Let’s Do the Time Warp

At March’s Baselworld, most of the 1,952 exhibitors—representing 45 countries—reported a surge in orders. That’s in addition to the Swiss show’s 7 percent boost in attendance. And while vendors and watch-industry officials warned against expecting too much renewal too soon—the economic situation is still “fragile,” said one—retailers came ready to buy.

A rise in U.S. buyers (5.1 percent of visitors, up from 3.5 percent) symbolized “a general upturn,” said Baselworld’s end-of-show report. Many vendors scheduled more U.S. appointments than ever.

But exhibitors said retailers have recently become more demanding about price, quality, value, and turnover. “People are ready to invest if it makes sense to their business,” said Ebel president Marc-Michel Amadry.

Consequently, numerous watch brands, including upscale ones, adjusted pricing, lowered their points of entry, or concentrated on what a Seiko USA executive called “salable merchandise at salable prices.”

Bulgari Octo Bi-Retro Steel Ceramic; Bulgari, New York City; 212-315-9000; bulgari.com

A renewed focus on marketing also signaled a healthier watch industry. Brands including Casio, Ebel, ESQ by Movado, Frédérique Constant, and Maurice Lacroix launched campaigns, and TX increased its 2010 marketing budget 25 percent. Bulova upped its marketing 175 percent and created a new tag—“Designed to Be Noticed”—while Timex is reviving its famous “Keeps on Ticking” slogan.

After a 15-month slide, Swiss watch exports were up 8.6 percent in value and 25 percent in volume for the first two months of 2010.

One area that saw some downsizing: design. After years of oversize, over-the-top watches, there is now a shift toward smaller fashion watches. “It’s vulgar and uncool now,” said one executive of the ostentatious looks of the recent past. New watches are classic and understated. “The years of extravagance are over,” declared Swiss watch industry veteran Jacques Duchêne, longtime president of the Baselworld exhibitors’ committee.

Speaking of classic: It seemed everyone was combing their archives for inspiration. Nearly every brand, in every price range, debuted watches or lines based on classic styles, dubbed “modern vintage” by some makers. Jaeger-LeCoultre updated its Calibre 101 collection, which debuted in 1929; to commemorate its 150th anniversary, TAG Heuer rereleased its Silverstone chronograph, first produced in 1974.

Bell & Ross Vintage 123 Carbon; Bell & Ross, Miami Beach, Fla.; 786-454-9730; bellross.com

Color-wise, black was back—and black on black was particularly prevalent, especially in multifunction sports watches. Examples include Maurice Lacroix’s rectangular Pontos chronograph, Alfex’s Black Light, and Oris’ BC3 Advanced. Demand remains strong for high-end complications watches, often in limited editions. Popular functions include retrogrades, perpetual and annual calendars, minute repeaters, and tourbillons. A few new complications watches: Bulgari’s Octo Bi-Retro Steel Ceramic, Milus’ Tirion Répétition Minutes TriRetrograde, Breguet’s Tradition 7047 Fusee Tourbillon, Maîtres du Temps’ Chapter One, and Chopard’s L.U.C Engine One Tourbillon.

Digital displays—some combined with analog faces—are popping up again on mid- and even high-priced watches. Witness Hamilton’s retro Pulsomatic, Tissot’s Sailing Touch, and ESQ’s Octane. And as for cases and bracelets, ceramic and lightweight titanium are the materials of the moment, incorporated in TAG Heuer’s F1 Lady series, Bell & Ross’ BR03-92 Military Ceramic, Chanel’s J12 Marine, and Raymond Weil’s Nabucco Va Pensiero.