A person looks at a watch by Swiss watchmaker Roger Dubuis, owned by Richemont, the world's second-largest luxury goods firm, on the opening day of the "Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie" (SIHH), a professional fair in fine watchmaking, on January 19, 2015, in Geneva
Dial in: a visitor at SIHH looks at a watch up close © AFP

Next week’s December watch export statistics may complete a second successive year of falling sales, but as the doors open on the 27th edition of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva on Monday, the mood there is surprisingly upbeat. The organisers are preparing to host the highest number of brands since the invitation-only show was instigated by Cartier in 1991 after it abandoned the rival fair in Basel.

This year there will be 30 brands in attendance, thanks to the return of Girard-Perregaux after a three-year absence, the arrival of its Kering stablemate Ulysse Nardin and the expansion of the Carré des Horlogers section for independent brands, which will host 13 exhibitors, five more than when it was introduced in 2016. The show will be open to the public for the first time but only on the final day.

“It is a very important year for SIHH, since it is the biggest show we have ever had despite the fact that the industry has been going through a slowdown,” says Fabienne Lupo, who has been in charge of the event since 1999. “The mood is more cautious but I think the brands are generally confident and some have created simpler collections at more affordable prices to make themselves accessible.”

“The SIHH can be summed up in one word, and that is ‘exclusivity’,” says Patrik Hoffmann, chief executive of Ulysse Nardin, which has left Baselworld after more than 50 years. “Baselworld has lost its appeal for Ulysse Nardin. It is a fair, while SIHH is a salon — and the environment simply creates a far more positive experience for our retailers and other visitors. But I don’t think we’ll see improved results overnight simply from moving because the current market . . . demands exactly the right products.”

To that end, Ulysse Nardin will be focusing on its Marine range of sports watches — especially those relating to its sponsorship of the Artemis Racing team in the America’s Cup sailing competition — while demonstrating its horological prowess with its InnoVision 2 watch, featuring 10 technical innovations.

Jean-Marc Pontroue, chief executive of Roger Dubuis, believes that new products alone will be insufficient to face 2017’s challenges. “I think we must also bring new experiences to customers. With that in mind, we’ll be announcing three new automotive partnerships this year, the first of which will be with Pirelli. Through the Pirelli partnership . . . buyers will be invited to take part in very special events relating to the car world. We need stories to tell,” says Mr Pontroue.

Roger Dubuis’ Excalibur Spider Full Carbon watch
Roger Dubuis’ Excalibur Spider Full Carbon watch

Pierre Rainero , Cartier’s head of image, style and heritage, believes that this year’s SIHH will be as valuable as ever for Richemont’s flagship brand, but suggests its role has altered. “The market is certainly not as booming as it was five or 10 years ago and, in terms of selling product and taking orders, I don’t think SIHH is the same as it was when it started. Now it is more important as a chance to meet with retailers and explain what one’s brand is about.”

While Cartier will meet expectations with haute horlogerie pieces such as the technically brilliant Rotonde de Cartier minute repeater mysterious double tourbillon, it will rely on variations of existing models for its bread-and-butter sales. There will, for example, be an “extra-flat” adaptation of last year’s Drive de Cartier watch for men and reissues of its Panthère de Cartier for women.

The hand-less Panthère Joueuse de Cartier watch
The hand-less Panthère Joueuse de Cartier watch

A similar strategy is being pursued by A Lange & Söhne, which will include an annual calendar model with a hand-wound movement in its line-up. “In today’s market, I think classics will prevail,” says the German company’s chief executive, Wilhelm Schmid. “The appetite for socially-hard-to-accept zeitgeist watches is disappearing. We are targeting the absolute connoisseur, both with more affordable models and top complications.”

When it comes to affordability, however, few brands showing at SIHH are likely to undercut Baume & Mercier. It will unveil seven watches in its Classima collection which are priced at just SFr1,000 ($990). “I suppose everyone is trying to adapt to current market conditions . . . but even in difficult times, I don’t think it’s just about the price — you need to maintain quality and give people a dream,” says chief executive Alain Zimmermann.

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