March of the Mechanicals

“The big story is mechanicals”

That’s how Francie Abrams, Bulova Corp. senior vice president and chief marketing officer, describes the watchmaker’s major focus this fall in the mid-price U.S. watch market. Her comment was echoed by executives of other mid-range and upscale watch brands, as well as popular-price brands, at this year’s trade shows.

The surge in mechanical watches—mostly self-winding “automatics”—is spreading from upscale watches to more affordable brands. Armitron, for example, produced and sold some 60,000 automatic watches between October and May. Its men’s versions ($78 and $98) were featured in Wal-Mart’s Father’s Day 2008 marketing, while AK Anne Klein has added an entire line of 29 mm women’s automatic skeleton watches.

Upscale Maurice Lacroix is “developing more and more into a mechanical brand,” says chief executive officer Philippe C. Merk, while Cyma is adding self-winding models to each quartz line it updates, says Florin Niculescu, Cyma USA’s president. Bertolucci will “add more mechanicals, as we get back to our traditions,” says Philippe Belais, its president and CEO. Upscale Swiss-made Mido (part of the Swatch Group), whose watches are 70 percent automatic, is relaunching in the U.S. market after a long hiatus.

Asian watchmakers also are bringing mechanicals to the U.S. market. Japan’s Seiko is “bringing the very best mechanical watches to the market [in Europe and America], as it has for decades in Asia,” says Shinji Hattori, president of Seiko Watch Co. Orient Watch Co., which produces 2 million watches annually ($100 to $900 retail), launched in the U.S. market at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas, seeking independent jewelers.

The growth of the mechanical watch business is spurred in large part by consumers’ fascination with the mechanisms. “People are attracted to the craftsmanship of mechanical watches and the mechanism of their movements,” says Lawrence Rubin, president of the luxury brands Martin Braun USA and Meyers USA. “It’s something they can see operating and it’s not something plastic. It’s like having a Ferrari car instead of a Yugo.” As Alan Grunwald, president of Belair, a leading private label watchmaker, put it, “People want something interesting on their wrist to look at.”

That may be why so many automatics have exhibition backs or are skeleton watches, like Orient’s semi-skeleton watches (with partial views of the movements through the dial) or Kriëger’s hand-wound Skeleton Skeleton, which has an image of a skull, with ruby eyes, on its rotor. Also notable: U.S. brand Android‘s Mystique diamond watches whose Myiota mechanical movement “floats” in the center of a patented clear, see-through face and back.

Bulova’s Abraham offers another reason. “For some consumers under 40, born after the start of quartz watches in the 1970s, mechanicals are a new technology.”

Many consumers like “the green angle,” says Drew Borrello, vice president, product development for E. Gluck Corp. (parent of Armitron and AK Anne Klein). “They appreciate that automatics are self-winding, with no mercury batteries to dispose of, and see them as eco-friendly.” Japan’s Orient Watch has a word for this union of traditional horology and consumers’ interests: “Retro-Future” (also the name of one of its lines.)

Price is also a factor, at least for buyers of less-expensive automatics. “In this economy and considering prices of more-expensive [mechanical] watches, they’re attracted to the value, quality, and style” of more affordable ones, says Borrello. Mark Kim, managing officer of Purtime, U.S. distributor of Orient watches, says, “There’s a niche out there for consumers who want an affordable, sophisticated watch but can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars.”

MOVEMENT MAKERS

More upscale watch companies are unveiling their own in-house or custom-made movements.

First-time in-house automatic movements, most with specialized functions (i.e., “complications”), were debuted this year with some fanfare by a number of Swiss watchmakers. Carl F. Bucherer’s CFB A1000 calibre was three years in development. It includes a patent-pending peripheral rotor, innovative shock-absorption system, and patent-pending bidirectional winding. Alpina Geneve marked its 125th anniversary with the first movement made in its workshops, for its angular Avalanche Regulator. Montblanc’s first chronograph, the Star Nicolas Rieussec Monopusher, uses a movement developed and made in its own workshops.

Even couture and fashion houses with watch lines are introducing their own movements, like Dior, which this year added its first automatic for women to its Christal series.

Not all in-house movement makers are first timers. Maurice Lacroix has six, with patents pending on four more. Others this year include Glashütte Original’s Rattrapante model; Chopard’s first in-house chronograph (with flyback and three patents); Patek Philippe’s newest rectangular movement, for its Gondolo collection; Seiko’s chrono calibre for its Velatura sailing watch; Bulgari’s automatic chronograph calibre 303 (it has 303 parts); and JeanRichard’s movement for its Bressel Lady.

Advances in technology and miniaturization are allowing watchmakers to offer thinner, smaller watches with flatter movements. Geneva watchmaker François-Paul Journe this year unveiled an ultra-slim minute repeater, using its own 4 mm movement. Franck Muller Geneve’s Infinity uses the watchmaker’s thinnest-yet case, and Jaeger-LeCoultre has new versions in its Master Ultra-Thin series. The women’s skeleton watches of Armitron and AK Anne Klein use the smallest such movements available.

