Geneva’s High-End Affair for Watches Champions Slim, Classic Styling

At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, which
comes to a close today in Geneva, 19 prestige brands owned by or affiliated
with the luxury industry holding company Financière Richemont—including
Cartier, IWC and Panerai—unveiled 2011 collections reflecting
an unequivocal return to slender, minimal styling.

A concession to the post-recession mood or a nod to the
tastes of Chinese buyers? Judging by the
latest export figures, the latter would seem a sure bet. Fast-growing Asian
markets—led by mainland China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, whose exports increased
from January to November 2010 by 55 percent, 46 percent and 37 percent,
respectively, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry—helped
catapult the industry to an 11-month total of 14.6 billion Swiss francs,
roughly equivalent to 2007 levels, the second best year in its history. (The
United States, by contrast, registered a relatively modest 15 percent gain
during the same period, bringing exports up to 2003 levels.)

The overwhelming trend among the prestige brands is for
clean, unadorned aesthetics that harken back to vintage models from the golden
years of the 20th century.

Take Jaeger-Le Coultre’s 80th anniversary tribute
to its legendary Reverso collection, for example. The Grande Reverso Ultra Thin
“Tribute to 1931” boasts a super-clean look faithful to the Art Deco styling of
the original.

Elsewhere in Switzerland, the 1950s loom large, as is
evident in the flurry of timepieces evoking the simple, refined Zeitgeist of
that decade. At IWC, the 27-year-old Portofino collection, inspired by the
dolce vita lifestyle of the Italian Riviera, has been relaunched to great
fanfare. The signature model, a basic three-handed automatic watch, has an
entry price of $5,000.

Brands with a history of producing slender, sober timepieces
are using the moment to emphasize their expertise at manufacturing thin
movements, which are technically difficult to achieve. Vacheron Constantin’s
Aronde 1954 watch, a rectangular model with a distinct double-curved case
inspired by the wings of a swallow, epitomizes the trend for simplicity, as
does the Parmigiani Tonda 1950, an extra-flat classic watch notable for its
no-frills aesthetic.

Even Panerai, which led the charge for oversized, chunky
timepieces earlier in the decade, has respected the vogue for simple,
mid-century designs with its Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days Automatic Composite, a 44
mm model featuring a brand new in-house movement.

Among watchmakers touting pieces with complications,
minimalism still rules—even when it comes to the most conspicuous of features,
the tourbillon, a rotational device patented by the French watchmaker
Abraham-Louis Bréguet in 1801 to counteract the effects of gravity on the gears
of a mechanical timepiece.

At 10.4 mm, the new Piaget Emperador Coussin Tourbillon
Automatic Ultra-Thin is the world’s thinnest automatic tourbillon.

Not to be outdone, Richard Mille is showing its RM 017
Tourbillon Extra Flat, a manual wind titanium timepiece measuring just 8.7 mm
from top to bottom.

See the March issue of JCK
for an in-depth look at all the watch models that made news in Geneva.