2013 SIHH Recap: Geneva Fair Celebrates Feats of High Watchmaking

The specter of a slowdown in the global luxury market didn’t appear to mute the exuberance at the 23rd annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), a five-day buying fair for prestige watchmakers that concludes today in Geneva.

“I have no idea what 2013 will bring, but we’re investing 30 million francs in Schaffhausen to build a manufacturing center to further build capacity,” says Georges Kern, CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, a Swiss German watchmaker owned, like most of SIHH’s 16 exhibiting brands, by Financière Richemont, the luxury industry holding company. “But this is something for the next 10 to 15 years. We have to trust fundamentally in the watch and luxury industry.”

The number of highly complicated—and extravagantly priced—timepieces introduced at SIHH suggest that Kern’s fellow watchmakers share his faith in the enduring strength of the high-end watch business.

Take, for example, Audemars Piguet’s new Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication, a minute repeater, perpetual calendar, and split-second chronograph housed in the Offshore’s uber-muscular case. Available in a limited series, the model retails for as much as $750,000.

“Ultimately, it’s the sport version of their iconic sports watch, and it’s insanely complicated,” says Benjamin Clymer, founder of Hodinkee.com, a popular watch blog.

Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication

At the booth of German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, a new grand complication featuring esoteric functions such as a grand sonnerie, a chiming mechanism often described as “the master of all complications,” made news not only for its technical virtuosity—the piece required seven years to develop and takes one watchmaker an entire year to build—but also for its price tag: 1.92 million euros, or $2.55 million.

The emphasis on timepieces embodying the limits of watchmaking know-how was evident at Roger Dubuis, which unveiled a world premiere in its Excalibur collection known as the Quatuor. The model features four sets of balance springs to counteract the effects of gravity on its mechanical gears and retails for 1 million Swiss francs ($1.07 million). One of the Quatuor’s signature elements is a case fashioned from a new silicon-based material that the brand touted as four times lighter than titanium and as durable as diamond.

Roger Dubuis’ Excalibur Quatuor

“We are very proud to bring this innovation to haute horlogerie, where everybody always believes that everything has been invented already,” says CEO Jean-Marc Pontroue. “We believe that it is part of our core mission to further explore new frontiers when it comes to high-end complications.”

Roger Dubuis is not alone in its efforts to experiment with high-tech materials borrowed from the worlds of aerospace and extreme motor sports. The avant-garde watchmaker Richard Mille has forged a reputation for making timepieces that wouldn’t look out of place in a NASA space lab. The new RM 56-01 tourbillon, for instance, features a case, base plate, center wheel, and bridges constructed from sapphire crystal, as well as a high-tech strap made using nano-technology. The piece retails for 1.6 million Swiss francs ($1.73 million).

The other big story at SIHH is Cartier’s continued evolution as a prestige watchmaker. Long known as a maker of jeweled timepieces, in 2009 the firm began to develop its own movements, which have earned the brand—and its star watchmaker, Carole Forestier-Kasapi—a considerable amount of street cred in the Vallée de Joux, a part of the Swiss Jura mountains known for its concentration of high-end watch manufacturers.

At the fair, Cartier unveiled two models that define its ambitions in the watch space: the Mysterious Double Tourbillon, inspired by the maison’s 100-year-old tradition of producing mystery clocks (so-called because their hands move without any visible operating mechanism); and the Calibre de Cartier chronograph, a new in-house chronograph that retails for a starting price of 7,600 euros.

The chronograph, Cartier’s first watch developed exclusively for men, signals the brand’s desire to compete head-on with Rolex, Omega, and Breitling.

Calibre de Cartier 1904-CH chronograph

Panerai, Montblanc, and Baume & Mercier were among the other brands that debuted simple, masculine timepieces marked by classic lines and price points ranging from 2,990 euros to 6,400 euros. Overall trends included a move toward slimmer, more refined cases.

For women, the notable introductions at SIHH came in two flavors: diamond-encrusted or artistically decorated. The latter category included spectacular examples of watches embellished with enamel, miniature paintings, precious stones, or mosaic motifs produced through a once-esoteric technique known as marquetry.

Cartier’s contribution to the métiers d’art tradition included a beguiling timepiece emblazoned with the face of a panther rendered in tiny gold granules.

Rotonde de Cartier 42 mm watch, panther with granulation

Meanwhile, Vacheron Constantin’s Florilège collection of enamel watches bursting with bouquets of exotic flowers—inspired by an 18th-century picture book by the botanist Dr. Robert Thornton—included an homage to the China Limodoron in raspberry, red, and cream colors of enamel.

“It’s a wink to Asia,” said a Vacheron Constantin representative.