The 2001 Swiss Watch Fairs: Portents of Colorful Change and Innovation

For a few spring days each year, Switzerland is the center of the watch world, the Delphi of watch trends, because it is at the Basel and Geneva shows that the world’s watchmakers unveil their newest innovations. The following reports look at notable trends, innovations, and other highlights of this year’s watch crops at Basel 2001, the world’s largest watch trade fair, and at the smaller luxury watch shows in Geneva.

The Basel 2001 watch fair was dominated by three trends that garnered much press coverage: more watches for women, more color, and more use of diamonds or a “diamond look.” (See “The Timepieces of Basel 2001: Colorful, Sparkling Women’s Wear,” JCK, June 2001, p. 198.) However, this year’s fair also was notable for innovative watch designs, its spotlight on tourbillon watches, horological inventions, and the number of watchmakers introducing their own jewelry collections. Here are the highlights.

Style Notes

Dials. Soliel and guilloché dials are edging out mother-of-pearl dials. Larger Arabic numerals are more widely used. Examples include Corum’s Bubble watch dials, Jaquet-Droz’s stylish all-black chronograph, and Tissot’s ’50s-influenced steel Atollo chrono (with large numerals on both dial and bezel).

Cases. Demand for wider watches remains strong. cK’s Primary line has watches on wide leather bracelets in a variety of colors. Bally’s Fast Time (produced by Mondaine) puts wide, square steel cases on black bands with red edges. Wide, curved cases were debuted by Leonard and La Coste (both on rubber bracelets), while Corum showed the “ultra-feminine” Horizontal, a small-sized steel tube case held in place on a colored crocodile strap.

Rubber. Rubber for fashionable multifunctional and sport watchstraps and bracelets—sometimes combined with steel or gold—continues to spread among mid- and upscale brands. It also provided a contrast to the many colored straps, dials, and bracelets at Basel 2001. Rubber was used effectively in watches such as Chopard’s 2001 Mille Miglia automatic chrono (in titanium case) on a bracelet inspired by a 1960s Dunlop tire tread; the Oris TT1 Day Date, with rubber bezel; and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Gran’ Sport, which features grooved rubber straps and slate-gray dials.

Metals. Stainless steel remains the most popular “white metal” for both casual and formal timepieces in polished and matte finishes—sometimes both on the same watch. Striking examples include Universal Geneve’s contemporary Tableau in its Élégance Collection, with a sculptured concave bezel on a square case; Tissot’s steel version of its limber Milanese bracelet Bellflower series; De Grisogono’s automatic Instrumento No. Uno 2001, with a curved link bracelet and delicate satin finish; and Michele’s Urban chrono with copper-brown dial and sub-dials under a bubble crystal.

Crowning achievements. An interesting design trend involves the watch crown. A number of designs this year move it to a recessed slot at the “top” of the watch case, as seen in the Movado Elliptica or Fendi’s Gitro.

Two other trends in crown design oppose each other. One has the crown becoming larger as in cK’s UC Upgrade (with the crown at the 2 o’clock position). One of the largest and most pronounced is on The British Masters’ Graham Chronofighter Chronograph. Its large start/stop button is integrated into the winding crown, under a locking handle on the left side at 9 o’clock.

The other trend uses no crown at all. The Ulysse Nardin’s Freak, a new carrousel tourbillon, is wound by turning the bottom of the case. Wearers of the Rado eSenza set the time by inserting the magnetic tip of the watchstrap into one of two slots in the caseback.

Geometric eye-catchers. Round cases abounded, and there were more tonneau (barrel-shaped) ones, too. But watch designers’ fascination with the square as an expression of elegance and style is still evident in many new models. A standout was Boucheron’s new colored strap series in its perfect-square Diamant collection. Alfex’s new steel wristlet watch, by German designer Georg Plum, features a domed square case endlessly repeated in the cubed links of its integrated bracelet. Chopard’s Ice Cube added a steel manchette bracelet and a white gold version (smooth or set with diamonds) on satin bracelets. Coach’s Lafayette has a highly polished dial divided into squares, while Corum’s petite Sugarcube, with colored crystal, is little bigger than its namesake and comes on a spaghetti strap.

A striking geometric eye-catcher is Fendi’s Pyramid bracelet watch, with pyramid-shaped links and a pyramid-faceted crystal in aubergine (a dark copper color), black ion plating, or steel.

The tourbillon is one of the finest examples of the horologist’s skill and a delight to watch enthusiasts and collectors of luxury mechanical timepieces.

Also called a tourbillon regulator, it basically is a rotating cage or carriage containing the movement’s balance wheel and escapement. It turns continuously as the watch runs, correcting errors found in mechanical timepieces and maintaining the movement’s precision.

Tourbillon Treasures

The first tourbillon was invented by French master watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet in the late 1700s and patented in 1801. But a tourbillon is a complicated movement and difficult to manufacture. Patek Philippe’s new Sky Moon Tourbillon, for example, uses 686 hand-finished components. In the two centuries since Breguet, fewer than 300 watchmakers have produced their own versions. So it was unusual to see a mini-boom in tourbillons at Basel 2001. Here are a few:

  • Breguet marked the 200th anniversary of the first patented tourbillon with the hand-wound Classique 1801. Its tourbillon cage is visible at 6 o’clock, behind the watch’s hand-guilloché cover in a pink or white 18k fluted case. The hour dial is seen through an opening in the cover, and the movement through the sapphire crystal back. Each watch is individually numbered, signed “Breguet” and engraved with “Brevet du 7 Messidor An 9.”

