Watch Trends 2006: Automatics Thrive, Complications Spread

Three decades after being declared obsolete because of the quartz module revolution that changed watchmaking, the mechanical watch business is thriving. That was a clear trend at this year’s Swiss watch fairs in Basel and Geneva.

There are more affordable automatic (self-winding) watches, more of them for women, more upper-price brands with their own movements, and more watches—both mechanical and quartz—with “complications” (specialized functions other than timekeeping) once found only in the most costly timepieces.

Much of this is driven by consumer demand for watches with a luxury look and by Chinese-made movements that make more affordable mechanical watches possible. Following are closer looks at some mechanical “movements” at the 2006 Swiss shows.

MECHANICALS’ RISE

Mechanical watchmaking’s niche, once almost extinct, is flourishing, say Swiss and Japanese watch industry figures issued at the shows. While analog and digital quartz watches—mostly low-cost— dominate (98 percent of 1.2 billion watches made in 2005), mechanicals’ share has increased in recent years. In 2005, it grew 11 percent to 20 million units worldwide, while analog quartz watches dropped 5 percent, to 1.03 billion, and digitals fell 19 percent, to 200 million.

In Swiss exports alone, mechanicals grew 8.8 percent, to 3.3 million units; other Swiss watches fell 5.5 percent to 20.9 million. In value, mechanicals represented 62 percent of 2005 Swiss watch exports ($9.5 billion total), though under 14 percent of the 24.5 million total units.

Many go to the United States, the leading market for Swiss watches, where demand is rising. “There’s been a dramatic increase in mechanicals imported from Switzerland, up 9.4 percent for automatics in 2005 alone,” Sue Rechner, president of Victorinox Swiss Army watches, told JCK in Basel. “Our own automatics ($400 to $1,000 retail) are up from a half percent to 9 percent of U.S. sales in just 18 months.”

AUTOMATIC DRIVE

The resurgence was evident at 2006’s Swiss fairs—especially BaselWorld—in the growing number of brands (popular to high price) adding or increasing automatics, and in the flood of limited editions (see “Limiteds Unlimited,” JCK, June 2006, p. 292), now offered by almost everyone.

Fossil unveiled automatic lines for men and women for $95 to $105, while Diesel’s new men’s automatics sell for $85 to $200. (They join under-$500 automatics unveiled last year by E. Gluck Corp., National Geographic, Timex, and the relaunched Hilton brand.) Designer Marc Ecko, popular for urban fashion watches, has gone into what a spokesman called “true watchmaking” with his Skeleton Automatik. Michele, known for fashion watches, is developing Turbina, “our move into serious men’s automatics,” says Malcolm Gray, vice president for marketing. Fendi, another popular fashion line, has its first diver’s watch, an automatic, while new U.S. brand Von Dutch’s edgy models include the automatic Angel.

Rado, known for high-tech ceramic quartz watches, presented its Sintra XXL Automatic. Upscale Ritmo Mvndo added two automatics—Centurion, with a tilted dial, and the industrial-chic Impero, with grooved case.

Others build on what they have. Swiss Army is expanding its affordable Ambassador automatic chronos and added more limited editions, including a platinum timepiece. Longines’s Spirit collection for men has vintage-style watches with 42-hour power reserve, while Baume & Mercier’s Classima Executives and Hampton watches feature dial apertures to view inside. Oris, which has many automatics, added its first manual-wind to its redesigned thin Atelier self-winders.

Some mechanicals are car-themed editions, like those of Breitling, Chopard, Parmigiani Fleurier, Porsche, and Oris. Others mark anniversaries, like Van Cleef & Arpels’s Lady Arpels Centenaire, Montblanc’s first Grande Complication for its 100th, and Dubey & Schaldenbrand’s Collection Sixty (60 sets of six watches with the brand’s movements).

AUTOMATICS FOR WOMEN

A growing number of brands, especially upper-price ones, are adding stylish automatic lines for women. “If automatics are good enough for men, why not for sophisticated, intelligent women interested in watches?” asks Caroline Kallman, spokeswoman for Nicolet, whose 34 mm luxury M03 series is its first for women.

