Geneva Watch Days 2020 Round Table Discussion: What We Liked, What We Didn’t Like, And What We’d Buy From The Watches Presented At This COVID-19-Friendly Fair (Warning: Photo Fest!)
As our world continues to evolve, change and metamorphose, watch brands and groups continue to try to answer the question of how to best show new watches to members of the press and retail partners. The age of COVID-19 has made this particularly challenging – as if trade fairs needed more challenge thrown in right now. But here we are.
In an interesting trial run for a new-age solution, LVMH staged a small fair comprising three of its watch brands – Zenith, Hublot, and Bulgari – at Dubai’s Bulgari Resort in January 2020. Due to the ensuing pandemic, LVMH Watch Week turned out to be the only watch fair to run in 2020 for another seven months.
The same CEO found the latest answer to the big fair questions, too: Bulgari’s Jean-Christophe Babin has now successfully run the first Geneva Watch Days as a possible virus-friendly solution for watch fairs.
Watching the news for spiking virus cases, with Geneva rapidly becoming Switzerland’s new hotspot, and deciding by the minute whether we would attend, three of our team members took the plunge and traveled to Geneva – two by car and one by plane – to experience the new watches first-hand. Here are our thoughts on the busy, “socially distanced” week.
We are also including watches in this round table that we saw during the week that were not part of the “official” Geneva Watch Days event.
Our discussion participants are:
ED: Elizabeth Doerr, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Quill & Pad
IS: Ian Skellern, co-founder and technical editor of Quill & Pad
MG: Martin Green, Quill & Pad’s resident gentleman
IS: My overall impression of Geneva Watch Days is that it was a massive success for both brands and visitors alike. The fair felt relatively COVID-19 safe; the sunny summer weather in Geneva (until the last afternoon) was fantastic; it was heart-warming to see so many old friends and meet new friends; Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin was gracious to me after my public skepticism about the safety of holding the event; it was joyous to be able to handle and photograph sensational watches again; and accommodation (for Geneva) was fairly priced. I’m still smiling!
ED: I can only echo your sentiments, Ian! I am still not sure whether I was more overjoyed to see friends, acquaintances, and business partners or the watches. But together they sent my heart into overload at moments, and I was sad to take my leave of Geneva on Saturday morning following three precious days of horological experiences.
MG: It was quite a treat to be in Geneva for a fair during the summer, enjoying the sun rather than the dark and cold weather we usually experience during SIHH in the winter
IS: Due to travel restrictions and coronavirus uncertainties, visitors were mainly European. But attendance at the fair was still more than enough to create a very happy and friendly vibe.
ED: And that friendly, upbeat atmosphere took us nicely through what was at least as exhausting as a “normal” fair. I didn’t notice how tired I was until I arrived home and experienced what I tend to call the “fair hangover” – a rundown, ragged feeling that needs a long sleep, some serious detoxing, and a day of doing nothing to feel somewhat normal again.
MG: What a nice fair it was! Kudos to Bulgari for taking the lead and uniting not only the large brands but also giving a large portion of the stage to many of the smaller players as well. The mood was incredible! Large players like Bulgari and Breitling stood side by side with brands like Czapek, H. Moser, and Urwerk.
The fact that most of the brands were in the large hotels surrounding the lake or their own brand boutiques made for quite a walk at times and planning was a challenge. But it was very good to both see the people of the brands again and the new watches in the metal!
One thing that did strike me as strange was that the fellow LVMH brands like Hublot, Zenith, and TAG Heuer were absent. We were told that they had planned roadshows for their new models, but with the cost of being in Geneva relatively low for them, there is no doubt it would have made a good investment given the exposure it would generate.
ED: I too found that a little strange, Martin. Those three brands are always the first to nestle in a hotel suite alongside another fair that is running. Their absence was conspicuous, I found. Nonetheless, we had more than enough to see.
