5 Highlights From the SIHH Watch Fair in Geneva

It’s not January without a visit to Geneva for the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. The high-end watch fair sets the tone for the year ahead in terms of both products and atmosphere. You can read my report about the major news from the 2014 edition here. But below, you’ll find my personal take on the best parties and the more esoteric trends that emerged at the fair, which didn’t disappoint this year.

A. Lange & Söhne’s Retailer Dinner

On Monday night, the cozy dining room at La Réserve, one of Geneva’s poshest hotels, served as the setting for a dinner party for A. Lange & Söhne’s American contingent, composed of retailers, salespeople, and members of the press. I arrived late but still managed to snag the best seat in the house: the one facing Rick Moore, the store director at Bellusso Jewelers, a high-end watch retailer in Las Vegas. Rick and I had never met, but we immediately bonded over his stories of selling watches and jewelry in Sin City. (Mike Tyson figured prominently.)

While it can occasionally be exhausting to talk watches at the end of a long day of reporting on them at the show, I wouldn’t miss the dinners because that’s where I got the best insights into the business. Take Rick’s response to my question about what keeps him up at night as a retailer: “That the Chinese will stop buying,” he said without skipping a beat.

IWC’s Waterworld

Tuesday morning found me rushing to the Palexpo convention center so I wouldn’t be late for my one-on-one conversation with IWC president Georges Kern, a notoriously difficult interview. Swarmed with preparations for the big bash the brand was throwing that evening, he told me that I was the only person to whom he’d granted an interview all morning (um, honored!).

We spoke about the enormous potential of the Chinese market (“You have 1.3 billion people living in China—you can’t fight demography”); the opportunities that have yet to be seized in America (“The problem is you don’t have a watch culture yet in the States. A little bit on the East Coast and a little in the West, but all the towns in between are much less developed in comparison to European countries”); and the advantages of sports watches (“A sports watch is always cool on a suit or tuxedo—you’re never overdressed or underdressed—while an elegant watch with a T-shirt and jeans looks ridiculous”).

Once the interview was over, I stepped back into the lounge to throw down an espresso and admire the carefully constructed booth. Given that IWC’s product focus for 2014 is the ocean-themed Aquatimer collection, the lush, watery decor included a couple of hammerhead sharks floating overhead and scenes depicting the Galápagos Islands blanketing the walls. Booths at SIHH tend to be monochromatic and refined, but the IWC space managed to walk the line between gimmicky and tasteful, creating an altogether memorable experience.

Hammer(head) time at the IWC booth at SIHH

All of which was a good precursor to the “Inside the Wave” party scheduled for later that evening. If you’ve ever been to an IWC party, you probably know that they are huge (last week’s shindig hosted 800 people), star-studded (Ewan McGregor was just one of several celebs in attendance), and lavish (did I mention the performance by Cirque du Soleil that was created expressly for the evening?).

The party was among the best I’d attended at SIHH in my decade covering the fair. Roger Hodgson from Supertramp performed classics like “Breakfast in America”; the Cirque du Soleil dancers twisted, balanced, and shimmied onstage in feats of mesmerizing acrobatic intensity; and the decor was over the top in a charming, otherworldly way—I dreamed of stuffing the ginormous jellyfish sculptures that hung from the ceiling into my suitcase and smuggling them home, they were that enchanting.

Enormous jellyfish UFOs hovered above IWC’s lavish, waterworld of a dinner party.

At the end of the dinner, the crowd was ushered into an adjoining room, where an enthusiastic DJ from St. Tropez did his best to keep the party going. He was good. So good that I lost myself to the music and didn’t notice that I was grazing Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima on the dance floor. As she turned to peer down on me, I noticed that supermodel Karolina Kurkova, looking goddess-like in a form-fitting gold beaded gown, stood beside her. This didn’t help my fast-crumbling self-esteem—I felt like a sweaty troll next to these two statuesque beauties—but then the DJ caught my attention again, and I managed to block out everything but the beat.

