying a watch is a very personal experience. Timepieces should resonate with your personality and your lifestyle. You shouldn’t choose a watch with a “sage green” dial because the forecasters tell you it’s one of the strong trends of the season, you should choose it because you appreciate the values of the watchmaker and the design of the timepiece in front of you.
Watches, particularly of the mechanical kind, are made to last many lifetimes. While they reflect the demands, styles, spirit, and innovations of a particular age, they are (mostly) not about fads.
I do, however, acknowledge a fascination with an industry that appears to share the same crystal ball, so here we reflect on some of the common threads to make sense of what’s going on, specifically at the recent Watches & Wonders Geneva (W&W) fair. Maybe it will also provide some insights on the world at large in this time of great flux?
On Tuesday, after a hugely successful week, W&W closed the virtual doors of the fair, which was the largest watch event ever held online (they head to Singapore this week for a smaller but physical fair). In its second year — held over seven days, with about 15 daily presentations running like clockwork from 7.30am to 4.30pm — 38 luxury brands, their CEOs, designers and engineers enthusiastically presented their new watches for the year. Pertinent issues around sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR), distribution, client experience, blockchain technology, and innovation were raised with industry experts in the daily panel discussions.
Top of the agenda were “sustainability” and “digital” — both hot topics that go beyond trends. There was a commendable commitment to ethical material-sourcing, circular economies, and the business of running sustainable watch companies with IWC Schaffhausen’s young CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr leading by example. This, and the huge benefits of digital for enhanced user experiences and transparency, are now very much part of the watch industry’s “new normal”.
1. TIME FOR SUSTAINABILITY
We saw the upcycling of entire watch components, such as in the Panerai Submersible eLAB-ID with 98.6% of its weight made from recycled elements. Straps made from leather alternatives such as apple waste on the new Cartier Tank Must with its photovoltaic movement. The Panerai Ecologico initiative also drives innovation in this area and the manufacturer has decided to share these innovations and all of its supplier’s details with the entire industry through open source.
Richemont Group had already led the way in luxury e-commerce with its Net-à-Porter and Mr Porter sites selling its brands, such as IWC, Cartier, and Jaeger-LeCoultre, but any stragglers had to quickly embrace new avenues for sales and connecting to clients with the world in lockdown last year.
Interest in vintage timepieces has bolstered the secondary market so much that many luxury watch brands have now joined the game with certified, pre-owned channels such as Watchfinder & Co (acquired by Richemont), the Zenith Icons programme and Vacheron Constantin, which also offers a certification process supported by blockchain technology. This has no doubt also prompted the release of numerous vintage-inspired collections and this year is no exception with the 1960s and 1970s being a particular focus.
2. GO GREEN
There is a splash of much-needed colour to calm and lift our mood. It also reflects the growing democratisation of the industry with more choice and personalisation available. But the various tints, tones, and shades of green have firmly established the hue as the dial colour du jour. This echoes what’s going on in fashion, while also being an emotional connection to nature and the environment.
3. 1970s REVIVAL AND COLOUR
The 1970s theme continues from last year with many “new” novelties inspired by past collections from this period, refreshed for a new audience and brought up to date with modern equipment inside. These include the Baume & Mercier Riviera and Piaget Limelight Gala. This is further highlighted by the rainbow of healing, and bright colours, which also offer brands an easy solution to create freshness through dials and straps without investing too heavily in totally new designs.
4. ICONS AND DOWN-SIZING
Gender identity appears to have affected many brands who have chosen to drop traditional classification in favour of gender-neutral sizing for all. This is in line with vintage trends and a celebration of brand icons as they reinforce their provenance for a new generation.
5. A NEW TOOL
“All-terrain” robust tool watches, and luxury sports watches remain a key focus, but are looking more elegant in design for everyday use and to accompany any attire or new adventure. They are also becoming more practical through technical updates such as extended power reserves, anti-magnetism, improved precision, and interchangeable straps to suit mood swings and various activities.
Examples of this are seen in the new Hermès H08, 18k-gold and silver editions of the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight, as well as the more refined TAG Heuer Aquaracer. However, the melding of tool and dress watches isn’t entirely new, and all we need to do is look back at some of those sturdy watches used by the early explorers for inspiration. While not strictly a tool watch, the welcomed re-issue of the vintage-sized 36mm Rolex Explorer from 1953 is a case in point and certainly does the job.
Much like the motor industry, the watch industry is about emotion and the synergy between design and complex machines. While there are many re-issues of historic icons to stir the emotions, innovation remains the cornerstone of the industry, even more so now to keep a new generation of collectors interested. Innovation isn’t about new dial covers and straps, it’s about surprising clients with fresh ways of timekeeping and real-world practicality, such as the user-centric Ressence eCrown system — a hybrid watch that uses a photovoltaic cell to keep a mechanical movement on time.
Materials also need to stand up to the rigours and attitudes of the 21st century with hi-tech ceramics, new alloys and bio-sourced materials even more in use. The IWC Pilots watch Shock Absorber XPL is ready for a future of interplanetary travel, able to withstand 3,000 g-force.
Terribly exclusive but a sight to behold, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 Quadriptyque is worthy of its nomenclature and warrants a celebratory beating of the Grande Maison’s chest. This is the first, four-dialed wristwatch and is the horological equivalent of a children’s fantasy pop-up book. Featuring 11 complications, its mechanical wonders are revealed in microscopic detail as you turn the four dials of the quadriptyque.
Such grand complications also remind us of the origins of watchmaking as we look for new navigation tools, to the stars or sages in search of answers.