How everyone handled the COVID-19 situation
IS: Not only was I very skeptical earlier in the year as to whether Geneva Watch Days should take place even if it could (and more recently changed my mind), I didn’t decide whether to attend or not until two days beforehand when I had a better idea if France (where I live) was going introduce a quarantine for entry from Switzerland and/or vice versa. That didn’t happen, although GWD finished Friday afternoon and the U.K. implemented a quarantine for Switzerland starting at 4:00 am Saturday morning.
ED: It was the same for me. I watched the news in a rather worried state the week before, debating with myself whether to leave my home in Germany for the uncertain amount of cases rising in Geneva – ultimately only deciding a few days before that I would go, even though I had prepared the entire time as if I were definitely going. I feel I made the right decision.
When I got to Geneva and spent some time getting around the city, I became very aware as to why the cases are rising there right now. Despite it being mandatory to wear masks on public transportation, for example, I estimate around 25 percent of people I saw were not wearing masks. And crowding didn’t seem to bother these people either. I was unnerved and avoided public transportation for the most part.
MG: Speaking of that, I found a touch of irony: some of our meetings were in the brand boutiques, primarily on Rue de Rhône. A year ago, they wouldn’t have opened the door if you had wanted to come in with a mask; now they won’t open it unless you have one on!
IS: Attendees and brand representatives generally wore masks; hand sanitizers were everywhere and often obligatory (and enforced); groups of visitors were small; there was plenty of space to stay socially distanced; and thanks to the sunny warm weather many meetings were held outside. The fair “exhibitions” were within walking distance so no need for public transport if you stayed close by. While I did have the impression that the Genevois in general had a more casual approach to mask wearing than my region of France, I rarely (if ever) felt more concern about COVID-19 than at home when shopping, at restaurants, or out and about.
ED: In fact, Ian, hand sanitizer seemed to be the most popular press gift I received during the week! Practical too.
MG: It was surprising for me to learn how brands experienced the COVID crisis. Jean-Christophe Babin told us that Bulgari not only turned its perfume factory into one for making disinfecting gels but also that it also used the time in which the manufacture was closed to offer its employees long-distance training and courses so that when they got back, they would be even better and more efficient at their jobs than they were before.
Most brands’ concerns were with the health and well-being of their employees, and a great portion of them have managed to come through so far without laying off staff. It was also surprising to learn that quite a few brands’ sales during lockdown in many parts of the world still went on quite well remotely, and as the manufactures reopened after lockdown they had to work extra hard to resupply their partners again.
ED: Many of the younger, smaller brands with flexible structures and established e-commerce have fared rather well during this period. I was surprised and happy to learn that. The larger brands, though, seem to be struggling more.
MG: Most brands have struggled with launching new models, and that was perhaps also the reason why we got to see, and photograph, so many models that are still under embargo and officially launching later this year. This way, should a second lockdown come around this winter – which we hope to avoid – they can still go ahead with launches and at least some of the press will have handled and photographed the watches.
Best in show
ED: De Bethune is knocking it out of the park in 2020 – one of the small, flexible brands that is well positioned and had amazing watches lined up for this year – and the new watch introduced at this loose fair was no exception for me. And, yes, I’d go so far as to say the DB28 Steel Wheels Sapphire Tourbillon was the best new watch I saw during Geneva Watch Days 2020.
MG: This is such a hard question as quality certainly didn’t suffer through the corona period. Many brands are at the top of their games, so the best of show becomes a very personal matter.
IS: I was surprised by how good it felt to be seeing and touching a lot of excellent watches again and felt like a kid in a candy store. It seemed like nearly every new watch elicited a wow!
IS: There were a few highlights for me: Gerald Genta 2020 Arena Bi-Retrograde Sport, Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Skeleton Automatic, H. Moser & Cie Streamliner Centre Seconds, Breguet Tradition Quantième Retrograde 7597, and Jaeger LeCoultre Master Control Memovox Timer among many others.
IS: I was disappointed that I only had a snatched few minutes to talk to Bernhard Lederer about his Central Impulse Chronometer featuring a natural escapement with two ten-second constant-force mechanisms and handle it briefly, but even so it was impressive enough to have me wanting to know more.
But the star of the show for me was the and Ferdinand Berthoud Chronomètre FB 2RE. It ticked all of the boxes for me.
