The city might be typically January-cold but the glowing ingenuity on display in the cavernous Palexpo Halls adjacent to Geneva airport suggests any so-called digital smart watch has a long way to go before it can challenge the Swiss masters of time-honoured cog-work.
We're at the four-day Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) and the offerings have generated genuine – ie. spin-free – excitement thanks to mechanical and creative touches beyond the realm of anything yet seen, and certainly anything powered by a battery.
You'd be forgiven for picturing a watch fair as a rather tame outing compared with an electronics show, but if so you're in for a surprise: you're talking 14,000-odd attendees and double the number of press compared with previous years, even if the number of new models unveiled was down - the latter clearly attributable to the slowing of demand in China.
SIHH could be called the “Richemont Reveal” given it is this behemoth's brands, Cartier to Vacheron Constantin, that dominate here. The competition – Rolex, Patek, Tag, Omega, Breitling and the like – show their latest in a few weeks in Basel, although it will be a challenge for them to eclipse the sheer inventiveness on display in Geneva.
Here brilliant and first-time complications came one after another, with winsome wearables from almost all 16 brands in attendance. It re-sets a high bar that suggests any so-called smart watch will be nothing more than an inexpensive digital diversion for historic brands, be they Swiss or Japanese.
Sensational mechanicals to a fine sports watch sums up a vast offer from the current horological powerhouse. Best, a Rotonde Astro Calendaire (above) perpetual calendar with revolutionary central display with a flying tourbillon forming the bulls-eye, surrounded by concentric indications of day, month and date with hours and minutes on a central dial. Patented and perfect, it competed for attention with exotica such as a floral marquetry Ballon Bleu, its parrot motif dial grafted from tiny slivers of flowers.
For everyday, and new to the Cartier stable, a handsome certified dive watch with the deepest black dial and clever self-lubricating bezel looked the part for land or sea.
Exquisite wristworks included the world's thinnest manual-wind minute repeater (eat your heart out Piaget) the Patrimony Contemporaine. Five years' toil saw it flattened to 3.90mm. But it was hard to go past the Metiers d'Art range – some boasting 500 hours of hand decoration – with dials from 11 artists inspired by Chinese embroidery, Indian manuscripts, and Ottoman architecture.
A.Lange & Söhne
Shaping up as the new Patek, the Glashutte manufacturer unveiled a stunning six-figure 1815 Tourbillon with, for the first time, a zero-reset function adding precision to Abraham-Louis Breguet's 200-year-old complication. Ingenious and an investment.
Baume & Mercier
Onto a good-looking thing with their recent Clifton range, introduced equally handsome chronograph and retrograde versions. Ladies re-vamp on the way…
Proving a complicated watch doesn't have to look it, the Swiss manufacturer produced possibly the most elegant minute repeater/tourbillon we've seen: the 41mm Ultra Thin Hydris Mechanica (above). They backed up with deft offerings – Reversos to Rendez-Vous – for him and her.
Impressive helpings of fastidiously finessed Formula 1-inspired wrist machinery devoted to and named for Mille's growing number of 'friends' – Johan Blake, Romain Grosjean, Sebastien Loeb, Natalie Portman, Michelle Yeoh and Rafael Nadal. Given such company it's impressive the watches more than hold their own.
Re-floated their Aquatimer range with a raft of new divers from the serious – a Deep Three complete with pressure gauge – to the recreational. Common to all: a unique bezel system whereby an outer ring rotates an inner bezel with a ratchet-like action that works a treat.
Restrained elegance – the brand's DNA – was given a youthful prod in a new Metro line – MetroGraph for him, MetroPolitan for her – described as “designed for dynamic people living in big cities.” Well, that's where the market is, and these pieces look tempting. There was also a 459-part Toric minute repeater for those in the somewhat smaller market for a $700,000 piece.
Took the chronograph upmarket while giving base-line models extra power. The desirable newbies were a brace of 1940 45mm chronos (above) sporting Minerva movements, looking unlike previous Luminors and Radiomirs, and price tags ranging up from the $60,000s. On the other hand … in-house movements offering a full eight days power reserve for new 44mm four-figure models. Phew.
Seemingly marooned offshore – yes, basically more treatments of the well-established Royal Oak offshore line. Maybe next year?
Van Cleef & Arpels
Brought the galaxy to the wrist with an operatic 'poetic complication', namely a 44mm Midnight Planetarium which, incredibly, boasts a dial with adventurine discs for each planet, turning independently at the actual pace of the real thing. Yes, you'll only find the Saturn dial completing its circuit once every 29 years. The time is indicated by a shooting star, and to keep things powered a winder comes with the package.
The Bladerunner of brands provided the fun of the fair with a pulsing video production that was part steam-punk, part Ridley Scott, part disco and all noise and action. Somewhere in all this were watches …
Obviously feeling a reputation was at stake – “we hold all the thin records except the thinnest manual wind watch…” proceeded to produce just that, unveiling the Altiplano 38 900P, the world's thinnest mechanical watch at 3.65mm. The trick to achieving this was another first: integrating the case with the movement.
Celebrated their 10th anniversary with a perpetual calendar with 24 second tourbillon and elegant in-line dial-side display, with equation of time shown on the reverse – the truly impressive part being every function is adjusted via the single crown. Such architectural purity does cost – around the $670,000 mark.
Writing new chapters implausibly “inspired by the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck fountain pen.” That said, the watches suggested savvy and smarts – witness the Homage to Nicolas Rieussec, a chronograph whose dial switches to numeral markings in the dark thanks to a hidden injection of superluminova. Magic.
Pooh-poohed by purists and not known on our shores, but showed a preppy range completely in tune with a market it knows well. Plodding Powerpoint-type presentation hardly did justice to Cartier-ish looks for her, blackened cases and strong (think RM Williams) themes for him. But I still don't think you'd catch Ralph wearing one.
THE AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW
Bani McSpedden is the watch editor of the AFR Life and Leisure magazine.