The Appeal of ‘Real Watches’

Who would have thought that so much watch news of the early 21st century would concern not quartz modules, alternative energy sources, or digitals, but rather good old-fashioned mechanical watches? That’s what’s been happening recently, and the growing popularity of mechanical watches was evident at 2004’s Swiss watch fairs in Basel and Geneva.

Consider the following: Mechanical watches for women are an active category. More fashion and mid-priced watchmakers are adding mechanical timepieces. More timepieces feature once-arcane complications—such as tourbillons, flybacks, regulators, and retrogrades—in addition to more common ones like perpetual calendars and moon phases. And more mechanical watches are intended not only for enthusiasts or collectors but also for an increasingly watch-savvy public, including working women.

Limited-edition timepieces also are booming. It’s almost requisite for makers of fine watches—and makers of many mid-priced ones, too—to unveil not only new collections but also limited-edition versions. These are aimed at both collectors as well as consumers with particular lifestyles or hobbies, such as car fans, history buffs, and pilots. There’s also a tiny but growing number of high-end watchmakers specializing only in limited-production watches.

Meanwhile, watches are becoming what one watch official calls “functional accessories” for working women, giving added importance to styling and design. Watchmakers are paying more attention to catwalk fashions and designing timepieces to complement clothing and jewelry trends, seasonal styles, and colors. This year’s new timepieces, for example, feature pink, pale blue, red, and orange extensively. The most prevalent tone, however, is white.

Color isn’t watchmakers’ only nod to popular fashion. “Oversized” watches, still popular with many women and men, are becoming a style niche within the industry, and this year’s Swiss shows unveiled a wider variety of such styles.

The following stories provide additional details about this year’s major watch trends.

Colorful Mechanicals

A generation after the “quartz watch” revolution seemed poised to extinguish “old-fashioned” mechanical watchmaking, sales of mechanicals have enjoyed an impressive resurgence. The trend has spread beyond the upscale domain to become a growing segment of the global mid-price watch market (including America’s) as more brands add or expand mechanical lines.

Swiss Army, for example, is focused on building up its mechanical watches to complement its quartz ones, says president Sue Rechner. “Mechanical timepieces are coming back,” she notes. “There are more stories about them in the press. More young adults are interested—and trends are started by the young. Women are buying bigger mechanical watches, often men’s models.” And for many people, she explains, mechanical watches with their finely crafted movements “represent real, genuine, credible watchmaking.” The best people to sell such watches, she says, are jewelers—and essentially all of Swiss Army’s 1,000 U.S. retailers are jewelers. “They sell mechanicals very well, because they’re well educated in these types of timepieces.”

Among many new mechanicals at this year’s shows were Swiss Army’s ChronoPro chronographs (42 mm) with Valjoux movements, and the affordable Ambassador (41 mm) with see-through caseback; Cyma’s retro-style 18k and steel Nineteen Forty series for men and women, its first automatic; Gevril’s Serenade, featuring dial windows for night and day; and Bulova’s three new Accutron automatics.Among men’s watches, Michele—known for stylish unisex fashion watches—introduced its “first true men’s watch,” the large automatic Turbino. Spanish jewelry designer Carrera y Carrera debuted its large, masculine, rectangular automatic Tempus Fugyt Chrono, and Mondaine’s two-time-zone Sports Gents line is a sporty version of its iconic Swiss Railways watch.

Getting complicated. A big selling point of a finely crafted mechanical timepiece is the variety of complex functions—”complications”—and this year’s newcomers have much to attract watch fans’ interest.

New regulator timepieces (with separate displays for hours, minutes, and seconds) were unveiled by DeWitt, Hublot, and Chopard, among others. Chopard was among the first to feature this complication in a contemporary wristwatch. Blancpain added one using two minute hands—one for current time, the other for solar time.

More complications: Luxury name Harry Winston’s limited-edition curved Avenue C adds jumping hours. Bulgari’s Diagono Professional GMT combines three time zones with a flyback hand, while Corum incorporates three complications—chronograph, flyback, and big date—in a contemporary timepiece. Another three-in-one is the Patravi Tonneaugraph of Carl F. Bucherer, a Swiss brand new to the U.S. market, with chrono, big date, and power reserve in an elegant barrel case. Georges V’s automatic calibre G.V. 5050 combines a perpetual calendar, chrono, moon phase, and flyback with hours, minutes, and seconds—and winds in both directions, too.

DeWitt and Gerald Genta were among the many brands showing new watches with retrogrades. Maurice Lacroix has three models, including a double retrograde and another—the Jours Retrogrades Tonneau—for weekdays. Pierre Kunz’s 44-mm Sexy Time boasts three retrogrades, two arching over each other, with power reserve indicator on the caseback.