ED: Thanks for reminding me of the sporty new Gérald Genta model in this context, Ian. I was going to put it in another category in this round table, but you are correct in mentioning it here. I was so impressed by how faithful a re-edition it was and how lovely its case was to the touch. I do believe Monsieur Genta would have been very proud to see this sporty edition come back to life in this way.
MG: Despite my very high expectations, one watch that genuinely impressed me was the Ferdinand Berthoud Chronomètre FB 2RE. While the watch is large and relatively thick, it sits extremely well on the wrist. And the movement is so beautiful in both technical design and finish.
Based on the pictures, I thought that I would prefer the white gold version, but when I saw them both in real I was more enamored by the pink gold version with black enamel dial. I consider the FB 2RE technically closer to the legacy of Ferdinand Berthoud than the preceding model, and all the elements are brought together in such a beautiful way that I am completely in love with it.
Object of desire
IS: My object of desire from Geneva Watch Days is the Ferdinand Berthoud Chronomètre FB 2RE. It’s like a stealth watch along the lines of a Philippe Dufour or Kari Voutilainen in that dial side the message is, “Move on, nothing to see here, folks,” while the display back offers a sublime masterpiece of micro engineering.
ED: Once again we are in step here, Ian. The movement side of this incredible masterpiece left me wanting to still be looking through the loupe at it long after my watch told me it was time to stand up and move along to the next appointment.
The fine details that kept me endlessly entranced weren’t even all mechanical! I think the finish on this piece may have fascinated me almost more. What a follow-up watch!
Most disappointing watch: Breitling Endurance Pro
ED: As one of the “founding brands” of Geneva Watch Days, I feel that I have to ask Breitling’s higher-ups whether they entirely understood what kind of journalists and visitors this loose fair would be attracting. Due to the COVID-19 situation, it was more than obvious that only Europeans would be attending. And of those, only the dedicated and less at risk. In other words: specialists and insiders.
I would really, really like to know what specialists and insiders would feel particularly attracted by the introduction of a quartz watch in a variety of colors and presented as if they were fashion objects. It was by far the most soulless and least interesting thing I experienced in my three days of watches in Geneva.
That all said, I’m sure this watch is fine in the right context.
MG: Somehow Breitling CEO Georges Kern didn’t get the memo that we are not living in the 1990s anymore. During Geneva Watch Days, the brand launched the Endurance Pro, an “athleisure” watch (Breitling’s term, fortunately not mine!) aimed to be worn during sports.
Unfortunately, the Breitling Endurance Pro is a quartz chronograph for just under CHF 3,000. This might have worked when President Clinton was still in office, but these days people have a strong desire to track their performance no matter how amateur they are. I guess it is good that the Endurance Pro doesn’t come with functions like a heart-rate monitor as it would have registered a flat line when I examined the watch.
It does have a pulsometer scale to compensate for the lack of a heart monitor, but good luck with that one! While this Breitling might be fitted with a chronometer-certified SuperQuartz movement capable of measuring one-tenth of a second, it needs a subdial to offer a view of this precision. Being quartz-powered means that the central chronograph hand jumps from second marker to second marker.
Especially when your heart rate is up from exercising, one second can easily mean ten pulsations, so it will never be precise. Even more, since smartwatches measure autonomously they don’t need intervention to measure pulse by pressing a button. Even if you have great reflexes, it just adds to the inaccuracy of the measurement.
The Breitling Endurance Pro’s case is made of Breitlight, Breitling’s composite 5.8 times lighter than steel. While it has its advantages, in this watch it just makes everything feel cheap and plastic-like. In particular, the unidirectional bezel cheapens the experience even more. It feels like a Swatch with no resistance or ratchet system in place, which I don’t mind at a €150 price point. But for a watch 20 times as much it is quite disappointing. Also, its functionality escapes me as I have never felt the need for a compass rose while running, cycling, or swimming. These are all major flaws for a watch mainly designed and marketed to be worn when participating in an endurance sport.
