Round Table: Reflections On Baselworld 2015
It’s already a tradition! Please join our Quill & Pad round table discussion on the fair that was: Baselworld 2015. Our participants are:
IS Ian Skellern, co-founder of Quill & Pad
ED Elizabeth Doerr, co-founder of Quill & Pad
BP Boris Pjanic, resident “vintage virtuoso” for Quill & Pad, founder of Watches & Art
NO Nancy Olson, resident pen expert for Quill & Pad and editor of NancyOlsonInk
LN Louis Nardin, editor-in-chief of The Watches TV
BC Ben Clymer, executive editor of Hodinkee
IS: In comparison with the cold and gloom of the SIHH – the gloom in that instance being generated by the shock of the announcement of a stronger Swiss franc rather than the actual weather – Baselworld was all sunshine and smiles. It was amazing the difference a couple of months makes.
ED: Yes, indeed, Ian! The Swiss franc announcement didn’t seem to hold perpetual sway, and I had the distinct feeling that people were generally satisfied with the current commercial environment.
IS: While Baselworld was by no means economically sunny for all brands, the mood in general was much more positive than it has been for the last few months.
ED: Which is quite interesting, actually, when you consider that not only the Swiss franc, but also the topic of the Apple Watch, and smartwatches in general, has been wreaking a bit of havoc.
BC: Baselworld 2015 was my seventh, and perhaps it’s my undoubted levels of horological overexposure or simply my old age, but I found it to be one of the least rewarding. The industry seemed to be simultaneously in a total panic over looming smartwatch technology and as shiny and confident as ever in its supreme Swiss luxuriousness; I think both are probably accurate, for the record.
LN: Apple and the other digital tycoons have been frightening the traditional watch industry for years now with the wrist computers they are working on. In my opinion, the worst thing would be to think it won’t have a radical impact on the relation people will have with their wearable objects (watches in our case).
BP: While having feared that the smartwatch would intimidate the luxury watch world, I personally could not feel any such intimidation at all at Baselworld. The overall mood seemed very upbeat, positive. I had a short conversation with Swatch Group representatives about the smartwatch, and people there seemed to have no fear of it, either.
NO: Smartwatches, I think, are just beginning to explore their potential. I believe we’ll see much more of an explosion of hybrid smartwatches at next year’s Baselworld.
LN: Actually, the most interesting thing here is not the fact that a new type of watch is emerging, but rather that the vision of Apple, in particular, seems to be to transform its devices into luxury items. It is true that an iPhone is a lot of things (including expensive), but they can take a step further as digitech analysts say. Indeed, if you have a look at luxury industry figures, they are appealing enough to motivate new players. The concept of “luxotronics” should become more and more visible in the months to come and maybe it will create tension with what is a key point in luxury: the objects must last and they must be reparable.
This is why, today, a “connected” watch is not a smartwatch. Indeed, playing with words is a nice game, and this one started a few days before Baselworld began with H. Moser & Cie announcing a “smartwatch” as a teaser. The Endeavour Perpetual Calendar that was released a few days after the teaser was surprising and amusing. And it also reinforced the notion of elegance, taste, and education that must go with luxury.
In that same vein, Baselworld this year was really full of “smart” watches. (Thank you for driving that point home, Edouard.)
Controversy. What controversy?
IS: Two Baselworld “controversies” (and I use the term loosely) passed me by completely during the course of the fair. The first was that surrounding the Laurent Ferrier Galet Square − apparently the cushion-shaped case was too Panerai-like for some people. All I can say to that is, what about all the brands with nearly identical round cases?
BC: Laurent Ferrier really impressed me with this new watch, which unusually for the brand also comes in stainless steel.
IS: The second storm-on-a-pinhead was in response to the new Patek Philippe Calatrava Travel Time. Many thought that the watch was an outrage because the brand didn’t have a history – or a large enough history – in making pilot’s watches, so it should never do one.
During the fair, we basically had “creationists” (brands should only offer the same style of watches they had created in the beginning) versus “evolutionists” (brands can allow collections to evolve over time). I quite liked the Calatrava Travel Time. As far as “sacrilege” goes, it’s hardly a frontrunner.
NO: Patek Philippe’s new pilot watch did seem to incite a lot of discussion, Ian. In my opinion, it’s a winner and I commend the brand for stepping outside of its traditional comfort zone, much like it did when the then-controversial Twenty-4 launched in 1999.
