Tired of seeing the same old, same old when it comes to watches? You're hardly alone, despite the efforts of watch brands to re-tempt you each year with new releases they hope will find their way to your wrist. The impediments to that are three-fold: the relentlessly upgraded mechanics deemed mandatory are largely out of sight, hence out of mind; the basic designs seldom change; and the price for anything decent would now buy a small car that even has a timepiece in it – well, a clock. Which makes all the more welcome those watches that aren't just the usual re-arrangement of the common featires – the shape of hands, size of markers, case material – with a change of dial colour thrown in. (Yes, yes, a blue dial or green can change the feel of things a bit, and match your latest look, but a fresh paint job hardly suggests rousing creativity.)
Challenging any impression that the Swiss would rather make chocolate than make waves, a number of prominent names surprised at the annual Baselworld watch fair in March, going so far as to shock with watches aficionados simply didn't see coming. The biggest surprise of 2019? A new watch from Audemars Piguet that isn't another version of the Royal Oak. The Code 11.59 is an entirely new collection encompassing three-handers to tourbillons, one that's been five years in the making and is intended to take the brand into the future. Given the reception so far they may need a bit of luck. Critics are coming out in force, especially online. Their gripe? The pieces look bland and too much like a fashion watch. Images don't do the watch justice; it's finely executed, has undeniable presence and impressive internals, although it is let down by curious detail like the angled date window – which doesn't quite gel with its price of around $35,000.
Hublot also caught observers off-guard with an entirely unexpected case-shape, one that joins the well-known Big Bang and Classic Fusion profiles. Surprisingly, the new Hublot Classic Fusion Ferrari GT didn't emanate from their own design department. It was a collaboration with Ferrari's Centro Stile, the people behind the Ferrari Monza. The watch's rounded lines are quite a departure for Hublot and give the 45mm case a faintly futuristic look. It can be rendered in titanium, gold or a carbon composite, and houses Hublot's in-house flyback chronograph movement.
Tudor's surprise, The Black Bay P01, isn't so much a new shape as just one never seen in public before. It seems the brand developed a prototype for the US Navy in the 1960s with a curious locking bezel set-up activated by a between-the-lugs flap. It never made it into production, but has now risen from the ashes as a flag-waver for the brand. The distinctive and somewhat bulky looks are attracting both derision and delight, which should ensure its collectability.
Gucci's newcomer, the "Grip", certainly gripped attendees of the Baselworld fair with its unique appearance, one that might have been inspired by bathroom scales. Whatever, it worked. Said to be influenced by the '70s skateboard scene, the cushion-shaped watch has cut-outs on the facade, behind which rotating discs display the hours, minutes and date. It comes in 35mm and 38mm sizes, finished in silver or gold, and the movement is quartz.
In complete contrast, MB&F's revelation makes a highly complex mechanical movement the centrepiece of its very first watch for women. The Legacy Machine Flying T takes the brand's usual three-dimensional approach, the workings sitting adjacent to the dial on a base of black lacquer or a carpet of diamonds, all under a prominently domed crystal. It's hard to imagine a more decorative – and deliciously distracting – piece for the wrist.
Rounding out the surprises this year is Tag Heuer's latest Autavia model, the name – a combination of 'auto' and 'aviation' introduced in the 1930s – having previously been used exclusively for chronographs. The new Autavia Isograph is a simpler three-handed time-teller in a 42mm steel or bronze case with a ceramic or steel bezel and curiously innocuous design, most unlike Tag. Some will love the graded smoked dials and a cleverly modernised movement inside with up-to-the-minute carbon-composite hairspring. Maybe that's enough to spring for one, given the Autavia's mid four-figure price point.
Check out the gallery above to see which designs stood out from the crowd.
Bani McSpedden is watch editor of the Australian Financial Review.