GETTING COMPLICATED

Some upscale models bring together an amazing number of complications in one mechanism. The Chapter One timepiece of Maîtres du Temps, a new haute horlogerie brand, combines a mono-pusher chronograph, retrograde date, GMT, tourbillon, and idiosyncratic rolling bars for weekdays and moonphases.

The retrograde—a pointer hand that moves around an arc subdial and springs back at the end—is becoming more prevalent. Retrogrades for seconds, minutes, hours, weekdays, dates, months, and even years are used not only on high-end watches but also increasingly on mid-price models, both automatic (like Bulova’s square skeleton retrograde model and Gergé’s Modena L, with seconds and minutes) and quartz (such as Belair’s new men’s retrograde and Cerruti 1881’s Prestige retrograde model).

There are various ways of showing them. Milus’s Merea TriRetrograde divvies a minute into three sectors of 20 seconds each, while Longines’s Quadra Retrograde has four retro displays (seconds, date, weekdays, and 24 hours), each in a quadrant of the dial. The arc design on the Belle Epoque of Pierre Kunz, who does only retrogrades, is influenced by New York’s Chrysler building. Seiko’s Arctura Retrograde, using a new movement, has a seven-day indicator that snaps back at midnight Sunday, while Sector’s Series 195 Chrono Retrograde comes in stylish black aluminum and rubber.

Advances in watch technology have enabled watchmakers to take the tourbillon—which compensates for gravity’s effects on watch mechanisms—to a wider audience. More than 100 brands—mid-price and up—now offer tourbillon timepieces.

A. Lange & Söhne’s Cabaret Tourbillon is the first that can be instantly stopped (to set the time), and restarted, something previously impossible to do. Concord 1’s tourbillon gravity-cage is outside the case, connected to the movement by a vertical pinion, while Zenith’s Zero-G has a gyroscope tourbillon cage with its escapement on suspended joints to ensure a constant horizontal position.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2 puts a spherical tourbillon in the Reverso’s rotating case, a first. Greubel Forsey’s Tourbillon 24 Secondes Incliné spins every 24 seconds in a 25-degree inclined cage (for balance at any angle), while Girard-Perregaux’s Bi-axial Tourbillon combines two concentric cages, for multi-dimensional rotations.

Other standouts include Cartier’s Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon, its first movement to win the prestigious Geneva Seal; Harry Winston Timepieces’ Z5, which incorporates two time displays with a tourbillon and a jumping display (in French) of cities in 24 time zones; Alain Silberstein’s Tourbillon d’Art collection of 16 flying tourbillon models; and several high-end diver tourbillons including Instruments & Mesures du Temps’ aquatic tourbillon, Blancpain’s newest Fifty Fathoms, Roger Dubuis’s Easy Diver, and Aquanautic’s Subcommander.

This year saw more annual and perpetual calendars, including Patek Philippe’s patented “instantaneous change” perpetual calendar, with minute repeater and tourbillon. Five years in development, it’s one of its most complicated watches.

WHAT WOMEN WANT

A phrase heard repeatedly at this year’s international watch shows was “designed for women by a woman.” In fact, the women’s mechanical watch market has become so large, it influences watch design.

“If time was a woman, what shape would it take?” asked a Baume & Mercier spokeswoman in presenting its new Iléa for women at Geneva’s international Salon de la Haute Horlogerie in April. The answer: sophisticated watch designs—“round, with curves, harmonious,” as she put it—incorporating stars, flowered dials, fashion colors, and much use of white, diamonds, colored gems, and pastel or white mother-of-pearl dials. These characteristics are found repeatedly on new models of various brands, both mechanical and quartz, in all major price categories.

Luxury watchmaker Roger Dubuis’s first skeleton watch for women, in his KingSquare collection, has an enamel red heart. Harry Winston Timepieces’ Lady Z is its first complications watch (dual moonphase, showing light and dark sides) for women and its first zalium watch for women. (Zalium is a rare alloy previously used in men’s Z watches.) Glashütte Original’s Four Seasons is sold as a set of four watches, each decorated for a season.

Feminine influence also affects watch movements. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Squadra Lady uses a specially developed movement rather than a smaller version of the men’s, and Maurice Lacroix’s Starside series has retrograde date and moonphases. Perrelet’s Diamond Flower series has a bejeweled rotating lotus flower atop a double-sided winding rotor, and JeanRichard’s first-ever women’s tourbillon has a bridge shaped like a lotus flower.

The surge in women’s mechanicals includes popular-price brands. Armitron’s Ladies collection of 29 mm watches, for example, uses the smallest skeleton automatic movement, while AK Anne Klein offers a new series of 28 mm skeleton automatics with colored straps.

Not all new women’s watches are mechanical, of course. Gucci’s Chiodo incorporates the iconic horseshoe nail of Gucci designs. Seiko’s Arctura Women’s Kinetic watch uses a new calibre and 51 “certified conflict-free diamonds,” while Victorinox Swiss Army’s Chrono Classic Lady, its first women’s chrono, is all white, with a pastel mother-of-pearl dial.