Hamilton’s Lady Jazzmaster is its first women’s automatic, as is Versace’s DV One and Louis Erard’s La Sportive women’s self-winders. Luxury brand Parmigiani Fleurier unveiled its first women’s collection—mostly automatics—with fanfare. “Worldwide, women are very interested in haute horlogerie. It’s not a huge market, but it’s an important one,” says watch veteran Jean-Marc Jacot of the Sandoz Family Foundation, co-owner of Parmigiani Fleurier.

Upper-price Perrelet’s entry into women’s automatics includes a lunar-phase watch (without or without diamonds) on a sharkskin strap. High-luxury brand Léon Hatot has its first-ever contemporary automatic line. Upscale Hublot is “putting more active focus on the women’s market,” says Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive officer of Hublot, whose Aspen, Big Bang Black Magic, Frappuccino, and Porto Cervo automatic chronos were developed with “female clientele in mind.”

Others are expanding what they already offer. Blancpain has had individual women’s watches, but its Blancpain Women line of “feminine mechanical timepieces” is its first for women connoisseurs. JeanRichard is enlarging its women’s market with watches using its new JR1000 movement. High-end Roger Dubuis is expanding its Excalibur and Sports Activity Watch lines with more women’s models. Maurice Lacroix unveiled its Masterpiece Tonneau Dame in hand-wound and self-winding versions.

NEW MOVEMENTS

Paralleling automatics’ spread are two related trends. One is more upper-price brands making their own movements or having ones made only for them. Maurice Lacroix unveiled its first in-house movement—the hand-wound ML 106—with flourish (including avant-garde dancers). Capping “a major three-year effort and investment,” said CEO Philippe C. Merk, it’s “a logical development in the accelerating mechanical watch trend and our company’s evolution.” That was one of many introductions in Basel and Geneva. Among others: Frédérique Constant’s automatic version of its hand-wound Heart Beat movement, developed by eight specialists, and Jacob & Co.’s Quenttin, with the brand’s fifth in-house automatic movement and the world’s first 31-day power reserve.

TAG Heuer presented the next phase in its 1/100th-of-a-second chronograph movement technology: the Monaco Calibre 360 LS (Linear Second), based on its Monaco V4 Concept. Perrelet, which invented the automatic movement in 1777, teamed with watchmaker Paul Gerber to create a retrograde-seconds watch, with two rotors on three ball bearings turning unilaterally. Carl Bucherer debuted its Manero complications line, using Bucherer movements.

Roger Dubuis unveiled six in-house calibres (three with world-first features) for its 2006 watches, while the Franck Muller Group announced that by year’s end, its five luxury brands will all use its manufactured movements. Others with in-house movements include Harry Winston, JeanRichard, Panerai, and Parmigiani Fleurier, while Concord, Dunhill, and Ebel, among many, presented watches using proprietary movements.

(A side effect of mechanicals’ comeback is more skeleton watches, and more with dial apertures, and/or exhibition casebacks. “Mechanical watch lovers, like car lovers, like to see the engine,” says Isabelle Veillard, product development manager for Vacheron Constantin, whose limited-edition men’s skeleton minute repeater uses the world’s slimmest mechanical movement.)

It isn’t all mechanicals. Swiss movement maker ETA has a new quartz calibre with opposing retrograde counters, while Timex’s new midprice watches, called TX, use German-engineered six-hand mechanisms exclusive to Timex.

GETTING COMPLICATED

The other trend paralleling automatics is the spread of esoteric functions originally created for a pre-electric era and costly timepieces favored by collectors. For years, more common “complications”— chronographs, moonphases, perpetual calendars, time zones—have been put into both mechanical and quartz watches in all major price levels. Now, as they seek to widen business in a competitive upscale market, watchmakers are adding more-specialized complications.

Last year, there was a flood of upper-price watches with tourbillons (which counteract gravity’s effect on mechanical movements), many for the first time. That trend continues. This year, many mid- and higher-price brands (beyond those specializing in complications, like Franck Muller or Pierre Kunz) have repeaters (mainly minute repeaters), retrogrades (seconds, days, dates, months), jumping hours (the hour numeral in a window “jumps” or changes on the hour), and flybacks (a chronograph function).

