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Watchmaker’s Market

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Bustling streets during Geneva Watch Week.

Watches and Wonders Geneva always makes me think how lucky the Swiss are to have a veritable legion of tourism officers in the form of watch enthusiasts. I am talking about folks like us at World of Watches (WOW) Singapore and LUXUO, but also you, dear reader. This has been true since way back before there was such a thing as this particular fair in Geneva. To be fair (no pun intended), there is something magical and mysterious about Swiss time, and the answer always seems to be just beyond the heavily protected doors of the global watch fair held now in Geneva.

It now seems certain that Watches and Wonders Geneva has taken the place of BaselWorld as the main international watch fair and will only get bigger as the years march on. Already, there are multiple showcases happening around the city during what is being hailed as Geneva Watch Week, unofficially. At the same time, Geneva Watch Days is still scheduled to run later this year — the city has emerged as the proper international capital of watchmaking. For those of you who know anything about Geneva’s present status and its history, this might only seem fitting.

Visitors during the Watches and Wonders GENEVA, in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 27, 2023. The Master Event of the Watches and Wonders ecosystem brings together the leading names of the Watchmaking and luxury industry from March 27 to April 2, 2023 at Geneva Palexpo. (KEYSTONE/Cyril Zingaro)
Photo: Keystone/ Cyril Zingaro

Just like last year, WOW Singapore was fully sponsored by all participating brands exhibiting at Watches and Wonders Geneva — though there are no special coverage payback stories. Generally speaking, as a watch specialist magazine, nothing gets us psyched up like a watch fair, so we are only too happy to cover Watches and Wonders Geneva. In fact, we have been doing just that online since the fair started and have not really stopped. This story is also one of several in our summer issue covering the watch novelty exhibition as well as the novelty debutants themselves.

Struggling with Time

This particular story is a primer for those who want some facts and figures about the Geneva fair and the other shows in town. It also covers some basic information that we realise is sorely lacking, considering some of the nonsensical coverage on YouTube and social media. Given that our team was on the ground and doing our own stuff, we realise that watch fairs do attract new people too, some of whom may not have the slightest idea of how it all works. For all of you, let me say this: the scrum to get into the exhibition area is not normal, but finding a way to eat lunch without stressing out is. That struggle is very real.

Watches and Wonders geneva 2023: guests taking pictures of watches for social media
Photo: Watches and Wonders

As for the security measures which caused airport-gate style snaking lines, these have always been a feature of the watch fair held at the PalExpo. In the days of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH, a name we will come back to), the metal detectors were very much standard. Further, no one had ever asked if we were bringing liquids into the exhibition area. This was new and totally egregious. The Asian contingent needs its cup noodles, and a thermos with hot water is de rigueur. It is simply impossible to find hot water outside of the staff canteen.

Speaking of hot water, on the subject of social media, there were more than 1.8 million posts mentioning #watchesandwonders which reached an estimated 600 million people (source: WWG 2023). This number, released April 3, has likely grown significantly and does not include the volume of material on YouTube or TikTok. For some reason, Watches and Wonders privileges Instagram unfairly, as evidenced by the usage of the hashtag as definitive of social media.

Conventional Thinking

Looking at official attendance and participation by watchmaking brands, the improved performance of the Geneva fair over last year’s edition is obvious. On the other hand, it should be remembered that BaselWorld drew something like three times the overall attendance and hosted virtually every brand, from the smallest to the largest. Just as BaselWorld did not feature Richemont brands, Watches and Wonders Geneva has a Swatch Group-shaped hole in its list of brands. The Swiss press did not miss the chance to remark on this and we too miss the presence of the most important Swiss watchmaking group which does not show at any kind of global fair. It is our understanding that the Group’s management has no plans to change the status quo, but we urge them to reconsider. Watches and Wonders president Jean-Frederic Dufour, who is also Rolex’s CEO, publicly extended an invitation to Swatch Group via Le Temps, so we will see how that goes.

Oyster Perpetual Explorer 40. Photo: Rolex
Oyster Perpetual Explorer 40. Photo: Rolex

Watches and Wonders Geneva is also missing the likes of Citizen (though Citizen-owned Frederique Constant did debut this year ), the Seiko Watch Corporation (Grand Seiko however showed up to the party after its debut last year) and Casio. On that note, the German and French pavilions are entirely absent too, though this just underscores the point that Watches and Wonders Geneva is not BaselWorld 2.0. It is certainly more inclusive than the old SIHH, with brands such as U-Boat and Charriol also finding spaces for themselves. If the main stage of the Geneva fair is going to take in more such brands, it may be better to open more halls and consider allowing these brands to create their own stands. This was BaselWorld’s solution to keep from looking like a convention, which it undeniably is.

