“What recession?” you may have thought at the sight of the vast main hall of BaselWorld, the largest watch and jewellery show in the world. As far as the eye can see, the big names in watchmaking like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Chopard and Breguet are lined up in seemingly never-ending mirage of boulevards of luxury.
At the opening press conference of BaselWorld 2012, the message was clear. Despite the crisis, the luxury watch industry was booming. Jacques J Duchêne, President of the Exhibitors’ Committee reported that 2011 was a record year for the Swiss watch industry with 30 million watches exported. Turnover increased by 19.2 per cent to 19.3 billion Swiss francs with more than half of the exports of the Swiss watch industry going to the Far East. “We will continue to see growth in 2012 and an increase had already been recorded in January” added Duchêne.
The Swatch Group, that dominates BaselWorld with its nineteen high profile brands including Omega, Longines and Tissot, announced that first time it had surpassed the 7 billion CHF mark and that December 2011 was its best month ever.
“ 2011 was a record year for the Swiss watch industry with 30 million watches exported, more than half went to the Far East ”
Francesco Trapani, President of LVMH watches and jewellery division, and formerly CEO of Bulgari before it was acquired by LVMH last year, reports in The BaselWorld Daily News on 8 March 2012 that “With a broad perspective the last fiscal year was excellent for all the brands of the LVMH watch and jewellery division in terms of results.
At the individual level, Bulgari has seen a double-digit growth in all product categories. “We expect 2012 to be good at this stage” explained Mr. Trapani. “But I remain cautious due to the volatility of the economic environment. Anyway, considering the strong pool of highly profiled brands, we remain confident.”
So how is this optimism reflected in product offer? Unlike the previous boom years of the ‘noughties’ when experimentation and way-out looks were almost ubiquitous, restraint and a focus on classic handsome looks and tradition is the name of the game in 2012. Most houses are hammering home messages of tradition, craftsmanship and heritage, qualities dear to old world brands looking to sell prestige products in developing markets.
Impressions from the halls (Image: BASELWORLD)
Nichole Wong of market research company GfK China gave an interview in BaselWorld News and confirms this trend when she remarked of the Chinese consumer: “Luxury watches which are handmade and incorporating traditional technology are seen as assets which can last for a lifetime.”
In a showing of a heritage of craftsmanship, Gucci had an artisan burning and shaping bamboo for its bamboo watches, jewels and accessories and even the press kit was on a bamboo-clad USB stick. At Blancpain white-coated watchmakers hunched over miniscule movements while at niche watch house De Laneau – whose prices start at 32,000 CHF – enamel workers patiently tried to ignore the peering crowds and keep a steady hand as they toiled at their miniature art.
Likewise Chopard decided to go back to its roots and revisit old-style diamond lady-like watches with a little update. Patek Philippe steadfastly sticks to what it does best which is exquisitely made watches, with an increase in its offer for women. Following on from last year’s two high complications for ladies, this year sees the first ever women’s perpetual calendar priced at £67,275. Patek Philippe reports that they simply can’t keep up with demand for watches and that channelling production capacity into women’s watches means less for men.
“ Unlike the boom years of the ‘noughties’ when way-out looks were almost ubiquitous, restraint and a focus on classic handsome looks is the name of the game in 2012 ”
Reacting to the market, higher-price watches are more plentiful and it is no surprise that Omega is focussing on its ‘prestige’ watches at over £2,500 – its best selling category – and that almost the entire range of mechanical watches are now powered by the superior co-axial escapement, giving the brand a unique selling point and a more reliable mechanical watch.
The two-year old Ladymatic range of premium luxury mechanical watches for women is one of Omega’s current successes and the £ 22,000 red gold and diamond watch is the 4th best-selling model for the house. TAG Heuer likewise report that the new Link watch with diamonds launched with ambassador Cameron Diaz is tipped to be its top earner.
With robust growth seen in the luxury watch sector brands such as Omega, Breitling, Zenith and TAG Heuer to name a few, upping their product offering, Rolex’ entry price of around £4000 for a man’s watch starts to look very reasonable. But Rolex’s big news is the arrival of a brand new model and its first new complication since the 2007 Yachtmaster II. The SkyDweller priced at £32,560 is a cleverly simple watch for travellers that tracks time around the globe.
Impressions from the halls (Image: BASELWORLD)
The growth of companies looking to make their own in house movements is another strong theme. As the Swatch Group’s ETA movement maker withdraws supplies of movements to third parties, smart watch companies have long begun finding alternatives and in turn extol the virtues of the exclusivity of the ‘manufacture’ as opposed to mass-made off the shelf movement.
Hermès chose BaselWorld to introduce its first in-house calibre the H1887 in the Dressage watch with a starting price of £7,050 in stainless steel. LUC, the watch-manufacturing branch of Chopard announced that they have the capacity to produce between 15-20,000 movements themselves within the next 3 to 5 years. Breitling has raced ahead and its movement workshops are now able to supply 8 different watch models with entirely in house produced calibres.
With the purchase by Louis Vuitton of La Fabrique du Temps high-end workshop in Geneva and a dial maker, the house has more freedom to create its own style of complications. TAG Heuer has just announced that it is doubling its chronograph movement manufacturing capacity.
“ Reacting to the market, higher-price watches are more plentiful. Omega is focussing on its ‘prestige’ watches at over £2,500, which is its best selling category ”
Where inspiring innovation is to be found is in the small independent brands that populate smaller halls at BaselWorld. ‘The Palace’ is one place where niche brands such as Ikepod, De Bethune, MB&F and Urwerk are to be found. Each of these brands stands out for its strong design as well and often mind-boggling technological feats.
For all the classicism and traditional sensible styling on show at BaselWorld, two watches stand out and point at the way ahead for ultimate luxury watches. The Christophe Claret Bacarra from 194,000 CHF that is in fact a mini casino for the wrist tickles my fancy with its fun take on serious mechanics while De Laneau’s miniature enamel dials appeal to the senses in a more traditional way with exquisitely decorated scenes to be worn on the wrist, and like a work of art, each one is individual. The anti-thesis of mass luxury.
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