  • Blancpain’s “Quattro” is a platinum watch in a stylish 42-mm-wide case. It has four complications—a tourbillon regulator, a self-winding flyback chronograph, a self-winding split-second chronograph, and a perpetual calendar (good through 2100) that never needs manual correction.

  • The Alfred Helwig Tourbillon 2, from Germany’s Glasshütte Original, is named for the German watchmaker who created the flying tourbillon. It has many features of the cantilevered tourbillon he produced in 1920, plus a retrograde date display. It comes in platinum or rose gold, in 25 pieces each.

  • Ikepod presented Australian designer Mark Newson’s Hemipode Automatic Tourbillon, the first in a series of complications it plans to introduce annually. The watch comes in steel (999 pieces), 18k white (99), yellow (99), rose (99), and platinum (23).

  • Patek Philippe’s double-faced Sky Moon Tourbillon is the most complicated wristwatch ever made by the renowned Swiss luxury watchmaker. It has 12 complications, including the tourbillon. The “top” face shows solar time and a perpetual date, while the reverse face (wrist side) has a map of the night sky and shows the movement of the moon, moon phases, and sidereal time. The mechanical module for the night sky dial is patented. The watch comes in yellow 18k or in platinum.

  • Designer Theo Fabergé, grandson of Russian imperial jeweler Peter Karl Fabergé, adds three complications to his St. Petersburg Collection of watches. They are a day/date, a skeletonized perpetual calendar, and a one-minute flying tourbillon viewable through an egg-shaped aperture at 6 o’clock. There are 25 each, in white or yellow 18k.

  • German watchmaker Chronoswiss introduced its first minutes tourbillon regulator, in platinum, 18k, 18k and steel, or all steel. Its guilloché sterling silver dial has a center-mounted blue steel hand to indicate the minutes (marked on the dial rim), and an hour sub-dial at 12 o’clock.

  • Swiss firm Frédérique Constant unveiled its Highlife Tourbillon Platinum, with date indicator on the silver-plated dial at 12 o’clock and tourbillon window at 6 o’clock.

  • Ulysse Nardin’s Freak is a unique eight-day carrousel tourbillon (a centuries-old variation of the tourbillon) by master watchmaker Ludwig Oechslin. The Freak, which isn’t a limited edition, has no hands, dial, or crown, and its novel, simple escapement needs no lubrication. Two bridges of the movement rotate from the center and mark the time. The lower bridge shows the hour, while the upper one—fitted with the balance wheel assembly and Freak’s unusual “dual direct escapement”—revolves once an hour and marks the minutes. In other tourbillons, say Ulysse Nardin officials, the balance wheel assembly moves every minute in a cage. In the Freak, the whole movement, including balance wheel assembly, rotates once an hour within the watchcase.

Tech-Mech Triumphs

The Basel fair always provides a stage for technology innovations. Here are some of this year’s.

  • Breitling unveiled its super-efficient SuperQuartz movement, a “thermo-compensated, chronometer-certified movement.” It’s immune to minute temperature variations that affect quartz movements and thus “guarantees a level of accuracy 10 times higher” than standard quartz movements, says the company.

  • Casio displayed its new wrist-wearable digital camera, part of its “Wrist Technology” series that combines timekeeping with other functions such as downloading music.

  • Citizen’s new Promaster Cyber Aqualand can interact with a computer via a wireless infrared link or cable, allowing for easy analysis and management of diving data and customized settings.

  • Chopard’s L.U.C. Tonneau is the world’s only automatic watch housing a shaped self-winding movement. It also has a decentered micro rotor, two superimposed barrels, and a power reserve of about 65 hours.

  • French watchmaker François-Paul Journe unveiled the world’s first watch whose movement has two independent balances synchronized by resonance, or vibrations, for mechanical precision (a “resonance chronometer”). Journe also introduced the Octa Grande Date, with the first automatic movement to keep chronometric precision for up to five days when not worn.

  • The Langematik, the world’s first self-winding wristwatch with a perpetual calendar, outsized date display, and patented “zero-reset” time-setting mechanism, was debuted by German luxury watchmaker A. Länge & Söhne.

  • Omega’s revolutionary coaxial escapement, by master watchmaker George Daniels, is now available in Omega’s revamped DeVille series of automatic wristwatches.

  • Tissot’s T-Touch—available this year in The Swatch Group brands of Tissot and Hamilton—is the first quartz timepiece with tactile controls.

Watching Jewelry

If luxury jewelers like Harry Winston or Cartier—or jewelry designers like David Yurman or Henry Dunay—can offer their own watches to complement their jewelry, why can’t watchmakers make jewelry? At Basel 2001, a number of watchmakers added—or said they will add—jewelry lines to widen their market, capitalize on their brand name, or comply with retail clients’ requests for jewelry accessories.

Alfex, for example, unveiled its sleek stainless-steel Moments line by German designer Georg Plum. Several members of The Swatch Group either offer jewelry (e.g., Breguet) or are developing a line of jewelry (e.g., Omega). But jewelry isn’t limited to high-end brands: Guess is launching its own jewelry this year, although it will be sold only outside the United States.

Meanwhile, watchmakers that already offer jewelry unveiled additions. One of the most impressive is in Cyma’s Sequoia collection, which added colored gemstones in rings and an 18k necklace composed of “leaf’ or teardrop links.