The Astronomical Obsession, From A to V

Watches with elegant moon-phase functions appear every year, so it’s hardly a stop-the-presses moment when you see them at SIHH. This year, however, saw the debut of two spectacular models—from A. Lange & Söhne and Van Cleef & Arpels—that are more accurately described as astronomical timepieces for their ambitious, cosmically inclined features.

Lange, a prestige German watchmaker that I have long admired, introduced the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna, a masterpiece of complexity featuring a perpetual calendar with the Lange outsize date, a power reserve of 14 days, and a constant-force escapement. The classic and sober-looking dial—so Saxonian—belied the ornate beauty to be found on the back of the watch, where an orbital moon-phase display perfectly captured the lunar patterns of the heavens. I don’t fully understand the functionality, but who cares?! The watch is so damn pretty.

This Instagram shot of the back of the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna doesn’t do justice to A. Lange & Söhne’s masterpiece of complexity.

At Van Cleef & Arpels, the Midnight Planetarium watch, the talking point of the brand’s new Poetic Astronomy collection, upped the ante. Featuring a working planetarium with six planets (Earth and the five planets we can see with the naked eye) made from hard stones—our blue planet is, naturally, a ball of turquoise—that revolve around an 18k gold sun in real time, the watch is extraordinary. “The movement of each planet is true to its genuine length of orbit,” according to the brand’s literature. “It will take Saturn over 29 years to make a complete circuit of the dial, while Jupiter will take almost 12 years, Mars 687 days, Earth 365 days, Venus 224 days and Mercury 88 days.”

The Midnight Planetarium Poetic Complication from Van Cleef & Arpels was among the fair’s highlights (photo courtesy of the brand).

Two Gorgeous Cinematic Experiences

I’m not sure when watchmakers became such expert filmmakers, but it happened around the time they caught on to the viral power of YouTube. IWC was among the first brands to appropriate the medium (I remember their Big Pilot’s Watch relaunch in 2006, when they produced a narrative film starring none other than John Malkovich), so it came as no surprise last week, when the brand unveiled a gorgeous, three-and-a-half minute ode to its new Aquatimer collection. The clip featured dramatic aerial shots of the Galápagos Islands (home to IWC’s nonprofit partner, the Charles Darwin Foundation) interspersed with undersea scenes showing a prehistoric-looking marine iguana swimming alongside a submerged Aquatimer model.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the stunning cinematography combined with the video’s soaring music made my heart swell—and inspired a new obsession with the coast of Ecuador.

The other video that impressed me beyond words was produced by a rather unlikely brand: Piaget. I say unlikely because I’ve never known the Swiss watchmaker, best known for its ultrathin movements and high jewelry expertise, to be super bold about its marketing.

Which isn’t to say that “A Mythical Journey by Piaget” wasn’t subtle. It was a graceful short film, distinguished by marvelous cinematography juxtaposed with images of a unique collection of jewels and timepieces. I thought the scenes from the Chinese countryside, all cherry blossoms and cranes, were good-looking, until I saw the shots of Rajasthan, with its desert citadels and strutting peacocks, and I got that familiar feeling that grips me when I see how beautiful the world is: There aren’t enough days in the year to see the places that top my travel list!

If all else fails on the watch front, both IWC’s and Piaget’s marketing teams shouldn’t have a problem finding work in the film business. Watch the clips for yourselves and I’m sure you’ll agree with me.

Breguet, Blancpain, and the Swatch Museum

I’d never had the pleasure of visiting Geneva’s Cité du Temps, a city landmark, until last week, when both Breguet and Blancpain hosted adjacent exhibitions in the riverside venue to showcase timekeeping inventions and photography, respectively.

The rooms were so packed with oglers that I fled to the third floor to escape the crowds, only to discover a permanent exhibition of Swatch watches that told the story of the genre-busting brand in a series of colorful, wacky, plastic timepieces. As a watch industry insider, I could appreciate the displays because I knew these irreverent and cheaply priced watches succeeded, improbably, in breathing new life into the moribund Swiss watch industry upon their debut in 1983. But to visitors who didn’t know Swatch’s place in watch history, the remarkable take-away from the exhibition was that, after three decades, these fashion-forward watches remained so relevant.

“Nothing’s really changed,” I overheard a woman say as she admired the rainbow of timepieces.