As the world of watchmaking gathered once again for its biggest event of the year, once again its brands did not disappoint. Ahead and during the 7-day Watches and Wonders event held in Geneva, several of the 48 brands present dropped new timepieces while others reintroduced or refreshed their classics, many mounted show-stopping immersive spaces, and some even had the luck of having A-list celebrities stop by for a visit.
And while watches may be relatively small in size, they more than make up for it in terms of value. Last year, Swiss watch exports rose to a record figure of 24.8 billion francs, up by 11.4 percent compared to 2021, helped by strong demand for luxury products and an increase in global wealth. And while geopolitical and global economic concerns persist, the world of watchmaking continues to steadily tick on for now, thanks to the continued demand from collectors, new and old, seeking the reassuring feel of a timepiece on their wrist or within their asset portfolio.
And reassurance is what many brands sought to bring to collectors this year once again, reviving their classic designs with a modern feel as seen at IWC Schaffhausen, whose reintroduction of Gerald Genta’s IWC Ingenieur SL timepiece from the 1970s meant the brand spared no expense in devising an experience worthy concept to capture the imagination of its collectors.
“This is the big moment for us,” Franziska Gsell, Chief Marketing Officer at IWC told Luxury Society. “We have now re-engineered the entire reference; after many years of rumours about when it might be coming back, it is now here. And what we are celebrating, when it comes to the marketing and storytelling, is really the era of the 1970s where industrial German design was in the lead, where it was a very future-orientated design language at the time.”
Channelling a distinctive 70s retro-feel to its exhibition space, visitors were invited to speak with an AI interface on an old-fashioned screen, browse through the brand’s updated Ingenieur Automatic 40 options, which were presented on steel tables to reinforce IWC’s history of creating steel watches and fully immerse themselves in its exhibition space complete with assistants dressed in lab coats.
“It's vintage, but it's future-oriented,” said Gsell. “We respect the past. It's very important for our legacy to bring the past into the watches…but we are always forward thinking.”
Likewise, at Rolex, which marked the 60th anniversary of its Daytona model with new colour combinations to enhance the contrast between the dial and counters, revisiting its past is a time-honoured tradition for the world’s largest watch brand in terms of revenue. Whilst the company did introduce a new watch, the Perpetual 1908, it waved goodbye to the Cellini and many of its timepieces featured updated versions with the use of new materials, colours and more playful watch face designs like its Oyster Perpetual range.
Others decided to push their creativity further, releasing new complications as seen at Parmigiani Fleurier, which introduced a new World Premiere: the Tonda PF Minute Rattrapante, which allows its wearers to use a timer (usually seen on a diver’s watch) on the movement itself.
“It is a function that doesn't exist at all in the watchmaking world,” explained Guido Terreni, CEO of Parmigiani, in an interview at the independent watchmaker’s headquarters in Fleurier, ahead Watches and Wonders.
“We kept this beautiful two-hand look when you don't need the function. And then the function became something else,” he said. “You can use it for anything… so basically, you're setting the minute, and you master the time you're playing with your delay. It could be a speech with 20 minutes with a board to express your ideas. You could be cooking your pasta, where you want it al dente, and then you taste it in another minute. So, it becomes something very playful, very useful and very elegant in the philosophy of what it is.”
Perhaps one of the most surprising pieces of news from the participating watch brands came from Patek Philippe, which announced near the end of the event that it would introduce a new model line for the first time in nearly 25 years. The family-owned company told Bloomberg that the new line is expected to be unveiled later this year or next year once all the final elements are in place.
For others, Watches and Wonders was an opportunity to highlight other ambitions, such as their new sustainability aims. Chopard held a press conference with its brand ambassador Julia Roberts to announce the introduction of recycled steel for all its steel watches, including its bracelets and cases. By 2025, the company aims to reach at least 90 percent of recycled steel in its Lucent Steel programme, and by the end of 2023, it aims to use Lucent Steel for the production of its steel watches, allowing the company to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of its steel.
And if the star presence of Julia Roberts wasn’t enough already, Watches and Wonders was also attended by Roger Federer, David Beckham and Eileen Gu, who were among the 43,000 unique visitors recorded at the end of the whole week, nearly double the number of attendees recorded last year.
Adding to this, the message from the President of Watches and Wonders Geneva Foundation and its President Jean-Frédéric Dufour in an interview given to Swiss media Le Temps – who is also the CEO of Rolex – about being open to including more brands like the Swatch Group, meant that excitement around Watches and Wonders, and its future evolution was at an all-time high.
However, out of the many brands on show at Watches and Wonders, many were cautiously optimistic about the outlook for the luxury watch industry for the year ahead, though worries over the supply chain and production remained a constant concern, particularly amongst smaller-sized watch brands.
“Buying a watch is an act of the future,” said Benoît Mintiens, CEO of independent watch brand Ressence. “It's very, very, hard to project these things. These shows are very nice because we see all our clients. We see many people that want to become our clients. We see end customers, people who have bought our watches and wear them proudly on their wrist. But we have to be careful in all these things, and we are very much influenced (by external events).”
“When I see the orders that we get from our retailers: they believe it's going to sell, otherwise, they would not have ordered much more than the year before,” added Mintiens. “But what’s a problem for us is that I had to tell my suppliers in May last year what I would deliver for this whole year. So you're always running behind.”
“For me, the world of watchmaking is polarising right now,” said Hermes Watches CEO Laurent Dordet, speaking on the landscape of the watch industry. “To be successful, it’s no longer enough to be a Swiss-made watch, with 300 years of history, making beautiful watches. People want to have quality and technique, but they also want to be different, have fun and be surprised.”
“It has changed so dramatically, but it’s coming to a level where it's all getting back to normal,” said Maximilian Schiefer, Head of Communications & Social Media at Chronoswiss. “Collectors are looking for special pieces, and people want more and more to differentiate themselves from others in the age of social media.”
What also remains important about gatherings of the industry is the chance for watch brands to communicate their passions, tell their stories, and connect with those just as passionate as they are. Of course, being able to demonstrate a superior level of originality, creativity and craftsmanship amongst your colleagues and using the event as a launching pad for your communication plans for the year doesn’t hurt either.
“We're setting the tone for the year,” said Cynthia Tabet, Global Product Marketing Director at Piaget. “There are a lot of hidden secrets to reveal. Next year is our 150th anniversary, so we’re setting the path for 2024.”
“Today, the competition is fierce and we have very strong colleagues with very strong expertise. But I think there is room for everyone to express their specificities,” she added. “It's nice to have a challenge, it also keeps you on your toes to continue to search for the next good idea. It pushes the artisans, the watchmakers, the jewellery makers, to find the next one… So it's a healthy competition.”
Meaning that in the world of watchmaking, where the time to create something is measured on a different scale entirely, many of its fans are prepared to wait for what they come to Watches and Wonders to see: the beauty and complexity of a mechanical timepiece.
“The majority of our customers understand,” said Terreni. “And what they all say to us is, please don't rush into the production. This is, of course, a mantra that we have,” said Terreni.
“Our clients are aware and more and more aware of what's happening,” said Tabet. “They're more educated as well. It takes time to emerge, to tell the story, to create watches, even the creative process between watches and jewellery, it takes time.”