My Top 10 Surprises From The World Of Horology In 2019
As I look back over 2019, I am reminded what an exciting year it has been in the world of watches – from changes to the major fairs and exhibitions to corporate acquisitions, right on down to surprising launches from brands, there was enough to keep us on our toes.
Here I recount some of the biggest surprises for me from 2019, ones that I think will have some lasting effects across the industry for various reasons.
So counting down my biggest surprises of 2019, drum roll please.
No. 10: TAG Heuer carbon composite hairspring
Debuting quietly in Geneva in the Calibre Heuer 02T Tourbillon Nanograph, the carbon composite hairspring from TAG Heuer (and the LVMH group) was intended to replace standard Nivarox hairsprings as the cost and functionality was comparable.
Designed to be infinitely customizable for each movement and to improve function over time, the Tourbillon Nanograph’s introduction was a bit of a surprise, mainly because it took place during the SIHH where TAG Heuer is not an exhibitor and so would not generate nearly as much buzz as if they launched a week or so after most of the SIHH buzz had died down.
Later, during Baselworld 2019, the spring was introduced in a very affordable timepiece, the Autavia Isograph, though its production and/or delivery seems to have stalled and the full rollout still remains to be seen.
Still, any new hairspring technology is a reason for excitement because there hasn’t been a significant, well-supported innovation since silicon was introduced just about two decades ago. It will be interesting to see what comes of the tech.
No. 9: Voutilainen 28ti
Some watches aren’t entirely unexpected. Or at the very least, people are hoping to see something they’ve been wishing will get made for a while.
This is what happened when Kari Voutilainen released the Voutilainen 28ti, an inverted movement watch that highlights the incredible movement architecture that so many of the independent watchmaker’s fans are in love with.
After years of being told by collectors they wished they could wear the watch backwards because it is so beautiful, Voutilainen decided to give the people what they want.
This was surprising simply because of the “traditional” nature of Voutilainen and his work. He has been killing it in the independent game for nearly two decades and, aside from a couple tourbillon models and a minute repeater, every watch has featured a full dial with no peeks into the movements from the front.
I am always saying I want the movement to be the center of attention, but it also seemed like that just wouldn’t be the way for Voutilainen. The 28ti proved me very happily wrong and was instantly adored by the collecting community, even going so far as to win the Men’s category at the 2019 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
This definitely was a pleasant surprise of 2019.
No. 8: SIHH and Baselworld move dates back to back, and SIHH changes name to Watches & Wonders Geneva
Right at the end of 2018, the watch world found out that Baselworld and SIHH would change their dates and once again reunite as back-to-back shows for the 2020 edition.
The change was definitely a surprise, and when we all converged on the Palexpo in January 2019 for SIHH it was one of the main topics of conversation. Those journalists and industry personnel who had experienced the back-to-back shows of the past were simultaneously excited and dismayed. Excited because it meant a different experience and, thanks to the new dates at the end of April and beginning of May, the weather would be good, and we wouldn’t have to stress through the holiday season as we prepped for Geneva in January.
But people were also dismayed because a back-to-back show schedule can be utterly brutal. As the still relatively new guy on the block, I witnessed looks of reminiscent nostalgia and the weight of dread slowly settling on shoulders.
But that isn’t all the changes: it’s now been confirmed that the “SIHH” is no more as it will henceforth be named Watches & Wonders Geneva and feature two epicenters, one at the Palexpo called Watches & Wonders – The Salon and one in downtown Geneva called Watches & Wonders – In The City (real clever, that one).
The show format will change a bit with new offerings, more public access, and include brands previously excluded thanks to the “In The City” portion.
The new format, date, and back-to-back positioning with Baselworld was definitely a surprise, and it should prove interesting to see how the changes affect the industry as a whole. Anticipation seems high, as does some hesitation as the changes have had some other less than favorable results. See all of Baselworld’s anticipated changes in Baselworld Becomes The Story: Baselworld 2020 And Beyond Will See Big (And Positive) Changes.
No. 7: Breitling, Casio, Seiko/Grand Seiko leave Baselworld 2020
We can’t talk about the changes to SIHH and Baselworld without delving into the biggest surprises concerning Baselworld, the fact that major players like Breitling, Casio, and Seiko/Grand Seiko won’t be returning for the 2020 edition. Breitling is a major independent brand that occupies a large place among the ground-floor booths. And after the exodus of the Swatch Group in 2019, the fact that Breitling is pulling out means that Hall 1.0 will be changing pretty dramatically once again.