But in an industry dominated by quartz watches, complications are no longer limited to mechanicals. Citizen’s PCWR100 is the first-ever light-powered retrograde perpetual calendar, while Timex unveiled a collection of new perpetual calendars priced at under $100.

‘T’ time. Once found occasionally in high-end timepieces, especially pocket watches, tourbillons—which ensure accuracy by compensating for gravity’s effects on a mechanical movement—are appearing in special editions of fine watches. There are reasons for that, says a 2004 IWC report: Watchmakers like the technical challenges required by “the minuteness of a tourbillon’s components,” and watch wearers are fascinated by the “mechanical mystery” of tourbillons, which usually are seen through a front or back display window.

Tourbillon debutantes at this year’s Swiss watch fairs included skeleton versions from Omega and Piaget’s Emperador (the world’s thinnest tourbillon); Movado’s platinum Museum model; Bulgari-Bulgari’s tourbillon (created by Daniel Roth, owned by Bulgari); and watch designer Jorg Hysek’s very limited edition (10) XX-Ray, a metal cuff watch with tourbillons seen in two adjoining bezels. Blancpain’s newest Léman is equipped with tourbillon, big date, and power reserve.

The new Gerald Charles brand—a joint effort of renowned watch designer Gérald Genta and master watchmaker Antoine Preziuso—features a new caliber with tourbillon signed by both men. Also debuting first-time movements with tourbillons made in-house were Breguet, Zenith, IWC, Daniel Roth, and Roger Dubuis (in its new Sports Activity Watch line). Bulgari’s Gerald Genta brand unites a tourbillon with a perpetual calendar and world timer in a 42.5-mm timepiece and retrograde hours in another.Especially impressive are Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Grande Complication Gyrotourbillon I, with patented spherical tourbillon, and Franck Muller Geneve’s Revolution #3, with a triaxial tourbillon (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal). The watch was one of four Muller “world premiere” tourbillon models, including a multi-patented minute repeater. Master watchmaker Thomas Prescher debuted a boxed wristwatch set with triple-, double-, and single-axis tourbillons. Gerald Genta’s new octagonal 45-mm Octo line includes a tourbillon perpetual calendar world timer and a tourbillon retrograde, all in platinum, white gold, or pink gold with tantalum bezels.

Tech Marvels

Technological innovations, many involving mechanical watches or movements, flourished at the 2004 Swiss watch fairs. Notable debuts included TAG Heuer’s Monaco V4, a radical re-rethinking of the mechanical movement using tiny belts of high-tech polymer instead of gears and pinions, along with a linear oscillating weight, in a rectangular design it calls “the movement of the third millennium.”

Harry Winston’s 44-mm platinum Opus 4, the latest in the luxury brand’s innovative watchmaking series, has a reversible case with a manually wound tourbillon and minute-repeater with “cathedral gongs” on one side, and a large moon-phase display and date-ring indicator on the other. Winston also launched its first limited-edition Project Z1 concept watch, an automatic sports chronograph with a new movement (three off-center retrograde indicators and a compensating toothed gear), a new design, and an alloy (Zalium, harder than titanium) never before used in watchmaking.

Some brands link rotating bezels with their movements. Newcomer Vogard’s patented world timer integrates bezel, case, and movement to change time zones by rotating the bezel (with different cities for pilot, golfer, businessperson, American, and personalized models). Crownless automatic Harwood, reintroduced here after 80 years, uses a rotating bezel, not a crown, to wind the watch and to change and set time. Dunhill’s Bobby Finder SP30 chronograph has an innovative sliding bezel that engages its chrono buttons and causes them to retract.

A technical standout is Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony watches, saluting mariners Magellan and Zheng He, with a patented mechanism that displays hour and minute numbers in a window on the bottom of the dial, which is composed of overlapping enameled plates.

All functions of Blancpain’s Villeret chronograph are activated by one button rather than three. Dubey & Schandenbrand´s Spiral VIP is an ambidextrous chrono with push-buttons on the case’s right and left sides.

Frederique Constant ‘s Heart Beat caliber FC 910 (30 months in development by 22 specialists) and Patek Philippe’s Gondolo Calendario’s patented automatic annual calendar movement (with the date in three windows at the top of dial) both boast several innovations. Glasshütte Original’s new automatic calibre 95, in its PanoMaticChrono, has a central rotor and bilateral winding, via step gear, which provide constant energy—and better maintenance—for the watch.

Technotime, formed in 2001 by specialists in micro-technology, launched two patented movements for high-end watches: a chrono with column wheel and 60-hour power reserve, and an automatic caliber with a double barrel and 120-hour power reserve.

Porsche Design’s 49-mm Indicator is the first mechanical chrono with a large digital (non-electronic) display indicator (by Eterna) of stopwatch functions. Jaeger LeCoultre’s new Grande Reverso 101 has another unique feature: a crown with no connection to the movement. (It’s removable and is used to wind and set time in a notch in the caseback.)

