The Mechanisms of Time

This may be the 21st century, but we’re in a new era of mechanical watches, as well as timepieces that evoke vintage ones of decades past. Those are two of the major trends coming out of 2005’s big Swiss watch shows in Basel and Geneva.

Three decades after then-revolutionary quartz-module watches supposedly doomed them, mechanical watches—usually self-winding, many with complications like time zones, moonphases, and perpetual calendars, in both unlimited and limited editions—are thriving again, and increasing in both midprice- and luxury-brand categories.

Top luxury brands have always had mechanical watches. However, the revived popularity of mechanical timekeepers (usually automatics) among watch consumers has been so solid in recent years, that in 2005 more midprice brands—such as Rado’s Sintra, Michele, and Movado Group’s ESQ, to name three—are adding their first ones to appeal to this growing market.

This mechanicals movement is also affecting marketing strategies of some upscale brands. The debut of Longines’s new Masters Collection, for example, is its “most focused–ever introduction of automatics,” says U.S. manager Linda Passaro. A. Dunhill has repositioned itself to offer only men’s watches mechanical models (mainly automatics) in limited editions (400 to 1,500 each). Daniel Mink, following a multiyear changeover, now offers only automatics.

Some are using mechanicals to enter America’s lucrative luxury-watch market. Most notable is Seiko, the Japanese brand that launched the quartz-watch revolution and that’s known for midprice, technically precise watches. At BaselWorld 2005, it unveiled its patented new Spring Drive collection, 30 years in development. The watches, coming here later this year, will sell for $3,000 to $3,500 in 50 to 100 stores, a third of a planned worldwide network of 300 stores.

Other brands this year are staking claims to segments of this market, including Swiss Army and Louis Erard. Upscale Raymond Weil has steadily increased its mechanical watches to 30 percent of its product, up from 5 percent a few years ago.

Beyond that, a number of upscale brands are using mechanicals, often with complication features, to open new markets or expand current ones, such as young affluent adults; men seeking more stylish dress and causal timepieces; and above all, women watch buyers.

The popularity of mechanicals has spurred growth in various niches. This year close to 100 brands are offering watches with tourbillons, a feature once familiar only to connoisseurs and collectors, which compensates for gravity’s effects on mechanical movements. The tourbillon fad is so widespread now that at least one Chinese company is making them for some European brands.

In addition, limited editions of watches—again, once the preserve of collectors, auction habitués, or connoisseurs—have become a successful and growing niche. Hundreds (including some quartz models) were offered this year, ranging from mid to luxury price. Some are still made in very limited numbers to celebrate the exquisite craftsmanship of master horologists. But many (in numbers ranging into the hundreds and even thousands) are special versions of an unlimited watch line or mark an event, ranging from a brand’s anniversary to momentous ones, like World War II’s end, or even obscure ones, like Jules Verne’s death. Limited editions (and their cousins, limited productions) have become so successful that more brands—such as A. Dunhill, DeWitt, and Roger Dubuis—specialize only in them.

The Mechanics of Luxury. It’s a point of pride for many luxury-watch brands to spotlight their new mechanical movements at the annual watch shows. Jaeger-LeCoultre, with over 40 mechanisms of its own (from the world’s smallest to ultrathin) usually adds three. This year it added one for its Master Compressor Extreme World Chronograph and the 8000 MC for Cartier’s new 42 mm Pasha. Glashütte Original, which annually adds a new one, introduced Calibre 100 (“a technical reinterpretation of a classic men’s watch for modern demands”) for its refurbished Senator line.

A. Lange & Söhne unveiled a new time-zone calibre for its signature Lange 1 timepiece. Frederique Constant has a new Heart Beat movement, with moonphase and date for a new woman’s watch. Roger Dubuis’s new men’s Excalibur collection uses two new movements with grand complications (hand-wound RD01, with two tourbillons, jumping hour indicator, retrograde minutes, and power-reserve indicator; and automatic RD08, with minute repeater with a differential chiming mechanism and flying tourbillon).

F.P. Journe’s new three-hand Chronomètre Souverain uses his new manual-wind calibre 1304, the first Journe movement made completely in his Geneva facility. IWC’s new mechanisms include one based on its first (from the 19th century) and the 80110 calibre—its “most robust movement ever”—used in its new Ingenieur family of watches. The Franck Muller Group this year began making its own automatic and hand-wound movements for its watches. Audemars Piguet has created automatic calibres for its Royal Oak Offshore Alinghi Polaris watch and its Royal Oak Self-Winding watch. Other luxury brands with new mechanisms include Parmigiani, JeanRichard, Girard-Perregaux, and Patek Philippe.