Then, when you consider that there were three major Japanese brands at Baselworld up to now (Casio, Citizen, and Seiko/Grand Seiko), and learn that two of them are leaving, it means that Baselworld is fast becoming a show only catering to a smaller segment of the market, specifically LVMH, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Chopard, and a handful of others, instead of being the de-facto epicenter of watchmaking as it has been for decades (see 1917-2017: A Brief Retrospective Of 100 Years Of Baselworld).
The year 2019 already saw a huge shuffling as many smaller brands decided to withdraw over cost issues, and now Baselworld is losing more major players as the organizers make a lot of changes to try and revitalize the show.
I don’t know what the future holds for trade shows, or specifically Baselworld, but it seems clear that there might be more surprises along the way concerning the longest running trade show in watchmaking.
No. 6: MB&F Thunderdome/Legacy Machine FlyingT
We know that certain brands will always have interesting models coming out every year, and we look forward to them as the seasons change. MB&F is one of those brands, though depending on what has been released sometimes we can assume it will be an idea based on an earlier model, sort of how many of the Legacy Machines seems like evolutions of one idea (maybe barring the Perpetual Calendar).
But 2019 saw the release of two Legacy Machine pieces, related to each other but definitely different than what had come before, beginning with the very first ladies watch by MB&F.
Then, just days into December, MB&F released the Legacy Machine Thunderdome, a watch in the same vein as the FlyingT but with the incredible addition of a triple-axis tourbillon with some serious features. I feel like these two watches are closer to bridging the gap between the craziness of the brand’s Horology Machine models and the classical avant-garde styling of the Legacy Machine pieces.
No. 5: MIH Gaïa Series I and Genus GNS 1.2
Sometimes we anticipate the next watch from a specific brand, yet other times we are blindsided by something we didn’t even know to expect. That is how I feel about the launch of both the Genus GNS1.2 and the MIH Gaïa Series I, two pieces that I had no clue would appear this year.
Earlier in the year the ridiculously cool and complicated Genus GNS1.2 dropped, showing that there is a lot of horological creativity ready to burst forth from within the industry. The displays are fantastic, and it was, like others on my surprise list this year, so well received that it won the Mechanical Exception prize at the 2019 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève against some stiff competition.
While the Genus came out of left field as a completely new independent watch brand with an award-winning watch as the first model, just a few months before the GPHG awards in November the Musée International d’Horlogerie (MIH for short) low key announced its second subscription watch ever, the MIH Gaïa Series I. Fourteen years after the first MIH watch from 2005, the Gaïa Series I is simpler than the original but still as stylistically captivating and beautiful an example of clean design.
I had thought the original MIH watch was a once-in-a-lifetime deal, so seeing the museum use the concept of a subscription watch to help raise funds for the restoration of a couple of amazing historical pieces is awesome.
It’s a great reason to purchase a cool watch, and I am blown away by the sudden appearance of a second MIH watch.
No. 4: LVMH buys Tiffany
Corporate mergers and acquisitions happen all the time, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when two behemoths make a deal. But unless you are very aware of the industry, you might not have realized that famed jewelry house Tiffany & Co. actually hasn’t been doing terribly well compared to other brands in the market such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, or Cartier (the reigning champion).
So I was very surprised to find out the LVMH had acquired the brand for a whopping $16.2 billion, which now means that LVMH has an even bigger hold on that segment of the market and will be even more of a rival to Richemont.
With the acquisition, LVMH now controls Bulgari, Chaumet, Fred, and Tiffany & Co. to counter the Richemont holdings of Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Buccatelli, and Giampiero Bodino.
It will also make an interesting future for Tiffany-branded watches since the current relationship with Patek Philippe (a privately held competitor to LVMH brands) may go bye-bye. Or something else might occur that was fully unforeseen.
No. 3: Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Only Watch sells for CHF 31 million
What else do I have to say aside from “31 million Swiss francs!” This is a world record, and a record by a long shot, by about CHF 8 million to be exact.
The previous most expensive watch sold at auction was another Patek Philippe, the Henry Graves Supercomplication, which sold for just over CHF 23 million in 2014. The next highest is the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona, which sold in 2017 for CHF 17.7 million. So this new record is bound to stand for a while.
I am technically not surprised that it sold for a lot, but the final price is insane. The original six pieces of the Grandmaster Chime sold to collectors for CHF 2.5 million each, so the chance to bid on a unique piece clearly brought out some folks with deep pocketbooks.
This model was also a stainless steel version, something very rarely seen in ANY Patek Philippe high complication pieces, let alone one of the most complicated striking watches the brand has ever built. When I heard the result, I could only let out a small, barely audible “come again?”
Our editor-in-chief, Elizabeth Doerr, was on location as the hammer came down on the record-breaking watch. See her thoughts on this history-making event in Only Watch 2019 Post-Auction Thoughts: Smashing Records For A Great Cause Plus The $31 Million Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime’s Record Grab On Video.
