Geneva’s January exhibition, which hosts all of Richemont’s watchmakers, gives us a new year opportunity to see what retailers will be selling in the second half of the year (or even sooner in the case of some brands that have responded to retailers’ demands). The good news is that almost everything looked like it was designed to fly through stores. The bad news is that, with the exception of Audemars Piguet, this was achieved by minimizing innovation and making only incremental moves towards anything fresh, unique and new. WatchPro editor Rob Corder walks you through the key pieces and what they teach us about the year ahead.
The atmosphere at SIHH in Geneva last month was a little subdued. This might have been down to the storm clouds swirling around the exhibition business since Swatch Group left Baselworld and Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille said they were following Van Cleef & Arpels out of the door of SIHH. Or it could be that uncertainty over prospects for the Chinese economy caused most major brands to take a safety-first approach to their 2019 collections.
Richard Mille produced one of the most entertaining collections at SIHH with its Grande and Petite Bonbons that are designed to look like classic sweeties from everybody’s childhoods (pictured top). Priced at between £113,500 and £137,000 these are no penny chews, but instead a family of 10 watches that might have been created by Willy Wonka’s Umpa-Lumpas. The watches were a rare departure from the conventional and orthodox approach that most watchmakers took at the show, and refreshingly fruity for it.
It was notable that the biggest story of SIHH was not about a watch collection that everybody loves, but one that lit up social media and widely-read horology websites with howls of derision.
Yes, the CODE 11.59 from Audemars Piguet suffered at the hands of online trolls, although those that were fortunate enough to see the watches in person were less concerned.
Trend-setters often look a little jarring at launch, but bed-in over time and gain acceptance. AP will have only 700 CODE 11.59s ready to go on sale in February, and will make only 2000 in 2019, according to CEO François-Henry Bennahmias.
All of them will go into AP-branded boutiques with none left over for multi-brand partners, so expect a rapid sell-out followed by them appearing on the secondary market at above retail prices. Such is the way with carefully choreographed scarcity these days.
What irked Audemars Piguet purists, I suspect, was the lack of manly heft for the Code 11.59, with its almost invisible bezel disappointing fans of the chunky octagonal Royal Oak.
The slim bezel gives the watch the appearance of an almost edge-to-edge sapphire glass on a watch that could easily be worn by a fashionable younger female customer.
As such, it is designed to hit more than one hot trend button: it should appeal to the all-important millennial customer who might be transitioning from an Apple Watch to something Swiss; it can be worn by both genders, which statistics show is the fastest-growing segment of the market; and it is more discrete than its forebears, which will appeal to a generation that wants their luxuries to be less flashy and ostentatious.
It is a little too un-memorable to be considered a future classic, but I expect it to be more popular than watch bloggers suggest.
My concern was more about the name, which feels rather fleeting, the price and the fact that it took AP staff half an hour to explain the case construction, the shaping of the sapphire glass, the way the lugs connect and even the way the Audemars Piguet brand name is created one atom at a time before being applied to the dial.
All of this may be needed to justify prices that start at CHF 25,000 (without sales tax) for the three-hand automatic, rise to CHF 39,500 for the chronograph and top out at CHF 295,000 for a Super Sonerie minute repeater.
Questioning the wisdom of Audemars Piguet is becoming as fruitless as doubting Rolex. The company just keeps winning. Sales in 2018 topped CHF 1 billion for the first time, reaching CHF 1.1 billion from a production run of 40,000 watches, according to Mr Bennahmias. CODE 11.59 will cannibalise production capacity of around 2,000 watches from Royal Oak in 2019.
This will increase the shortage of Royal Oaks and most likely create an additional shortage for CODE 11.59s. If only the company could have switched production from its ladies’ Millenary watches, which do not hold their value as well as the ever-popular Royal Oaks.
If only a Royal Oak will do, there is plenty to enjoy in 2019 including a range of muscular 44mm Offshore models in blue, brown and green camouflage patterned styles, a gem-set 37mm model that could be worn by men or women and a family of simple 41mm steel automatics that will fly through stores.
AP was not the only brand taking a more gender-neutral approach to its 2019 collections. Cartier, which understands the female psyche better than most, trimmed the size of its 2019 Santos watches so that they will appeal as much to ladies as to men. The reintroduction of Santos De Cartier in 2018 was about complex horology housed in a classic case that drew inspiration from the life and work of pioneering French aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who invented and flew over 22 aircraft at the turn of the 20th century and ordered his first wristwatch (in the days of pocket watches) from Louis Cartier in 1904.
