Any thought that we might be losing interest in traditional watches – and the industry fairs that promote them – was dispelled last week in Geneva, where a record crowd turned out to view this year's first releases.
The four-day annual Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) attracted 23,000 visitors and reached some 260 million others online while racking up 380,000 posts on #sihh2019.
The watches on show were a fair reflection of the current state of the world – while some brands looked to colour for inspiration, many opted for caution and one, unintentionally, spurred unusual controversy.
While you might expect some diversity given 34 brands were taking part, there were three distinct trends; green or blue dials everywhere you looked, complications all round, and nary a bargain to be found. Yup, mechanical watches continue their trek into luxury-land with barely a newcomer weighing-in under $7000.
Indeed the most colourful release at the fair, Richard Mille's bonbon-inspired watch, will set you back more than 33 times that amount, prices for each of the 10 variants in RM confectionary-inspired collection beginning at around $235,000.
A world of fantasy
If that seems like fantasy-land (in terms of both ask and appearance) other brands were more cautious, IWC delighting attending retailers with a highly saleable squadron of pilot's watches that retain familiar lines but come clothed in fresh garb with in-house movement upgrades – classic stuff but conspicuously contemporary. Price? Around $7000 to $350,000.
While 'don't make waves' was a common mantra and brands were presenting noticeably trimmed-down model lines across the board, there was no shortage of the kind of complications that allow them to strut their watch-making credentials.
While some of these were extravagant to the point of being bizarre – the Roger Dubuis Excalibur One-Off comes to mind, its purpose-built flying tourbillon movement built to look like the V-shaped cylinder block on a Lamborghini engine, its price tag, CHF1,000,063 or about $1.4 million – Jaeger-LeCoultre impressed most with its Master Grande Tradition Gyrotourbillon Westminster Perpetuél.
This 43-mm white-gold cased ground-breaker exhibited exquisite finesse with a hand-guillochéd blue enamel (or silver grained) dial, a multi-axis tourbillon with a constant-force mechanism, a Westminster chime and a perpetual calendar. Yes, a horological hat-trick.
It was almost the most-talked about watch at the fair, and deserved to be. But that honour was reserved for Audemars Piguet, which chose the occasion to reveal the range it hopes will take it into the future and spread its appeal beyond its iconic Royal Oak models. If the initial feedback is any guide, the so-called Code 11.59 will do anything but, however . . . let's see.
The main problem seems to be the appearance of the 13 models in the line-up, the consensus being that while the mechanisms announced (time-teller to tourbillon) were impressive and the finish of the watches incredible, the design was, well, pallid. The watch, presented only in gold or platinum casing, has a double-curved crystal, its octagonal middle-case sandwiched between the round bezel and back, with distinctive lugs and an unusually 'clean' dial. It spurred online-aficionados into a frenzy of disapproval and quickly became the 'water-cooler' topic for attendees.
My own take? You can't judge the Code 11.59 by the photographs. In the flesh it's an impressive watch, but yes, let down by a curiously underwhelming facade, like a decent wine without the appropriate bouquet. I see hints of Hermès, a bit of Braun, notes of Nomos, a smidgeon of Seiko, but an absence of AP. With a price starting at about $35,000, that might prove to be a challenge.
Check out the gallery above to see the highlights from SIHH 2019.
This article was first published in AFR's Life and Leisure.