Regardless, Watches and Wonders Geneva is still a convention where people come for work and to do business. It might look like a luxury mall of some sort, but it is definitely not. To be clear, that means retailers are here to buy watches – this is a simplification but it will do – and press are here to find stories. If you are not with the brands, then you are here to meet with either the brand’s commercial team or the marketing and communications team. Absolutely no one is here to fall in lust with a watch in a display case, and then try to get a good price on just that one watch to wear it walking around the PalExpo. At this watchmaker’s market, no one is selling direct-to-consumer.

Perpetually Crowned

But enough about our own gripes about what the fair is or not, save for just one more — and only because we want to bring our coverage of the fair across LUXUO and social media together. Watches and Wonders Geneva does not give out “best-in-show” awards — it is not that kind of event either. It falls to industry observers and journalists to make such pronouncements. Here is our take: Rolex has won the annual watch fair, if such a thing is possible, and reminded us why it deserves its crown. We began our watch fair coverage with Rolex online, where the excitement over what the brand will do in 2023 was palpable.

Puzzle and Bubble Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36. Photo: Rolex
Puzzle and Bubble Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36. Photo: Rolex

As Watches and Wonders Geneva got underway, the big news was that titanium is finally part of the standard collection as foreshadowed by the Deepsea model last year. This year, the Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master 42 got the RLX titanium treatment which was yet another sign that titanium was finally taking centre stage at Rolex. After everyone got done patting themselves on the back — some of you must have hurt yourselves (you know who you are) — even the most blinkered of observers realised that this was not the story.

The real news was on the classic side of things — the dressier bit of the Rolex story. In case you have been living in a time-free zone or a black hole, here is the deal: it seems the Cellini collection has been transformed into something quite different, called the Perpetual 1908. We initially thought this was just one watch that would add additional flavour, but a quick scan of the Rolex website showed that the Cellini models of recent times were nowhere to be found. One might think this a storm in a teacup, but this new collection arrives with a full set of material variants and exhibition casebacks (which showcase calibres with Syloxi hairsprings). The exhibition caseback on the Cosmograph Daytona certainly broke the Internet, but only time will tell if the Perpetual 1908 can become a real star.

Indeed, there are tonnes of little developments and major ones at that for the world’s most important luxury watch brand and this is not the story to get into all of it. Well, something to look forward to then, but do note here that the calibre 7140 powering the Perpetual 1908 is entirely new and features the first use of both the Syloxi hairspring and the Chronergy escapement.

Tracking Elapsed Time

watchmakers at Van cleef & Arpels stand at watches and wonders geneva 2023
Photo: Watches and Wonders

On the technical front, there was some disappointment this year with a perceived lack of horological substance. There were few new grand complications to speak of, if any. The word before the fair was that groups are concerned about economic contagion spreading and were preparing for the worst. The closest we got to grand complications was new variants of the Patek Philippe Grand Master Chime (Ref. 6300) and a concept watch from Roger Dubuis, the Monovortex Split-Seconds Chronograph, which the brand is not selling; this is the only true concept watch at Watches and Wonders Geneva which is quite something. Even Van Cleef & Arpels will be selling its automatons (they are all sold as we are reliably if not officially informed). We will come back to the Roger Dubuis piece at the end, but for now it serves as a nice lead-in to a hard-to-miss trend: the dominance of the chronograph.

 Patek Philippe Grand Master Chime (Ref. 6300)
Patek Philippe Grand Master Chime. Photo: Patek Philippe.

The chronograph complication received a lot of attention this year, with plenty of interesting examples including the following: the first new shaped variant appearing at Jaeger-LeCoultre since 1996 and now the only such watch from any major brand in the world; the Odysseus Split Seconds Chronograph redefining the user experience and the display; the Montblanc 1858 Unveiled Timekeeper Minerva Limited Edition also playing with user experience; and the Zenith Pilot Flyback Chronograph Big Date for which the user experience is once again paramount. The chronograph was also in focus at Hermes Horloger as well as at the independents, with Gronefeld’s wonderfully named Gronograaf being a standout. We can almost hear you groan out loud at how this watch debuted last year and won the Chronograph prize at the GPHG.

For this overview, we wanted to offer what amounts to a teaser on a significant new development at Grand Seiko, where yet another chronograph was on the up. Helpfully named the Tentagraph, the watch is of course known by its reference number, SLGC001, as is normal for Grand Seiko. It is recognisable by its tri-compax layout, pretty standard for this sort of complication. In all other ways, the Tentagraph is completely different, being one of only a handful of chronographs in the world regulated by something other than the Swiss lever escapement. Here, it is the dual impulse escapement you might recall from a couple of years ago and most notably in calibre 9SA5, which is now implemented in the chronograph calibre 9SC5. We understand that this is a chronograph module added to 9SA5. The Tentagraph is actually the first chronograph from Grand Seiko and is truly a magnificent start.