ED: I, too, like the Calatrava Travel Time and see no reason why it should have sparked so much insane discussion. Perhaps the only error was in the brand pre-releasing its press release so that bloggers and online journalists were judging solely on renderings and packshot photos, which were admittedly less aesthetic than the actual watch. I was very relieved to see the timepiece in the metal and discover it is as aesthetic and interesting as a Patek Philippe should be.
BP: In addition, I liked the beauty of the new Patek Philippe Rattrapante Reference 5370P in platinum. This watch has a wonderful aura thanks to its stunning enamel dial in black, a deep, shiny black. The watch combines a taste of vintage with modern technology; the case is also extremely nice as is the movement.
BC: Patek Philippe’s excellent enamel-dial split-seconds chronograph reference 5370P made me wish I had stayed in finance (the only way one could afford its $250,000 price tag)!
Impressive or not?
BC: However, what did not impress me were the countless low- to mid-range brands that seemed to say, “hey look, we can be expensive too!” by purchasing a tourbillon from their supplier friends down the road and putting it into a case, and then acting as if they had re-invented the wheel. There is simply no reason for all brands to offer $50,000 watches.
There is indeed a natural pecking order to Baselworld and watches in general, and those at the bottom are just as important as those at the top in their own way. Frankly, a simple, in-house, well-priced, time-only watch like Rolex’s $5,700 39 mm Oyster Perpetual is far more exciting to any real watch collector or journalist than, say, a tourbillon from Raymond Weil.
ED: While I agree with you, Ben, what I saw when I visited TAG Heuer (which also happened to be my very last appointment) impressed me more than I thought it would. We had all been speculating on what exactly will happen with TAG Heuer now that Jean-Claude Biver has established order among the LVMH brands (see my speculations by reading Jean-Claude Biver Restructures LVMH Watch Brands; TAG Heuer CEO Stéphane Linder Resigns. Coincidence?), so I was expecting pricing more in line with TAG Heuer’s past when I arrived.
What I did not expect was the new Carrera Heuer 01 and 02 models: the 01 is an in-house Swiss chronograph retailing for less than 5,000 Swiss francs. Going one further, the yet-to-be-released 02 is this same chronograph with the addition of a tourbillon at 6 o’clock. It is set to retail for less than 15,000 Swiss francs. (Read this whole story at TAG Heuer’s 2015 Baselworld: Cara Delevingne Special Edition, Smarwatch Announcement.)
While I’m not sure exactly how good a 15,000 Swiss tourbillon is for the future of the luxury watch industry at large, it is sure to do one thing: attract even more serious attention to TAG Heuer.
BC: I began to think about why some of the lower end brands appear to be dabbling in the up-market and I came to the conclusion that they, of all Swiss watchmakers, are to be the most impacted by what Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley does with their watches. The lower level mechanical watches have much to fear because it is their customers that are less emotionally (and financially) vested into their mechanical watches, and they will be the first to say “Okay, I’ll give it up and try the Apple Watch.”
That much is clear, though I think this realization made me have an even stronger distaste for a $2,500 watch company making a $25,000 watch because it actually hasn’t even done anything to warrant this upgrade. Had such companies spent years developing their own movements or building out great materials, that is one thing. But so many of these brands simply bought a movement from a neighbor and added a zero to the price. If there is one way to fall victim to the Apple watch and those like it, it’s by being lazy. Unfortunately, that is what I saw a lot of this year at Baselworld.
Noteworthy at the high end
ED: Bulgari impressed me more this year than in past years with a few different things including its “connected” concept watch called Diagono Magnesium and its sapphire-and-lume-encased Black Sapphire Tourbillon.
I was also quite surprised by what I found at De Grisogono, in particular the David Candaux-conceived Numero Uno Tourbillon and the soon-to-be-announced Retro model. Louis Vuitton, too, keeps getting better and better. At the brand’s little villa outside the fair, I had the chance to inspect the Escale Worldtime Minute Repeater, which was very loud and very agreeable to the ear. On the whole, the revamped GMT line was also quite pleasing to the eye.
BC: Zenith’s El Primero Classic Chronograph was an unexpected and welcome departure from the Biver-esque limited editions and oversized pilots watches of recent years. And while the El Primero never seems to rise to the top of anyone’s long-term wish list, this could be its strongest offering yet in the elegant chronograph space.
