5 Notable Timepieces—and Trends—From the SIHH Fair in Geneva

At the 25th annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, held last week in Geneva, I did my usual three-day shuffle: arrive on a red-eye on Monday morning, dive straight into appointments at the Palexpo venue, eat and drink with reckless abandon in the evenings to compensate for the running around I’m doing during the days, sleep for about five hours, and repeat—before ditching town to spend an evening with my friends Chris and Kati in Zurich. The week is exhilarating, exhausting, and—for anyone with a stake in the high-end watch business—not to be missed.

I hate to say it, but this year’s fair seemed more subdued and far less festive than the silver-anniversary celebration I expected. The Jan. 15 news that Switzerland’s national bank had abruptly ended the 3-year-old currency cap that kept the franc pegged to the euro sent the industry into a tailspin, as the franc soared and watchmakers struggled to make sense of how retailers and consumers—particularly in Europe—would cope with the increase in costs. (For the record, every watchmaker I spoke with said there would be no increase in U.S. dollar pricing. But take that with a grain of salt. There’s no telling how the volatility will play out in the medium term.)

The currency hullabaloo comes at a hand-wringing time for the Swiss watch industry. The prospects for growth in China continue to disappoint, and though most watchmakers won’t admit it, plenty are concerned about how they’ll reconcile the inventory they already have in the pipeline with the anemic sales increases they’re now seeing. The imploding Russian economy isn’t helping matters, either.

Then there’s the Apple Watch—the imminent introduction of which is sure to force the Swiss out of the lull into which they seem to have settled. If you believe the pundits, like Scott Galloway, founder and chairman of L2, a digital think tank in New York City, traditional watchmakers are in for quite a jolt. “If you want to see someone in denial, talk to a watch executive about what Apple is going to do to their industry,” Galloway said at a one-day Clicks & Mortar conference I attended in New York City on Jan. 13.

As I sat through one presentation after another at SIHH, Galloway’s words rang in my years—especially when I spoke with Montblanc CEO Jérôme Lambert, who told me about the brand’s hybrid answer to the smartwatch competition, the e-Strap, one of five SIHH introductions that caught my eye last week:

1. Montblanc e-Strap (shown here on the TimeWalker Urban Speed Chronograph)

It was only a matter of time. Ever since the smartwatch conversation went into high gear last fall, after the Apple Watch was announced, Swiss watchmakers have struggled with how to react to the competitive threat. TAG Heuer seemed to be the only mainstream Swiss brand poised to offer a smartwatch of its own—until last week, when Montblanc showed its intriguing new e-Strap, a Bluetooth-enabled strap currently available with three models from the TimeWalker collection (the automatic model with e-Strap starts at $3,400).

“Apple—trying to emulate what they do, that’s stupid,” Lambert told me. “No way, we have to find another solution.”

But is a bulky NATO strap that receives notifications, counts your steps, and connects to a smartphone app—all while attached to a traditional analog timepiece—going to resonate with buyers? I’m not convinced—although I applaud the effort. It’s good to know that some people in Switzerland are developing a smart defensive strategy.

Courtesy Montblanc

Montblanc’s new TimeWalker Urban Speed Chronograph on the e-Strap

2. Clé de Cartier

The Clé de Cartier introduces a new case shape to the house’s extensive range of silhouettes: a circular bezel framed by an oval cushion case. The model’s distinct crown, set with a blue sapphire that remains flush with the metal surrounding it, recalls a key (clé in French) and is wound using the familiar gesture of turning a key. That’s not all that’s new; the watch also employs a new in-house movement.

I can’t help but see the case shape, with its gentle curves, as inherently feminine, but the 40 mm pink gold model below is positioned as a men’s piece. Will the Clé be the new Tank, the new Santos, or the new Ballon Bleu? If anyone can take an unconventional silhouette and make it desirable, it’s Cartier. I mean, have you seen the Crash watch?!

Courtesy Eric Maillet, Cartier

The new Clé de Cartier in a 40 mm pink gold case

3. Baume & Mercier Classima

The redesigned Classima line from Baume & Mercier is one of the few (very few) collections at SIHH with affordability as its raison d’être. “The key message for this year is we really want to nail the concept of affordable luxury,” CEO Alain Zimmermann told me in December.

The Classima is “like a suit for men,” said design director Alexandre Peraldi. “Classic, elegant, but not really timeless—it’s in tune with the times.”

He referred to the reshaped lugs, a new profile, and the enhanced numerals as incremental changes to the classic Baume & Mercier timepiece, which this year will have a ladies’ version for the first time. The opening price point for a ladies’ quartz model is $1,800, while a men’s automatic in steel starts at $2,600. A breath of fresh air amidst all of SIHH’s $200,000 flying tourbillons and $400,000 grand complications!

Courtesy Baume & Mercier

Baume & Mercier’s redesigned Classima in stainless steel

4. Roger Dubuis Excalibur Automatic Skeleton

Having proclaimed 2015 “the year of the astral skeleton,” Geneva watchmaker Roger Dubuis unveiled a collection of skeletonized timepieces featuring a prominent asymmetrical star inside the mechanical movement. Skeletons, it must be said, were all the rage at SIHH—it seemed as though almost every watchmaker had at least one contribution to the trend. But Roger Dubuis certainly had the most all-encompassing experience, including an Oculus station where visitors to the booth could don the virtual-reality headset and be transported into a cosmos dominated by calibers, pinions, and moving parts that recalled the outer space scenes in the 2013 film Gravity. The new titanium version of the Excalibur Automatic Skeleton below is among my favorite interpretations of the technique.

Courtesy Roger Dubuis

The Excalibur Automatic Skeleton in titanium from Roger Dubuis

5. Ralph Lauren Automotive Chronometer

A bonafide car nut, Ralph Lauren looked to one of the most legendary cars of all time, his award-winning 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe, for inspiration in designing this year’s Automotive collection. Intriguingly, the rare woods that appear as accents on the timepieces—like the amboyna burl wood that circles the dial of this 45 mm Automotive Chronometer—seemed to herald a mini trend spotted in Geneva, where a few watchmakers (including Urwerk) incorporated wood into their luxury timepieces. I’m digging it!

Courtesy Ralph Lauren Watch and Jewelry Co.

The 45 mm Automotive Chronometer from Ralph Lauren