Incremental Advances

While it is not a chronograph in any way, the Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante also makes a show of doing something no watch has ever done. Patek Philippe also chimes in withan unusually offbeat Ref. 5224. In fact, this might have really been the fair of idiosyncrasy, given the tide of very odd watches that succeeded in surprising everyone. To list them, these are of course the Puzzle and Bubble watches from Rolex; the Oris ProPilot X “Kermit”; the Ulysse Nardin Freak One; the Chanel Lion Astro Clock (Chanel never fails to bring the quirk, so this is just one of them); and the Hublot Big Bang Integrated Tourbillon Full Blue Sapphire which still has a hard time escaping the shadow of the recently released Neon Yellow SAXEM Big Bang and the continuing Murakami collaboration.

Hublot Big Bang Integrated Tourbillon Full Blue Sapphire. Photo: Hublot
Hublot Big Bang Integrated Tourbillon Full Blue Sapphire. Photo: Hublot

Hublot brought a new watch to the party that we are reserving space for here, the MP-13. The bi-axis tourbillon with double retrograde time display looks like it was always part of the Hublot catalogue despite being totally new. The combination of the multi-axis tourbillon and retrograde action is a first in watchmaking, and the case is actually new here too (although it might put in mind the visage of previous MP models). While we will get into the details of the MP-13 in another story, it is suffice to say that this watch spoke loudest to fine watchmaking’s new emphasis on fit-and-feel, which is a bit of an obsession at WOW. If there is one thing you might recall about the MP series, it is that the cases defy simple explanations and are often challenging on most wrists. This one is an improvement, while still offering a lot of charm and horological entertainment value both.

Unfortunately, there was little else in the way of fun with time at Watches and Wonders 2023, with even the LAB exhibition being largely a showcase for the hits (and a repeat of last year’s highlights, which we understand given how much bigger the audience is this year). It is a minor complaint but nevertheless, having a robot dog steal the show because the watchmaking innovation is a rehash of last year’s is not great. Perhaps by accident, it also revealed that traditional watchmaking advances incrementally, not by great leaps forward. That is of course for the best. For an example of such a great leap, look no further than quartz in the 1970s.

This brings us to the final point, where that Roger Dubuis concept watch comes back to serenade us on our way out. Watchmaking brands sell dreams about what it means to master your own time, whether that is in the form of time-only watches built mostly by hand as Ferdinand Berthoud does, or of “hyper horology” as Roger Dubuis does. Most of the substance is between these extremes, but this should not obscure the fact that it is all still about dreams. We need extreme ends to make powerful statements. Otherwise, the most exciting idea about time is one that has to do with dollar signs. To put it another way, your wine fridge, shelf or cellar only really pays for itself if you think wine is a tasty beverage. If it is only about value, then taste is irrelevant, and that is a shame for both winemakers and wine lovers alike.

Wonderful Results

Watches and Wonders Geneva is now likely to be the largest watch fair in the world, if the numbers released by the organisers are anything to go by. In terms of material space, the organisers said nothing and most of the reports do not focus on this. For some context, it is probably the size of Hall One at BaselWorld, and twice the size of the old SIHH at the PalExpo (estimates are our own so send brickbats my way please). There are 48 participating brands at Watches and Wonders Geneva this year, up from 35 last year by our count with supposedly 10 new brands in 2023 and a couple having dropped out.

Open air parties during Geneva Watch Week.
Pumping lifestyle events adjacent to the fair.

Held over the course of seven days, the fair attracted 43,000 visitors (an improvement over the 22,000 in 2022), including 5,400 retailers and 1,400 journalists. These business visitors were joined over the weekend by 12,000 ticket-holders (these were sold at CHF70), which is impressive in a city that sometimes feels a little ambivalent about the watchmaking festivities taking place within its space. Watches and Wonders says that 25% of the tickets sold went to people under 25, with ticket-holder ages averaging out at a very hip 35. Given that watchmaking has been making a big deal of speaking to new generations, this is important and will go a long way to confirming that Watches and Wonders Geneva is on the right track. For some context, BaselWorld was criticised for being out-of-touch with the young while the SIHH was only for insiders who tended to be much older.

In a possible preview of future events, the action extended from the PalExpo, which is next to the airport, to the city proper. There were activities organised at boutiques and other centrally located spaces that were part of the official agenda for Watches and Wonders Geneva. To be clear, these did not include the adjacent showcases by individual brands, nor other exhibitions that were part of what is now known as Geneva Watch Week.

For the broader world, the fair organisers said that coverage of Watches and Wonders Geneva reached more than 600 million, which is roughly double what it achieved last year. It should be noted here that 2,600 journalists were tuning into the action on the official digital platform which undoubtedly helps in increasing the reach of the exclusive event. 

This article was originally published in print in World Of Watches‘ 2023 Summer special, issue #69.

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