The 26th edition of the SIHH, time markers - Part 2
In an interview years ago at the height of the recession, Jean-Claude Biver boomed at me that when times were hard, it was time to invest, advertise, go to the markets. Well, those markets are capricious at the moment, and the brands are being careful with their product, all the while investing in events. The results are, how should I say this: interesting.
At any industry confab, particularly though the SIHH, which is the launch pad for the watch industry’s year, the $64k-question is always "What about the trends?" Answering that question publicly on the Internet-of-no-amnesia can dangerously expose one as a shaky speculator or of being in the pay of Big Watch. But it also begs the question: Why should trends be yearly phenomena? Aren’t they a kind of “transchronic” synergy between the watchmaker’s inspiration and the consumer’s willingness to open his or her wallet? As such, trends are in fact has-beens.
But it’s always worth giving it a try anyway. And somewhere between the presentation of the latest crop of Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso (celebrating 85 years of that very enduring model, tbd at another date) and the windy bus stop in front of the Palexpo something struck me, or rather: a concatenation of two quotes comes to mind, a little platitudinous for sure, and to be tested against reality. The first, Nietzsche’s famous “What does not kill you will make you stronger,” and the other, the cowboy wisdom: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The flash came while recalling a double presentation by Hautlence and H. Moser & Cie at the Carré des horlogers. After sailing through some dire financial straits, these two brands found refuge in the MELB holding owned by former Audemars Piguet CEO Georges-Henri Meylan, who runs things with the wisdom of age and the help of his three sons. No sibling rivalry possible between the brands, though, because they are so radically different. Cheek-by-jowl, however, they represent two different segments of the market.
The one is classically beautiful, no make-up, a perfect, natural body, smooth lines and surface. The tagline “Very rare” chosen by H. Moser & Cie, might as well refer to the number of watches the brand produces annually in its workshops in German Switzerland. One thousand all told, which is less than some limited editions for other brands. These products strive for understatement. The smoky blue introduced a few years back for the dials give these watches an ephemeral quality. Two barrel springs drive this slow-beater (18,000 vph) for over 7 days. The brand has been careful not to clutter the dials with subdials, hands and numeral tracks. Power reserve indication shares space with the 9 o’clock marker, and complementing the large date at 3 o'clock a small sweep hand points discreetly to the hours, which now double as months. Very rare, very clever as well.
Hautlence, on the other hand, epitomizes the Nietzsche quote above: has always sought to tell time in a surprising, different way. Early on, the brand founded by Guillaume Tetu and Jean de Retz produced very complicated in-house movements with little drive chains, trailing hours, and, way at the start, a rod that cleverly connected retrograde minutes to an hour disk. Born in 2004, at the beginning of the Age of Bling, it squeaked by the Recession, went through some serious self-examination, experienced extensive liposuction and came out the other end as a leaner machine, with a more accessible portfolio. The sharp, techno lookers are still there, like the Vortex collection, some with Moser movements. Among the options at the lower end of the scale are Invictus and Avant-Garde models with Dubois Depraz movements inside.
For the, the tenth anniversary celebrations in Neuchâtel, the brand invited all its friends in the watch world for a huge bash under its new tagline, Cross the line. Key to the new concept was a brand ambassador/partner, Eric Cantona, a former football star, who may not have much pull in the USA, but elsewhere apparently. Cantona, a collector of art, seems to represent this Cross-the-line-type dude, barrel chest, black beard, earthy, cultivated yet a little rough on the edges, the persona that men would like to slip into every now and then when hunting for a partner. Cantona is more than a figure head. He was already the inspiration behind the Invictus Morphos (with a butterfly design inside). The Vortex Primary, a quirky, hatchet-faced watch with panels of stained glass, was actually designed by Cantona.
For the most part, though, the brands tended to be doing what they do best and certainly not rocking any boats. Which is not such a bad idea, in fact, given the feeling of uncertainty worldwide and the economic flailings exhibited by China, the Great Eastern Hope of the industry these past years. Much of what the SIHH had to show was not dissimilar to last year's crop, small changes, some gimmicks, like a cute red, triangular power reserve indicator in the intersection of the subdials on the Richard Lange Jumping Second – not to disparage A. Lange & Söhne, whose watches remain epitomes of technical skill combined with exquisite industrial design. But changes and novelties are being done incrementally.
Another case in point, though: in 2015, IWC celebrated the 75th anniversary of its Portuguese with more Portuguese, this year was the turn of the Pilot’s Watch Mark XVIII collection, celebrated with more Pilot’s Watches… The collection sprouted a few special editions, like three new versions of the “Petit Prince,” in honor of the great Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Big Pilot’s watch (a remake of a 1940 timekeeper), a Pilot’s Chronograph and a Mark XVIII. Each watch features an engraving of the Little Prince on the back instead of a transparent case back, and the dials are blue. The simplicity of the Big Pilot’s is, oddly perhaps, the most effective. St. Exupéry might have been a little irritated about being used for a commercial enterprise, even though its all for a foundation in his name to bring books to Cambodia, but no doubt he would have been pleased by the very balanced esthetics: "In anything at all," he once wrote, "perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away."