If London’s SalonQP compact watch expo is anything to go by, the watch world is riven right down the middle. On the one hand are the classicists — brands that, faced with a recessionary consumer, even one parting with tens or hundreds of thousands for a watch, are retrenching in safe, timeless design. The thinking is that even the fanatical are buying fewer pieces and so might want what they buy to be more widely wearable (and, it might be added, having re-sale appeal). The result, if the SalonQP selection of new collection pieces is anything to go by, are plenty of plain, open-face dials, Roman numeral indices and exotic skin straps. And, on the other hand, is a counter-philosophy in which the emphasis is placed strongly on distinctive aesthetics — the thinking perhaps being that, if you’re going to buy one watch rather than several, you may well want the one to make a statement.
How the rift will play out over 2013 — or will be reflected in the next major international watch show, SIHH in Geneva in January — only time, to use the appropriate cliché, will tell. In the meantime, while no single brand takes the day, there remain any number of genuinely interesting individual pieces across the SalonQP offer. And providing genuine interest — an aspect of design that sparks the imagination or the emotions — is increasingly what watch sales are about, especially to a prepared, internet-educated consumer who often knows more about said pieces than their salespeople.
Ultra provenance is one means to this: Bremont’s new Victory watch, for example, includes wood from Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, which whipped the French and Spanish at Trafalgar in 1805 (so perhaps the company can expect fewer sales of this extreme limited edition in those markets). Zenith, similarly, is catching some credibility for its Striking Flyback Striking 10th — which displays 1/10th-of-a-second increments — thanks to its being worn by Felix Baumgartner during his recent record-/neck-breaking free-fall from the edge of space.
The new or unexpected is, as ever, also a path to interest: Seiko may not be best known for its high-end timepieces, but its Grand Seiko line — only available outside of Japan for the last two years —is giving the Swiss a very good run for their money. Indeed, Seiko has true ‘manufacture’ capability — it makes everything from case to glass to hair spring in-house — as well as, as might be expected from the Japanese, an expertise in every movement technology going, from mechanical to quartz, but also its own Spring Drive and Kinetic systems. Wear a Caliber 9S85 Hi-Beat and surprise everyone when you tell them it’s not the predictable Rolex Oysterdate.
Certainly one thing does seem apparent: the Swiss may still benefit from the stereotype of ‘makers of the world’s best watches’, but connoisseurs are increasingly prepared to look further afield. SalonQP featured three stand-out companies, none Swiss, and all, perhaps because of that, decidedly doing their own thing. Meccaniche Veloci continues to build on the Italian watch renaissance, started by Panerai and pursued by Giuliano Mazzuoli, with its quirky blend of automotive technology and watchmaking, launching at the show its Quattro Valvole CCM (Carbon Ceramic Material) limited edition, a watch whose dial is made using a high-pressure water jet to cut it from a Brembo disc brake.
Less well established is Ressence, a new Belgian company, whose launch model, the Series One, displays the time by a flush-mounted revolving dial that embodies all the graphical elements in one plane — so the sub-dials showing hours and seconds orbit around a virtual axis like, as the company puts it, moons around Saturn. It’s a progressive, deceptively simple idea and the effect means that what is, on the surface, a minimalistic, no-frills dial, is actually constantly changing.
And what about the latest from the well-known Finnish watch industry? You don’t know about that? Launched a decade ago, Swiss-trained and Helsinki-based watchmaker Stepan Sarpaneva’s own eponymous brand continues to make aesthetic decisions for his pieces that are not for the faint hearted. His new Korona K0 model may be his first 300m water-resistant sports watch, but it is a long way from a Seamaster or Submariner, certainly stylistically, but also in terms of innovation —its bezel is directly incorporated into the movement, so all functions can be set using a single screw-down crown.
Perhaps the growth in the more boutique sector of the watch industry will see its independent spirit catch on. Of the two paths the industry is taking, surely increased quirkiness is preferable to increased conservatism? After all, as Oscar Wilde had it, only the shallow don’t judge by appearances — doesn’t a watch need to be as distinctive on the outside as it is on the inside? The jury may be out on that, but it seems even in companies with solid reputations in their respective markets there is some determination to rock the boat with the visually striking — avant-garde art, so to speak — rather than simply the mechanically masterful, for all that Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Grande Tradition à Tourbillon 43 may be a Monet of a timepiece.
Chopard’s most arresting piece at SalonQP was, for example, still its LUC Louis-Ulysse The Tribute — a pocket-watch that can be transformed into a wristwatch (and back again). And Bell & Ross — a brand whose subtleties seem destined to be forever overshadowed by its cartoony BR 01 — has looked again to its original military aviation inspiration with its new Vintage WW2, based on the instrument bomber navigators wore strapped to their legs; although here thankfully scaled down for the wrist, with its ‘flower’ bezel making it one of the most instantly likeable watches at the show. Such pieces bode well: watch buyers might increasingly expect the unexpected.