The rampant use of silicon and other futuristic, non-traditional metals inside the watch movement is perhaps the biggest controversial element of modern high watchmaking. Some experts argue that components commonly used in objects like computer chips have no place in an expensive piece of wearable art that is expected to be repairable for generations to come, while others are of the opinion that if the watch world’s most historical creative minds were alive today, they would also be using any materials that meant technical advancement. There is no single answer to the controversial question of whether silicon et al belong in mechanical movements, but one thing is obvious: when two of watchmaking’s biggest names — Rolex and Patek Philippe — begin using the materials serially, you know it’s time to at least take them seriously.
On that note, Zenith recently introduced a whole new technology in its Defy Inventor that replaces 31 of the most sensitive traditional mechanical parts with a one-piece, homogenous, compliant, silicon component that not only further stabilises the mechanical movement to make it even more precise, but also makes assembly and maintenance much easier. Ulysse Nardin has also been refining its futuristic technology, as seen in the recent Freak X and its self-regulating silicon micro-blades. While that sounds great, purists may ask themselves whether such technologies can still be termed mechanical watchmaking.
And while we’re on that subject, did you know that plastics have found their way into some of the world’s most expensive wristwatches? I’m not talking Swatch or Casio plastic either; these are thermoset polymer composites used alongside glass, graphene, carbon fibre and forged carbon that some modern cases and even movement components are made of, including cases of certain Roger Dubuis, Richard Mille, Panerai, Zenith and Hublot models, among others. The good news is that the use of “plastic” in this way makes for an extremely strong structure. The more controversial news is that its use (once you know) might beg the question, so what is the consumer actually paying for? The answer: ingenuity, research and development. My opinion is that the use of plastics in this way does not diminish the value of these innovative watches. However, what I am not a huge fan of is plastic being used inside the movement, which can be found, for example, in ETA movements such as date disks and calendar wheels.
And speaking of plastic, cookie-cutter marketing and brand concepts are not only controversial but have proven to be less than successful after their initial uses. Georges Kern and Jean-Claude Biver applied innovative strategies to IWC (Richemont) and Hublot (LVMH) respectively, turning both into standouts. But when tapped to lead their respective groups’ watch divisions, each of these managers attempted to use the same strategies on other, at times historical, brands with less success.
Another managerial trend seems to be replacing the watchmaker with the manager. I’m no longer sure who creates the watches today. For me and many others, this tactic may feel like taking the soul out of the watch. But I suppose the industry may have been a little lost after the era of what I call “monster watches” — think Concord C1 Quantum Gravity, Jacob & Co. Quentin and Romain Jerome Day & Night, which contained two tourbillons but did not tell the time. These paved the way for timepieces that might have previously been unthinkable, putting haute horlogerie through yet another transformational moment. After the previous decade’s boom years and “fat” watch developments, the distinct trend became a return to “simpler” values: cue the influx of “vintage” style, which included loyal recreations of 50-year-old watches and brand-new watches with faux ageing and patina — lending it the dubious moniker “fauxtina”.
While that didn’t fly well with purists, it has been a successful way for brands with historical names to sell a lot of watches that many younger consumers consider authentic in style.
In 2009, the “Swiss-made” predicate came under renewed discussion when a major historical brand claimed that its then-new calibre was a “manufacture movement” when it was actually based on the blueprints of a Seiko calibre. At the time, a watch had the right to bear the “Swiss made” predicate if 50 percent of its value was created in Switzerland — that number has now been raised to 60 percent. There are still loopholes, and while the Swiss-made values aren’t exactly new, it was surprising because it wasn’t in the public’s consciousness before that. It is also interesting to note that other countries have more rigorous standards for the origins of materials of items claiming to have been made there.
While Biver was attempting to reshape TAG Heuer using the model he invented to successfully turn Hublot around, he did something else practically unimaginable: In 2016, he introduced the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T, an officially COSC-certified automatic chronograph with a flying tourbillon, at a truly shocking retail price coming in at just under 15,000 Swiss francs ($20,800) — at least 50,000 CHF less than other Swiss-made watches with the same complexity. Undoubtedly, this bold move raised serious questions about Swiss watchmaking’s pricing structure. It was also a major concern to other watch brands’ leaders, who feared having to drop their prices to more realistic levels (prices for Swiss watches had been soaring for years as demand increased).
However, the Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T has not been the most popular TAG Heuer model since Biver (who retired in early 2019 at the age of 70) took over LVMH’s watch division. That honour belongs to the brand’s luxury smartwatch, one of a handful — including the CHF 14,900 Samsung Gear G2 by De Grisogono in diamonds and precious metals — that has managed to consistently sell. All of the above has led to some dissatisfaction, leading consumers to look for more: more personal, more unique, more affordable, more creation of positive emotions and more of something that really fits their personalities. This has resulted in a variety of unique solutions, including secondary market options, watch rental “clubs” that offer a new watch to wear every month, and even watch customiser tools a la the automotive industry.
But one other big thing that it has led to is the rise of microbrands: mostly small, independently owned, non-established companies that manufacture on a very small scale using purchased-in components. Typically, a microbrand owner could be a designer but is rarely a watchmaker, and many microbrands get their start from crowdfunding. Microbrand watches, which rarely cost more than US$1,000 ($1,375), in conjunction with the numerous wearables and smartwatches now available, are in danger of usurping the lower end of the mechanical watch market. Which leads to an all-new question: How important is brand awareness and at which end of the price scale?
Now that microbrands (who chiefly sell directly to consumers), e-boutiques and other digital possibilities have arrived — and seem like they’re here to stay — do trade fairs have a raison d’etre anymore? If you look at the worldwide situation of large, historical, famous and important trade fairs, the world is obviously telling us “no”.
In the microcosm of the watch industry, where any controversial move seems huge, the disintegration of century-old Baselworld, the watch world’s biggest and oldest event by far, is monumental: In 2015, Baselworld had 1,500 exhibitors. Fast-forward to 2018 and the number hovered at 650, and in 2019, only 500 showed up. Among those no longer on board in 2019 was the Swatch Group and its 18 brands — a shocking decision. Nonetheless, it was an announcement that opened the dam, releasing another stream of cancellations from brands like Breitling, all looking for other avenues to reach the modern consumer in this digital age.
Which begs the question: Who is haute horlogerie’s target audience now? And if that question isn’t controversial enough, just think for a moment about the answer.
Editor-in-chief of QuillandPad.com, Elizabeth Doerr is a member of the Cultural Council of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie and has been on the jury of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Geneve for the last nine years.
This story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of A.