For the watch industry – as well as for many others – 2020 began as an apocalyptic disaster film.
“Vegas closed first, then New York, then Florida, then London, then Switzerland. Then the whole world closed last March, ”said Brian Duffy, CEO of the Swiss Watches Group (WOSG), a retail group with about 150 stores in the US and UK and a large online presence. “We don’t have any incoming products and we don’t have stores open.”
Furthermore, the Watches and Miracles exhibition in Geneva, scheduled for the end of April 2020 and usually held in person, was moved online. Then, a larger exhibition, Baselworld, was postponed and eventually canceled. To make matters worse, it soon became possible that Baselworld, which was first staged in 1917, would never happen again.
So, while this year’s Watches and Miracles – now Switzerland’s largest and most influential exhibition in the void left by the Baselworld cancellation – rolls still online, time hangs in the balance. Watch collectors around the world mourn the opportunity to see, hold and wear the new development “in the metal”. Branding self-reinforcing: Will there be a retreat to the solid classics or will innovation take a (virtual) stage?
Last week’s opening on April 7 launched fireworks in a horological universe. The number of brands grew exponentially to 38. Jaeger-LeCoultre launched the Reverso Hybris Mechanica Caliber 185, a $ 1.6 million timepiece featuring four dials and 11 complications, including a moon phase requiring adjustment only once in 1,111 years. Architect Tadao Ando’s latest collaboration with Bulgari is unveiled, showing a minimalist masterpiece in black ceramic – the same material Omega uses for its newest dive watch, the Seamaster Diver 300M Black Black, released just before the exhibition. After about six years of work, Patek Philippe introduced an engineering feat: allowing the perpetual calendar to appear for the first time on one of his watches in a straight line in one slit. Bright colors are everywhere, including the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust 36 laser-engraved green circle resembling a palm leaf and Chanel’s shockingly pink Code Coco Electro.
And to coincide with the fair, Audemars Piguet staged a Hollywood premiere in Los Angeles for the Royal Oak Concept “Black Panther” Flying Tourbillon – the first in a collection inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero.
What makes a company confident to undertake such costly research and development, coupled with bold and cheeky designs? For one thing, for those who love it, watches remain an important investment in 2020.
“We believe, rightly, that people generally do not give up on buying the beautiful Cartier or Patek Philippe,” said Duffy of WOSG.
Continued investment by brands in new movements, complications and materials is motivated in part by a simple fact: The new watches sell and attract more media attention than existing, reissued models. There are legions of collectors about to buy new editions of their favorite watch models, and brands don’t want to appear silent.
Ultra-luxe brands, previously shunning e-commerce priorities, were pulled out of their analog hiding place and focused more on digital sales. This is partly the case, said Duffy, at the request of WOSG, which has itself shifted to a digital strategy with an enhanced online presence. Duffy conducts Instagram Live interviews with the brand’s CEO, staff set up virtual appointments with clients, and Instagram’s augmented-reality filter lets people see the watch face on their wrist. As a result, WOSG’s online business has increased significantly.
The shift is inevitable, Duffy said, but Covid-19 is accelerating it by three to five years.
“Technology has offset the lack of tourism,” said Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, who has relied on the brand’s digital presence to virtually open doors and sell them to customers privately over the past year. He also froze hiring and spending, cut budgets to build reserves and shifted perfume production to making hand sanitizers. “Luckily, three countries can get through the crisis quickly. China, South Korea and Japan bounced back in September, “he said.
China is also home to the Live Watches and Miracles exhibition, which opens just as the digital exhibition closes and runs until April 18. “Two years ago, the discussion was, ‘OK, do we need a physical exhibition?’ Now there are no questions, ”said Emmanuel Perrin, head of the newly appointed Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the non-profit organization that hosts exhibitions. (He also oversees the distribution of specialist watchmakers at Richemont.)
Technology is playing a major role thanks to the invention of California-based PORTL, a device that transmits holographic footage of people and objects in real time across great distances, a process known as holoportation.
Exhibition visitors were treated to the use of PORTL technology in the watch world when, on the opening day, IWC Schaffhausen CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr presented the brand’s new collection in Shanghai while he and the watch remained in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. “If you can’t make it to the boutique,” said PORTL CEO and founder David Nussbaum, “we’ll send the boutique to you.”
Some of the most eye-catching designs from this year’s Watches and Miracles fair.
Rolex’s signature Explorer was redesigned with a shrinking 36mm shell and a two-tone Rolesor in steel and yellow gold.
The new movement is hidden behind traditional design elements in Patek Philippe’s new Calatrava.
The Panerai chronograph in Super-LumiNova gray with a white sandwich dial turns out to be fresh.
Cartier’s new Louis tank is a sophisticated art deco style with a classic design.
A. Lange & Söhne reintroduces the three year old Triple Split in a pink gold and blue color combination.
Bulgari’s new Octo Finissimo is the thinnest perpetual calendar on the market at just 2.75mm thick.
Chopard celebrates 25 years of watchmaking with the complications of its first in-house hopping clock.
Cut from Tiger Eye stone, the all-new H. Moser Endeavor Tourbillon dial is a one and only.
Hermès introduces a new class of pillow-shaped sporty watches in a variety of materials including satin brushed titanium.
Hublot’s Big Bang model turns into a light-capturing object made of clear sapphire crystals.
Jaeger Le-Coultre’s new reverso is polite but fraught with 11 complications.
The new Traditionnelle Split-Seconds Chronograph Ultra-Thin Vacheron Constantin will be released in just 15 pieces.
The Zenith El Primero 9004 chronograph movement is encased in a rugged design of micro-blast titanium.
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