The big new trends from Watches and Wonders 2023
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This year Watches and Wonders has consolidated its position as the lodestar trade fair and media event for Switzerland’s most emblematic industry with an ambitious programme of city-wide events. There are “boutique animations”, a “watchmaking rally”, a QR-code-led guided tour to horological hotspots with a treasure hunt and competition, street festivities today from 5pm-9pm sharp (this is Geneva, after all), including food trucks and an electro DJ on the Quai Général Guisan, with the whole thing culminating in the opening of the salon to the public on Saturday 1 April (not an April Fool… this is Geneva after all).
Around 180 brands are showing at the exhibition and in and around Geneva. One of the most eagerly anticipated launches is Jean-Claude Biver’s eponymous low-volume, high-production-value brand, which kicked off ambitiously with a carillon tourbillon. But the occasional big brand is still resisting the lure of the main hall. Bulgari is absent from Palexpo, preferring to exhibit at the Hotel President Wilson, where it is showing its new Octo Roma, (is it round? Is it octagonal? It’s a bit of both) in iterations as diverse as three-hand automatic and tourbillon with butterfly minute display.
France’s great jeweller-watchmaker, Cartier, is demonstrating plenty of good stuff in the back catalogue to put before a new audience following the success of its Panthère and Gordon Gekko-spec Santos relaunches. This year the Tank Française of 1996 is in for a makeover with changes so subtle that you need to be a Cartier geek to spot them – for example, the heptagonal winding crown that replaces the octagonal predecessor. Women’s watches too are commendably retro-inspired – the excellent, small baignoire on a bangle is so good I would wear it myself if it were slightly bigger (hope you are reading this Cyrille Vigneron). Likewise, the Clash [Un]limited (much nicer than the bracelet of the same name) has a Jeanne Toussaint vibe – do yourself a favour and go for the one with coloured stones: coral, black spinels, chrysoprase, tsavorites etc. However, the one I would wear home is the Tank Normale: a perfect study in understated chic that looks as good now as it did more than 100 years ago when it was born.
Another art deco classic, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, returns not to its 1930s origins but to a more recent period in its history, the 1990s, when the manufacturer started to show the versatility of the Reverso case by fitting it with complications, among them the excellent Reverso Chronographe Retrograde. Jaeger-LeCoultre claims that its movement, the Calibre 829, “was not only the first shaped chronograph movement in a rectangular case for Jaeger-LeCoultre but also the first manually wound integrated chronograph to be developed from scratch in the post-quartz era”. The enhanced Calibre 860, a new movement to make its debut in the Reverso Tribute Chronograph, features a retrograde chronograph on the skeletonised back dial of the watch.
A quirky chrono is also the centre of attention over at Montblanc, where the Hamburg penmaker is frightfully excited about the puzzlingly named Unveiled Timekeeper Minerva. It may be based upon a 100-year-old movement, but the 21st-century innovation is the bezel-operation system that starts, stops and resets the chrono: Click, Click, Click.
Talking of chronos, they don’t come any more iconic (sorry to use the cliché, but it is true) than the Rolex Daytona, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year in a manner that is typical of Rolex. The anniversary refresh has been much awaited, but is so subtle that you really need to bring your current Daytona with you to be able to appreciate the fact that the hour markers are a slightly different shape and newly launched models with Cerachrom have a bezel edged in the case metal. But if you are already fortunate enough to own a platinum Daytona, the fabled “Platona”, then you can leave it at home. The spot-the-difference game is slightly easier with the platinum model as Rolex has never made an Oyster where you can see movement in action before, and, believe me, in the world of Rolex geekery this is the hugest of the huge news. Also making headlines on planet Rolex and beyond are a pair of strikingly playful dials on new Oyster Perpetual models: one is lacquered with bubbles in pink, turquoise, yellow, red and green; while the Day-Date has a similarly jaunty jigsaw pattern with words like “Love, Hope, Peace” appearing in the day window and an accompanying icon in the date display. Rolex has done “fun” zebra and leopard patterned dials in the past, and once every half generation you should expect it to do something unexpected like this.
Another with a 60th anniversary, TAG Heuer seems to be on a mission to prove the versatility of Carrera. There are two new Carrera tourbillons, the retro-styled TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph 42mm and the commendably comprehensively named TAG Heuer Carrera Plasma Diamant d’Avant-Garde Chronograph Tourbillon 44mm (don’t worry, with a few hours’ practice it trips off the tongue), which is an intriguing development of CEO Frédéric Arnault’s obsession with lab-grown diamonds. Not only do they smother the dial as in last year’s Carrera Plasma, but now they are sprinkled like hundreds and thousands across the bezel, case and bracelet. An early contender for this year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève Audacity prize.
Hermès, too, is pushing the daring button, putting orange, blue, yellow and green rubber straps on a new version of its HO8 made from a material it calls simply “Composite”. Hermès Composite is made of braided and aluminised glass fibre, and slate powder. It ticks all the usual “new material” boxes – light, sturdy and all that – and, this being Hermès, there is an aesthetic importance attached to the slate powder, which imparts a subtle silver that contrasts with the black ceramic bezel.
Chopard, meanwhile, is making news with the way it uses, or rather re-uses, classic materials with much bruiting about a steel equivalent to its highly topical ethical gold. Its existing Lucent steel, used for the excellent Alpine Eagle sports watch, is already made of 70 per cent recycled steel. By the end of this year that proportion will rise to 80 per cent, with 90 per cent by 2025. Moreover, it will be using recycled steel across all its production. Apparently, the brand has also become the first luxury Maison to join SteelZero, an organisation dedicated to speeding up the steel industry transition to net-zero. Yet another step in Chopard’s journey to sustainable luxury.
With journeys of a different kind in mind, Zenith is keen to remind everyone that it is the only brand permitted to use the word “pilot” on the dial, and this year it brings out a brand-new Pilot collection with the all-important five-letter word appearing on the dial just above six o’clock. It is out with the old vintage-style, Blériot-look predecessor and in with a purposeful design that, to quote the press material, “draws inspiration from the entire span of aviation – past and present”. For all the ambition (considering that the history of aviation can be said to have begun with Daedalus and Icarus), the result is surprisingly homogenous and wearable.
To be fair, though, I don’t see too much evidence of people being stumped for dial ideas. There’s the return of the California at Panerai; scrumptious salmon on steel Alpine Eagle chez Chopard; and new hardstones galore at Piaget in what I unofficially call its “Warhol” stepped case.
Meanwhile, Patek Philippe gives a masterclass in how clever dial design can transform its classic Calatrava 6007A. The deft use of yellow accents in the minutes and seconds tracks, plus the addition of a yellow-sweep second hand and nifty carbon-fibre-style checkering in the centre of the dial demonstrate that Patek Philippe’s classic three-hander can be as sporty as you like: perfect with denim or contemporary tux alike.
Trend One to watch: the steel sports watch with complications is still a thing: Vacheron Constantin proposes a Moon Phase retrograde version of its Overseas, while A Lange and Söhne launches its first self-winding chronograph movement (Cal L156.1) in its steel case and bracelet Odysseus model.