ED: And then there was Ulysse Nardin, whose watch offerings were so good as a whole, it seemed a shame that the Artemis Racing sponsorship sort of overshadowed the watch launches. (We’ll get to these over the next few months, but in the meantime please have a look at Ulysse Nardin’s First Sponsorship: Artemis Racing, Iain Percy, And The America’s Cup.)
IS: The thirtieth-anniversary AHCI dinner was a highlight of the fair for me with so many friends, both old and new, in one place. I once described managing the AHCI as trying to herd cats, and thus I offer a big tip of my hat to the Academy’s next 30 years.
ED: Agreed, Ian. That was probably one of my favorite evenings during the fair: it is so heart-warming to see old and new watchmaker friends still at it and to catch up with everyone as far as possible. (You can read about five new AHCI watches from Basel in Give Me Five! The AHCI Celebrates 30th Anniversary At Baselworld 2015.)
BP: I particularly liked the new moon phase timepiece by Andreas Strehler called Sauterelle à Lune Perpétuelle, which has a moon phase function working precisely for two million years. Now in the Guinness Book of World Records, it is a fantastic and amazing masterpiece (See Andreas Strehler Entered Into Guinness Book Of World Records.)
ED: I was personally particularly enamored of Frank Jutzi’s table clock called Kolibri Mysterieuse Tourbillon, which exhibited just the right amount of “romantic notion” for me.
BP: The most impressive clock for me was MB&F’s Melchior. If I had the funds, I would have placed an immediate order. Interestingly, several of my fellow German collectors have been asking me about it. Who knows? Maybe one of them will pull the trigger.
IS: One of the most talked-about pieces at the Baselworld isn’t a watch at all and is only just barely a clock: naturally I’m also referring to the MB&F Melchior, which is really a robot that happens tells the time.
BC: The Melchior robot clock was something that brought a smile to my face.
IS: I was also very happy to see Jean Dunand back at it and am looking forward to what this boutique brand might bring out in future. (For a look at what came out at Baselworld, please read Jean Dunand’s Shabaka Returns.)
If the Urwerk Titan had been presented a week later it might have been taken for an April Fool’s joke, but as it was we had to take it seriously. The Titan was obviously a labor-of-fun for Urwerk and I even heard a whisper that they had taken orders. Warning: Don’t play my-watch-is-bigger-than-your-watch against somebody with one of these babies on their wrist!
ED: I also enjoyed the new Louis Moinet chronograph called Memoris. It fits very well with the brand’s overall message and really is quite different from what’s out there (See Memoris By Louis Moinet: Paying Homage To Historical Chronographic Ingenuity.)
BC: We saw some socially effective but technically uninteresting watches get in-house movements – namely, Tudor’s North Flag and Black Bay and Chopard’s Mille Miglia – which, as a watch guy, elevates both these modern sport watches to something I can really get behind, especially at the prices at which they’re being offered.
BP: I liked the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Ocean Commitment Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph with blue dial. The dial has such a different blue shine and is really stunning. Last but not least the watch was made for a good purpose. (For more information, please see Blancpain Takes To The Ocean With The Fifty Fathoms Ocean Commitment Bathyscaphe Flyback Chronograph.)
I honestly was a bit disappointed by Omega, the Speedmasters were largely not really my taste. The only Speedmaster I liked was the ceramic Dark Side of the Moon one in what’s called vintage black. With a price of around 10,800 euros, though, a hefty price tag, it does enter Daytona territory.
Speaking of Rolex, that brand brought out a beautiful 40 mm Day-Date with a very interesting blue dial. The Yacht-Master in rose gold with black rubber was not really my taste, though.
For the ladies
IS: I’ll admit that jewelry isn’t usually my first (or second) interest at Baselworld, but this year I managed to handle a few fantastic pieces from Bulgari, Chopard, and Graff and came away with deep respect in just how well the pieces are crafted and how tactile the objects are. The Bulgari Serpenti really blew me away.
ED: The jeweled watches aren’t usually my personal favorites either, Ian. But there were jewelry watches that I really enjoyed this year like the Chopard Happy Fish, which boasted luminous mother-of-pearl and diamonds for a superb glow-in-the-dark effect (see Lighting Up With Lume At Baselworld 2015. Warning: Sunglasses Advised!). How creative!
