Market Report: Time in Review by Roberta Naas
Both time and the measurement of time have fascinated humankind for centuries. Whilst nothing can stop the passage of time (and tide), the instruments for measuring time have evolved tremendously over time.
From simple, basic models to super-complicated jewelled masterpieces, commanding price tags to the tune of millions of dollars, the premium and haute horlogerie timepiece industry has come into its own, launching tens of hundreds of new models every season. Amalgamations and mergers are also rife in the industry with corporate alignments shaping the future of the industry.
In her assessment of the industry at the virtual close of the year 2008, our US-based special correspondent & industry veteran Roberta Naas, takes a close, hard look at some of the newest models released at Baselworld 2008 and SIHH with an appraisal of some of the top companies, evaluation of some of their programmes & policies and an analysis of some of the implications.
In terms of time, the year 2008 was a splendid one. The watch industry saw some definitive changes in people, product and production – all of which has definitive impact on the timepieces of today and tomorrow.
First, there were some shakeups within the groups, not only in terms of ownerships of the large conglomerates and the small brands, but also in terms of the people, which could affect creativity and research and development. Among other purchases, a significant portion of Roger Dubuis, for instance, was purchased by the Richemont Group, which also purchased a portion of Greubel Forsey. The Binda Group has acquired Geneva Watch and the Swatch Group’s Blancpain brought independent watchmaker Vincent Calabrese on board, which should lead to more innovative product coming down the pike there, as well.
Meanwhile this year also ushered in interesting partnerships amid the independent watchmakers, with many teaming up to produce one-of-a-kind watches and limited editions via brands such as Maitres du Temps, which is a brand whose concept is to develop innovative haute horlogerie through collaborations amongst the most accomplished independent master watchmakers. Most likely these ventures were spawned by the brave souls such as Maximillian Busser who pioneered this concept several years ago when he struck out on his own (well, with friends) and started MB&F (Max Busser and Friends) to develop timepieces of distinction. The newest, coveted watches that are the result of these partnership ventures offer promise of innovation and exclusivity.
With such challenge for expression on the rise, even the more famed and legendary brands have ventured into concept watches in a larger way this year, unveiling their usually kept-behind-closed-door to-be-released-in-the-future watches to a select few at BaselWorld and SIHH. Girard-Perregaux, for instance, unveiled several revolutionary breakthroughs, including the constant escapement. With radically different architecture and silicon parts, the five-piece patented Constant Escapement is but one example of the brand’s pioneering spirit and scope of perspective. While not ready to be released to the world in full production yet, this watch is representative of a new direction in research and development.
Others that are making incredible strides in technology and made 2008 shine include Ulysse Nardin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Breguet and Patek Philippe. These brands are developing materials for use inside the watches to make the mechanical movements run more smoothly. This high-tech/high-mech watchmaking has gone from the conceptual stages in the past few years thanks to brands such as Ulysse Nardin and Patek Philippe to the reality stages. Ulysse Nardin has multiple watches with silicium dual escape wheels, diamond hairsprings and other high-tech parts in them. Similarly, Patek Philippe has developed the Spiromax® spring – a totally new type of balance spring made of Silinvar™ -- a material based on monocrystalline silicon—and incorporated that into certain of its watches. Breguet has developed the extra-thin Caliber 591-A with balance spring, lever and escape wheel all in silicon – making them lighter and more efficient, and, naturally, eliminating the need for lubrication. Indeed, the list goes on, as savvy watch Manufactures recognize the need for 21st -century advancements in mechanical watchmaking.
In addition to incredible strides in technology and product development therein, a host of watch brands have unveiled product utilizing new materials and materials in unusual mixes. This was the year that watchmakers delved beyond titanium and steel for watches and utilized space-age materials as palladium and magnesium, among other metals, in a more prolific manner. Additionally some brands such as Gerald Genta and Cuervo y Sobrinos utilized bronze for an aged appeal. Other materials utilized more frequently include ceramic, aluminum, Kevlar and carbon fiber, as well as tantalum – as these are light weight, durable, impervious to nature’s wrath and do not succumb easily to corrosion. Brands such as Jacob & Co., Harry Winston, Parmigiani, Chanel, Rado, TAG Heuer, Hublot and Omega use such materials. Roman Jerome even went so far as to use coal from the Titanic.
Innovation reigned supreme, too, in complexity of functions and in product design, with so many superb complications and unusual looks making their debut. Shape of timepieces came into play this year with so many brands releasing watches in vintage tonneau, rectangular and curved horizontal rectangular. Unusual case shapes also stole some limelight and watches adorned with diamonds were all the rage. These promise to continue into the next year without relent. Similarly, chronographs with new and easier methods of readouts have become another important arena. Tourbillons were a category that definitely stole center stage – as so many companies vied to have the most unusual tourbillon, the most complicated tourbillon, the lightest tourbillon, the one placed in the strangest location. (Concord may win the whistle here, with the technologically advanced world premiere of the C1 Tourbillon Gravity. This is the first timepiece in the world to feature the tourbillon escapement in a vertical position outside the case. By utilizing an axis tube, the watchmakers developing this movement were able to extend the 60-second tourbillon axis out to the side of the movement and place it vertically on the outer edge of the watch case for dramatic appeal. This challenging feat of futuristic construction clearly demonstrates Concord’s commitment to cutting-edge engineering. )
Then, there are the brands that pride themselves on building the most complex timepieces, those with hundreds of components and protected by patents. Such is the case with deGrisogono’s OtturatOre -- a dynamic horological feat. The complex movement, with more than 200 components, offers 15 mechanical functions. The patented watch displays on demand, the seconds, date, phases of the moon and power reserve – as wanted by the wearer.
Additionally, this year, many brands have either opened new state-of-the-art factories, or broken ground for new factories. Of particular note here is the fact that all are focusing on going green. Each has implemented factors that are energy saving, water conserving or power efficient. Such is the case with IWC, International Watch Company. This Schaffhausen, Switzerland-based company has committed to a number of important projects that benefit the environment, including reducing carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 90 percent in the past year through the use of alternative energy. When this brand was founded in 1868, it harnessed the powers of the Rhine River; in similar manner it will now source electricity for its factory from hydroelectric green power, and has implemented a rain-water utilization plant and solar panels. IWC even gives monetary incentives to its employees for purchasing hybrid cars, and engaging in other environmental issues.
In Switzerland and America, Victorinox, Swiss Army, has been implementing the Green Shield program for more than a year now to help the environment. In Switzerland, the watch company has implemented closed water cycles to ensure the building can be heated by recovering waste heat, and the facilities are working to become independent of crude oil by recycling 600 tons of grinding sludge a year. By going carbon neutral, and by careful selection of raw materials and responsible manufacturing processes, the brand offers 100 percent recyclable produces for packaging and for paper and other products used in the factory. Others joining this bandwagon include brands in the Richemont, Swatch and LVMH Groups, as well as independent brands throughout Switzerland.
Finally, this year witnessed the charitable side of time, as so many more brands jumped on the philanthropic bandwagon – teaming with ambassadors with a cause and typically donating to many needy charities around the globe. Indeed, from research and development to innovative product, the concept of going green and the desire to give back to the world, this was the year that time shone brightly.