Every year for the past seven years, I have traveled to Geneva to attend the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, a high-end watch fair known for its gourmet meal service, urbane ambience, and low-key, Babelian hum. The experience is fun and fascinating, but also relentless. My days usually fly by in a series of back-to-back appointments, presentations, and lavish dinner parties, fueled by ever-present cups of espresso and flutes of champagne. By the time I return home, I am hard-pressed to remember much of anything.
This year, however, a few things stood out. First, there was the epic six-course meal hosted by watchmaker Vacheron Constantin at Domaine Chateauvieux, a vineyard in Satigny, on the outskirts of Geneva. Complete with paired wines, plump cuts of veal, and not one but two dessert servings, the four-hour feast included a cheese cart with a selection so mouth-watering (honey-drizzled with truffle oil!) that it may qualify as my most luxurious dining experience ever.
Vive le fromage! The cheese selection at Domaine Chateauvieux was divine.
Second, and more to the point: My God, the watches sold at SIHH are pricey! To see what I mean, check out our product-focused watch feature and look for Richard Mille’s blockbuster 2012 introduction, the RM 056 Tourbillon Split Seconds Competition Chronograph “Felipe Massa.” Limited to an edition of five pieces, each priced at $1.65 million, the watch owes its extraordinary cost to its groundbreaking case, cut and milled from a solid block of sapphire. The end result—which required 1,000 hours of machining, using cutting tools specially designed and tipped with diamond—represents the culmination of years of research and development.
Vacheron Constantin’s 2012 Metiers d’Art line includes this graceful tribute to M.C. Escher.
The other notable timepieces on display at SIHH—Vacheron’s Metiers d’Art collection, for example, a graceful ode to M.C. Escher, or Cartier’s brand-new Tank Anglaise, especially the $158,000 full diamond pavé version—were only slightly less rarefied. All in all, they provoked, for me, an epiphany: Nearly four years after the world financial crisis began, the high-end market—starring limited-edition watches and one-of-a-kind, collectible gems and jewels—is truly thriving.
The participants in our second annual retailer-designer roundtable discussion, which took place last month in Beverly Hills, echoed that notion. “I can easier sell a $50,000 ring than a $10,000 ring,” designer Erica Courtney told our group of nine. “Much easier.” (Read the conversation, “Designers and Retailers Dissect the Jewelry Biz.”)
After all, beyond craftsmanship, heritage, and costliness, the quality that unites so many of our industry’s most luxurious products is their singularity: They are distinctive enough to be branded forever into our memories. Like the gorgeous meal I enjoyed in Geneva courtesy of Vacheron Constantin, or the avant-garde Richard Mille watch that stopped me in my tracks when I saw it at SIHH, life’s greatest luxuries are those that we anticipate, savor, and never, ever forget.
The bottom line: Wealthy customers are more than happy to buy exclusive designs at prices that seem to defy all postrecession logic in exchange for a lasting memento. The only question is: Are you confident enough to sell them?