Among many are de Grisogono’s eye-catching FG One with jumping hours and retrograde minutes and seconds; Milus’s square Herios tri-retrograde seconds skeleton; Parmigiani Fleurier’s women’s with triple retrogrades; Breitling for Bentley’s Flying B, with jumping hour; the PRS516 Retrograde of Tissot, best known for T-Touch quartz watches; Blancpain’s women’s flyback chrono; Harry Winston’s Ocean Lady Retrograde; Nautica’s flyback hour watch; Jean-Mairet & Gillman’s triple retrograde skeleton watch; Breguet’s double retrograde; and Vacheron Constantin’s patented 31-day retrograde date.

This isn’t limited to Swiss watchmakers. One measure of the revival of mechanical watchmaking and complications is seen in new products from Japan’s Citizen and Seiko, two of the world’s leading quartz watch and movement makers. Citizen, a leader in batteryless quartz watches (Eco-Drive) unveiled the world’s first light-powered watch with minute repeater, perpetual calendar, dual time, and alarm ($485–$595). Seiko, which launched the quartz watch revolution in 1969, last year presented its innovative Spring Drive (combining mechanical and electronic technology) and this year debuted its limited-edition (five), luxury-price ($150,000) handcrafted Credor Sonnerie (a complex mechanical complication, chiming hour and quarter hour).

The surfeit of complications is provoking a reaction from some watchmakers, even those known for them. “There’s an inflation of complications,” said Fabian Krone, CEO of German luxury brand A. Lange & Söhne. “Everyone is trying to add another to their watches, thinking the more complications, the better. But the heart of watchmaking isn’t complications themselves, but the best craftsmanship, quality, and precision.” A. Lange & Söhne’s “antitrend” response (in Krone’s words) is the Richard Lange watch, based on early 20th-century navigation watches—“A pure watch, without complications, that only tells time,” says Krone, “an example of finely crafted, state-of-the-art watchmaking.”

REASONS FOR GROWTH

The increase in automatics and complications, especially in the U.S. market, has several sources, said industry experts at the Swiss shows.

One is that more consumers—especially young adults and working women—are more aware of fine watches through watch ads, reports, and fashion photos in consumer magazines, newspapers, and TV. “They know about automatics and complications like retrogrades because they see them in so many ads and articles,” says Cindy Livingston, president of Callanen International, which makes Guess, Guess Collection, Marc Ecko, and Nautica. “As our younger customers move up [in age and income] and become more sophisticated about watches, we’re offering them watches that are more sophisticated.”

And more want watches with the “look of luxury,” adds Kim Anderson-Curry, Callanen senior vice president of marketing and product. Automatics are now synonymous to the public with “real watchmaking” and with “the look of luxury [because] all luxury brands have automatics,” she notes.

That link of “real” watchmaking and the “look of luxury” with mechanicals is also why fashion brands like Chanel, Dior, Gucci, and Versace have become serious watchmakers and more high-end jewelry/watch brands like Jacob & Co. make their own movements.

Complications’ spread is partly a spillover from multifunction quartz sport watches. “There are more complications, because technical watches drive the men’s market,” notes Stuart Zuckerman, Citizen Watch Co. of America vice president of marketing. They also enhance a timepiece’s appeal to buyers. “We try to put as much added value into a watch as possible,” says Rudy Chavez, president of Baume & Mercier North America. “Consumers appreciate those extra touches and added details.” Michael Goldstein, Perrelet managing director, agrees. “Watches with complications that make sense provide excellent value for a customer’s money,” he says.

More complications also help brands jostling for business, especially mid- and upper-price ones. “Adding a complication usually found only in expensive watches opens a new market for us,” said one official privately to JCK.

Another big factor in automatics’ growth is the Chinese watch industry, which exported 1 billion watches worldwide in 2005, mostly low-end quartz. Intense competition in that industry is making more Chinese watchmakers shift to midprice and high-end products.

Growing use of Chinese-made movements and watches by more Western brands was evident at BaselWorld 2006 in the rising number of affordable automatics. As JCK was told by Bob Chong, chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s watches and clocks advisory committee, “More brands are coming into China” to make watches or have them made.

He noted, “Chinese mechanical watches are now very popular in the United States. It’s a growth area and has been for two years. [A consumer] can buy for a few hundred dollars a watch that looks like it cost thousands.”