IS: I’m definitely not the target audience for Breitling’s battery-powered Breitling Endurance Pro. That said, I was expecting much more from this brand and I was underwhelmed by what it had to offer here.
ED: I hadn’t seen the H. Moser x MB&F Endeavour Cylindrical Tourbillon in a light blue dial yet that the brand is offering on its e-commerce channel before walking into this appointment. And while I cannot read the time at all on this watch due to age-induced hyperopia, I immediately fell in love with it. And that is why I would nominate it as a “fun” watch for me: beauty over functionality (in my case).
But nothing beats fun like seeing – and trying on – a jewel valued at $6.4 million! Thanks to a nice appointment with Jacob & Co. to see that brand’s recent watches, including the latest Astronomia with a wondrous hand-engraved phoenix, I had the opportunity to try on a rare Paraiba tourmaline with a carat weight of 44.87 cts. Just wow!
IS: While at around $12,000 it’s too expensive for boisterous fun, the blue dial and light weight of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic Steel Satin-Polished says “party time” to me.
And if money was no object, I quite fancy the new Jaeger LeCoultre Master Control Memovox Timer.
MG: Forming quite a contrast with the Ferdinand Berthoud, the most fun watch of the Geneva Watch Days for me is quartz, gold plated, and about the price of a new strap for the Berthoud.
The Maurice Lacroix Eliros Rainbow has a dial and strap made of a unique rainbow-colored PU material, which turns the watch into a genuine chameleon as the angle at which you look at it determines the coloring. In effect, it is always changing.
Its execution is very well done as the different colors are formed by what looks like horizontal lines of yarn. In a horological sense this watch may not be a heavy hitter, but the Eliros Rainbow shows that even serious watch brands can have some fun every now and then.
ED: Maurice Lacroix really impressed me with its fun watches and awesome location in Geneva! Putting down roots in Geneva’s Eastwest Hotel, it offered a sort of pleasurable oasis in the middle of a busy week. And the new watches were affordable and well designed. What more could you want?
What we might buy with our own money
ED: As my funds are limited, what I might buy definitely veers from what most of our readers – and even some of our contributors – might buy. This time, however, I might well have gone shopping at Bovet.
Two models remain in memory as wristwatches I would love to buy and wear. The latest iteration of the Bovet 19Thirty Fleurier (CHF 19,800 in steel) is absolutely stunning with its gorgeous Fleurisanne engraving filled out with blue enamel. That engraving is so wondrously decorative that I almost forgot to notice that that 42 mm case fit me so well, thinking it had to be much smaller. The brand’s Fleurier-style case with crown at 12 o’clock ensures it wears smaller, while the manually wound movement keeps its height svelte.
However – and quite uncharacteristically for me – the Bovet Miss Audrey with aventurine dial also caught my attention, in particular when the brand reps brought out the lovely necklace chain that goes with this convertible watch, turning the timepiece into a pendant (full set: CHF 20,500).
The sublime necklace chain is made of aventurine beads to go with the dial. It is also available with a green flinqué enamel dial and jade necklace for those who prefer green over blue (like our dear Martin Green). This watch’s measurements hits the female sweet spot at 36 x 11 mm and it is powered by an automatic movement.
MG: This is quite a tough question, as I saw many watches that I consider desirable on a personal level, but most of them are not very realistic choices given my budget. Geneva Watch Days reunited me again with the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic in stainless steel with a stunning blue dial. I had already seen this watch earlier this year in Dubai at LVMH Watch Week, and it remains impressive.
IS: By chance, both of my colleagues were wearing vintage Gérald Genta watches during Geneva Watch Days, and with every glance I thought about how good they looked. And then I saw the 2020 Gérald Genta Arena Bi-Retrograde Sport by Bulgari and thought: I want one!
MG: The visit to Geneva also enabled me to see the new IWC watches in real, and the Portugieser 40 Automatic captured my heart. It is perfectly proportioned and comes with an exciting movement for the price point. But most of all, it is an understated classic with a very refined design. I do have a third one that I would buy with my own money, but I can unfortunately not talk about it right now as this one is still under embargo. I can only disclose that it is a Chopard . . .