NO: I’m happy to proclaim that ladies mechanical watches are no longer a trend – they’re now an integral part of the language of fine watches for women. This gives me the freedom to delve into the intricacies of the mechanism, rather than just stopping short at the fact that there is a mechanism!
I was quite impressed with Fabergé’s new Lady Compliquée collection with its Agenhor-developed movement. This collection represents the best of both worlds of fine watchmaking and great design – exactly what one would expect from a brand like Fabergé.
ED: I completely agree with you, Nancy. That is one incredible timepiece, and it by far overshadowed the only marginally less interesting tourbillon-outfitted, Giulio Papi-created Fabergé offering for men.
NO: Ladies’ watch dials featured everything from pearl marquetry to butterfly wings (Harry Winston) to embroidery (Dior) – lots of thread this year! – and though we keep hearing that yellow gold is making its way back, white gold and rose gold cases still obviously rule.
There doesn’t seem to be such a great chasm between high jewelry watches and mechanical movements anymore. It used to be that if a watch was designed for “after 5 o’clock,” it was invariably quartz. Not so anymore. I really liked Breguet’s latest Reine de Naples Haute Joaillerie and Jaquet Droz’s new ladies’ timepieces. Dior and Chanel can’t lose with new renditions of the Dior VIII Grand Bal and J12 respectively.
ED: Fabergé and Jaquet Droz were the big, big winners in terms of complicated ladies watches as far as I am concerned. The Lady 8 Flower is even one of my very top picks for the fair. I could not stop pressing the button to make the lotus flower bloom. It just mesmerized me! (See Jaquet Droz In Bloom: The Astonishing Lady 8 Flower Automat.)
Trends and Bubbles
NO: In all, the story begun at SIHH continued at Baselworld, with vintage styling, thinner cases, new in-house movements, and skeleton designs being popular. Many brands, from Aerowatch to Hublot introduced skeleton models: the former in the form of a ladies’ watch and the latter in combination with the phases of the moon.
LN: I found that the vintage trend seems to be getting short of breath – as well as the unofficial competition to have the most complex, spectacular, innovative, unexpected new product too. And this is not a bad thing. Instead of revisiting the past or looking for technical oohs and aahs in order to get attention, brands seemed to forget about the rest and focus on who they really are and what they really are able to do. Sometimes it is just modifying the ergonomics of a case to make it more comfortable, sometimes it is question of redesigning a dial to make it better balanced, or to decorate it in very special way that fits the brand “DNA” better.
IS: I’m not sure if this is a trend (I hope so), but quite a few brands appeared to be quite serious in pushing prices down rather than continuing the habitual year-on-year rises. This may only be a response to the stronger Swiss franc (which is mainly a problem for the euro-zone countries), but long may it spread and continue.
ED: I thought that Corum absolutely nailed its new Bubble. While it was definitely the same design, the case had been “reformatted” for a nicer fit. A very attractive proposition at around 3,500 Swiss francs for the limited edition models. (See The Corum Bubble Is Back!)
And Ressence is just getting better and better, too. Two years ago I would not have thought that possible, the product was already so good. But now the little tweaks and color enhancements are definitely noteworthy.
IS: I liked the new Corum Bubble so much I ordered one!
LN: Industrially speaking, brands seem to be introducing more new time-only calibers instead of looking for the next “baroque” complication. These efforts have increased the level of consistency in the products by making them really unique, different, interesting and, in the end, increasing the value you get for the money you pay. In other words, it seemed to me that the motto to prepare this fair was: really be yourself or you will become invisible and disappear.
ED: And Hermès did that just beautifully. I mean really beautifully. The new Slim d’Hermès is an a-plus winner in my book as a new brand pillar collection. Hermès has really captured the essence of day-to-day wear without losing its signature playfulness. (See Introducing Slim d’Hermès: The Elegant New Backbone Of The Hermès Collection.)
IS: Finally, I just wanted to mention this: if anyone thinks covering Baselworld is endless champagne and roses, I borrowed a fitness band for the week and discovered that we were walking 8-10 kilometers (5-6 miles) a day, each and every day, just getting from meeting to meeting. They should market Baselworld to the press as a health event (though it isn’t always healthy for the wallet).