Van Cleef & Arpels’ Monsieur Arpels Dual Time has “windows” in the case sides—not back—to display its movement.

High-end Lange & Söhne’s Lange Double Split, with its new manually wound caliber L001.1, is the world’s first flyback chrono with a double rattrapante. The watch uses Lange’s own balance spring, made in house.

Not all technological breakthroughs are mechanical. Germany’s Junghans announced it’s “licked the problem” of multiple U.S. time zones and unveiled the Junghans World Time watch, a version of its famous radio-wave watch (which uses signals from government atomic clocks to keep exact time) designed specifically for the United States.

Big Time

The continuing popularity of big, so-called “oversized” watches for women and men was underscored at the 2004 Swiss shows. Bigger watches were unveiled by such high-end bellwethers as Patek Philippe—including a 40-mm calendar timepiece, its largest-ever watch—and mid-price leaders like Seiko, whose men’s 42-mm Sportura is the brand’s first oversized watch. According to Patek Philippe spokesperson Tanya Edwards, bigger sizes are “a nod to the fashion in larger watches.”

Among this year’s bigger timekeepers: Breitling’s Chromomat Evolution automatic chronograph, 10% bigger (43.5 mm) than the original Chronomat; Hermès’s and Hamilton’s larger versions of their Arceau and Boulton watches, respectively; Nautica’s wide and narrow Santorini watch (44 mm); Zodiac’s sleek men’s watch with oversized steel case; and Elini’s New Yorker Jumbo Line (52 mm). Alpina’s distinctive new Avalanche automatic chronograph is 42 mm, and Officine Panerai—whose watches helped spark the current “big” trend—added the 45-mm Radiomir Blackseal, a smaller (by 2 mm) replica of its first watch (1938) for the Italian Navy.

Many of the new larger watches are for women: Ebel’s Tarawa now comes in a gents’ size (45 mm by 36 mm) “for women who like bigger watches,” says Ebel p.r. manager Dominique Alberga. Luxury watchmaker Harry Winston’s Avenue C women’s chrono is, admits global marketing manager Jim Haag, “very over the top, a very big watch with very big diamonds.” Longines has widened its La Grande Classique from 38 mm to 40 mm and added a “maxi” La Dolce Vita (30 mm by 36.5 mm). “It’s the trend in fashion, and Longines is responsive to consumers’ wants and needs,” says Jayna Ferraro-Salvatore, marketing manager for the company.

Some brands, including those known for big watches, are going the other way. Ritmo Mundo added a Mini Piccolo Data for “women who love the design but want it in a smaller size,” says owner Ari Soltani. Ebel has a mini Tarawa, and Glycine’s new Airman 9 chronograph with three time zones, though 44 mm, is smaller than its other Airman watches.

Auto Rally

At times, BaselWorld 2004 resembled a car show more than a watch fair. In fact, for a few minutes, Swiss brand Oris, sponsor of the Formula 1 BWM Williams Team, even turned its press event in a large, empty garage into a car rally, with F1 winning driver Fredy Kumschick driving his race car for several screeching, earsplitting turns around the stage and audience. At BaselWorld, Oris presented its new WilliamsF1 Team chronograph and Schumacher limited-edition watches.

Other watch brands displayed cars of automakers with whom they partner, including Breitling (Bentley) and Frederique Constant (1956 Austin Healy). Some brands feature prominent car racing champions in their marketing, such as Citizen’s new U.S. ads featuring NASCAR champion driver Michael Waltrip. But the most pervasive automobile influence on watches at the Swiss shows is evident in the watches’ designs.

Sometimes the influence is direct, as in TAG Heuer’s limited-edition SLR chronograph, made for Mercedes Benz, with details based on the car—i.e., stylistic “air vents” on the case side, the logo, push buttons, and dashboard “look.” Oris’s titanium WilliamsF1 Team chrono, with a design based on a Formula 1 race car cockpit, even features the tire tread on its rubber strap. Breitling’s newest additions to its Breitling-for-Bentley chronograph series (made for the British luxury automaker and racing team) are the Bentley 6.75 (named for a Bentley engine) and the Bentley GT (for “Grand Touring” cars).

They incorporate such Bentley signature features as the knurled finish on the bezel (inspired by Bentley controls) and the impression of a Bentley wheel hub on the caseback.

Still others are inspired by the general design of automobiles rather than by a specific make or model. Tissot’s automatic PRS516, a reintroduced 1970s model, is based on race car design and also has the impression of a steering wheel on the caseback. Seiko’s Sportura, with orange styling, is based on the dashboard of a high-performance sports car. Several of Dunhill’s 2004 watches acknowledge the brand’s history with cars, including the revamped Xcentric with features based on a dashboard, a pop-up crown like a gear shift, the whimsically named SP20 and SP30 (named for British traffic tickets), and the titanium and ceramic Car Watch.