2019 sees the Santos De Cartier’s rounded square shape used in sub-40mm watches housing quartz movements that will keep running for six years before needing a battery change. These Santos-Dumont watches are less expensive than the larger, mechanical, and more masculine 2018 watches, and will need a great deal less maintenance.
There are additional Santos De Cartier watches launching in 2019, including a family of chronographs with a rather neat way of using the main crown to reset the stopwatch. They come in bi-colour gold and steel, all rose gold or all steel on leather straps or steel bracelets.
Depending on your preference, you can now choose Santos watches ranging from 36mm up to 44mm; pick precious or base metal; leather or metal bracelets; mechanical or quartz movement; with or without chronograph; or even push the boat out with a skeletonised piece.
It is arguably too many references for a single family, but that has never done Cartier’s Tank or Panthere ranges any harm.
Sticking to a narrow or even single theme for 2019 watch launches appeared to be a commercial decision made by more than one maison. IWC was the prime example, with its entire presentation devoted to different versions of its pilot watches. Audemars Piguet, although it did introduce new Royal Oaks, wanted to speak about nothing other than its CODE 11.59.
The IWC pilots were split into a few sub-collections including a special edition created as part of a challenge to fly a silver Spitfire around the world. The IWC Spitfire will, for the first time, have a chronograph movement from the 69000 calibre family inside one of its pilot’s watches.
It is joined by a collection designed for the US Airforce’s Top Gun training academy (good timing with a sequel to the Hollywood Top Gun blockbuster due this year) that uses lightweight Ceratanium — an ultra-hard and light blend of ceramic and titanium for its case. And at the haute horlogerie end of the spectrum, IWC has introduced a constant force tourbillon into Big Pilot’s models known as Le Petit Prince.
Panerai was another maker that concentrated on a single family this year. The brand has promoted the name Submersible from a sub-category of other collections to a name that appears at 12 o’clock across a full range comprising the 42mm and 47mm Submersible BMG-TECH models, which use a patented carbon-based material to make the watches light and super strong; brushed steel 42mm automatics with blue or black ceramic bezels; and a flotilla of limited edition pieces that are sold in very small quantities to enthusiasts who are also invited to once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
One example is the Submersible Carbotech Marina Militare, which is made in a limited run of just 33 pieces. Every owner will be invited to two days of exhilarating training with the Italian Navy’s Special Forces unit, the COMSUBIN.
In an era where unforgettable (and Instagramable) experiences are valued more highly than expensive stuff, Panerai has set an interesting standard with this €33,900 watch and experience combination.
Modern watchmakers are focusing more and more on limited editions. There are several advantages to this, although not all of these advantages feed through to retailers that have spent decades building up brands and are now being shut out of selling the most desirable rare pieces. At least they can take comfort from knowing watch brands are trying not to force large volumes of less desirable watches on channel partners, because they are the watches that inevitably end up on the grey market and undermine the prices that authorized dealers must charge.
A. Lange & Sohne is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its first Lange 1 watch in 2019, and will mark the occasion with a series of limited edition versions throughout the year. The idea is to launch a new Lange 1 on the 24th of every month for ten months. That should create interest for new customers as well as an expensive addiction for collectors.
When it comes to design, women’s watches continue to get larger and men’s are getting smaller. “There will soon be no more his and hers,” a VIP watch executive said to WatchPro. And there are no signs that blue is losing its lustre.
The competition this year was mostly about coming up with the most memorable dials using blue as the hook. It would be quicker to list the brands that did not concentrate on blue than to list those that did. A personal favourite that lives long in the memory is Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Ultra Thin, which presents a moon phase, tourbillon, date, and perpetual calendar on a beautiful hand-guilloché blue enamel dial.
A final trend, and we have seen this one for several years, is the creation of comparatively inexpensive entry level watches for watch brands.
Baume & Mercier, arguably the watchmaker that delivers most bang for a buck than any other in the Richemont stable, produced COSC certified Clifton Club automatics using its new in house Calibre BM13 with prices starting at €2300 for a steel edition and €6700 for gold.
With the addition of a perpetual calendar module (not created in house) and an 18ct gold case, the price rises to €22,000. A similar spec’d watch from IWC will be almost double that price.