No. 2: Audemars Piguet Code 11:59
I’m sure everyone reading this list who has been paying attention over the last year was wondering if I was going to mention this. It was literally one of the biggest surprises of the entire year, and for many not for the right reasons.
Now I won’t personally discuss quality or design or make any judgement statements about the product. What I will mention is that the launch, shall we say, didn’t go smoothly?
Code 11.59 was launched on social media, and the initial photos left a lot to be desired by fans. And when they were seen in person at the parallel-running SIHH, it was hard to take photos in the lighting provided – and with the domed dials and sapphire crystals, a clear, glare-free photo was almost impossible.
Only a couple models were available to us to even handle when we visited the booth at SIHH, and, likely due to the early pushback, the people in charge were in fairly sour moods and not particularly accommodating.
The pushback to the pushback from the brand was a bit hostile, and fans everywhere were either trying to defend Audemars Piguet or brutally attacking the brand for what many saw as a failure.
It was a bit surprising to say the least, and as the furor died down, people began to actually engage with the watches from a more objective point to discuss the pros (of which there were many) and cons, which, unsurprisingly, were limited mainly to personal opinions on what AP should have made and how the brand logistically dealt with the launch.
In the end, the Code 11.59 Minute Repeater Supersonnerie model ended up winning the Men’s Complication prize at the 2019 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, showing that it was getting some love after all.
Die-hard AP fanatics, especially those that hold the Royal Oak as an example of a “perfect watch,” still may not be on board, but many have come to agree that it is a very good product – and perhaps with some tweaks, it could go on to become a great addition to the brand to hit a different demographic.
No. 1: A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus
Oh, boy. I don’t think any watch, even the Audemars Piguet Code 11.59, drew as much surprise and unfair criticism as the A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus. This is probably because while Audemars Piguet has die-hard fans, the A. Lange & Söhne crowd fancies itself as being part of the cream of the crop in watchmaking.
And I can’t disagree that A. Lange & Söhne is one of the absolute best brands out there. The designs initially launched in 1994 have remained almost unchanged over the last 25 years because they arguably are pretty darn perfect.
When A. Lange & Söhne launched the Zeitwerk, people were surprised, yet it still felt like it made sense within the brand language and it was an instant hit. Though to be fair, social media did not exist in the same way in 2009.
The same cannot be said for the latest release, the Odysseus, at least if you listen to its detractors.
The Odysseus is the first regular-production stainless steel watch for A. Lange & Söhne, something many thought might never come. And it has a full bracelet, another first for Lange in a production model.
Building on that, it is water resistant to 12 bar (120 meters/400 feet), meaning that while it isn’t a dive watch, you really have no worries about getting it wet in everyday circumstances, something you can’t really say about most Lange watches.
And, finally, it comes with all the A. Lange & Söhne styling characteristics that have made most other watches commercial successes, and here provides a new dial style with a weekday and large date complication.
The look is awesome, and it fits sweetly right in the middle of the collection, yet people protested. I get it, change is hard. And when you imagine something in your head, it is impossible for the real-life thing to meet your fantasies.
And that’s what we have here: a ton of A. Lange & Söhne aficionados with daydreams about what a Lange sport watch in steel might look like, and the Odysseus just wasn’t what they had in mind. It doesn’t matter that the watch is awesomely well done and makes total sense within the brand’s offerings; it wasn’t what some imagined.
I personally was surprised when the Odysseus came out, but only because I didn’t know that A. Lange & Söhne was going to be launching a steel watch with a bracelet any time soon, so it was a shift I hadn’t expected. But I know the brand is utterly meticulous when it comes to the design language of its pieces, so the Odysseus is perfectly in step with other models.
I can understand that people ragged on it hard for being another round, blue-dialed sport watch – see Watch Design: Originality, Similarity, Or Imitation? – but these people seem to forget that A. Lange & Söhne is a smart company that wants to sell watches, and its management knows that this watch will sell (which it already has, very well).
I think, if anything, this watch was a wake-up call to some collectors that A. Lange & Söhne isn’t exactly the industry rebel that they like to think it is; it is a classic brand that does things in a very German way, which just happens to be a little rebellious compared to the Swiss way.
But still, A. Lange & Söhne is not MB&F, and a perfectly balanced steel sport watch that uses similar design cues as watches across the industry (because, you know, they are all still the same product category, so similarity is unavoidable) is not that surprising.
It stays very Lange in its execution, provides some very cool and unique features, and comes in at a competitive (albeit still relatively high) price. I see why people freaked out, but I have to say the surprise for me is that people freaked out so negatively in the first place to an incredible new A. Lange & Söhne.