Watches & Wonders 2023 Round Table: What We Liked and Didn’t Like at the World’s Biggest Watch Fair
by Ian Skellern
Watches and Wonders 2023 ran from Monday, March 27 to Saturday, April 1 at Palexpo in Geneva and was open to the public on the 1st and 2nd of April. It attracted a record 43,000 visitors! That’s nearly double last year’s 22,000 visitors, largely thanks to the opening up of China and Asian countries after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Quill & Pad team was there, and we sat down after the show to discuss what we liked and didn’t like about the 2023 fair.
Our panelists are:
IS: Ian Skellern, editor-in-chief of Quill & Pad
JM: Joshua Munchow, watch nerd at Quill & Pad
GG: GaryG, resident collector at Quill & Pad
MG: Martin Green, resident gentleman at Quill & Pad
GG: Wow – what a crowd! Getting in on Monday was a nightmare as the show staff seemed unprepared for the sheer volume of attendees and, with the return of Asian enthusiasts this year, and more visitors from other continents celebrating the decline of Covid, the halls seemed packed every day we were there. That allowed for many fortuitous meetings with friends from around the world, and the resulting energy made the fair an event to remember.
IS: I deliberately arrived Monday afternoon Gary to avoid the pack crowds at the entrance Monday morning, and when I got into the halls later in the day I found them relatively quiet. I had the impression that attendance was way down on last year. But everyone must have just been in at meetings and appointments as Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were absolutely buzzing.
JM: As my first time back to a major fair since SIHH 2019, Watches and Wonders 2023 was a bit of a return to form, even with the dramatic shift from what I had come to expect from Geneva. With Baselworld a figment of my memory and SIHH the former facsimile of the current Watches & Wonders, I had to reacquaint myself with what now is an amalgamation of the two biggest watch events in Switzerland.
I did not attend the inaugural edition of the rebranded fair that saw some of the biggest names from Baseworld join the Richemont fair, but according to others this fair was a good step up from the debut arrangement. I enjoyed the split format, with Richemont brands on one side and the Baseworld cohort on the other, and between the two were the smaller independents in opposing salons where the vibe was definitely as friendly as ever.
As is always the case, scheduling time to see all the brands was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, especially when some meetings were confused with others, but overall it felt generally efficient as a way to manage such a large influx of people. The Lab was a bit disappointing, but that might be due to the larger percentage of augmented reality and metaverse-related content, but I’m still happy that there was a space dedicated to other aspects of the watch industry and watchmaking.
The Ulysse Nardin stand was a highlight with a giant Freak 1 mirror display
MG: For some reason, this year’s Watches & Wonders felt very intense. My schedule was busier than ever, and I lacked the time to sit down for lunch most days. The vibe was good, and as Asia has fully opened up it was busy, very busy. This caused some inconvenience as the fair had a tough time digesting such large numbers at times, but in general it was a great edition.
GG: With introductions spread across the year, many brands focused their novelties on a small number – as few as one – of new references; given the number of brands at Palexpo and the potential for being overwhelmed, I rather welcomed the tight focus and clear messaging we encountered at most booths. Commercially, the spirit seemed to be one of cautious optimism; when I spoke to brands, wholesalers, and retailers, they gave a sense of relatively full order books and confidence in ongoing market demand.
IS: I thought the atmosphere of the brands was very positive and order books were reported as being very full. The sheer number of brands exhibiting now made it impossible to see everyone I wanted to, especially with the smaller brands (of which there were many) and the AHCI exhibiting in Geneva rather than at Watches and Wonders.
I’d love for W&W to open up another hall beside the big exhibition to welcome smaller brands by offering fewer amenities (like free drinks and food) so we have everything in the same place. With the badge system it would be easy to check that journalists whose travel and accommodation were paid by Watches and Wonders were spending enough time with the brands doing the paying.
MG: There were more brands than last years, which meant a broader range of brands. I also enjoyed reconnecting with brands like Charriol and Pequinet that were hot and happening when I entered the industry over two decades ago.
JM: It feels like Watches and Wonders has embraced as much of the shifting landscape as a Swiss watch fair can in two short years, and if it continues on this path it could really provide a reason that fairs still hold an important role for the industry. Of course, it all comes down to the bottom line for the brands, so we shall see what the future holds, but I am a bit more confident that it won’t be my last watch major fair.
As we discuss what we liked (and what we didn’t), right off the bat, some of the best watches I saw while in Geneva were not at Watches and Wonders but at brands exhibiting down near the lake in one of the various hotels, the ACHI, or at an atelier. Given that I am more for the avant-garde pieces this would come as no surprise, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t absolute killers at the Palexpo. My choices will come from within the halls just to keep it focused tightly on Watches & Wonders proper, knowing that much of my horological love extends well beyond.
Best of show
MG: Selecting a best of show watch is very tough, as I feel that while there were many good watches, there wasn’t one that fully eclipsed all the others. If pressed (as I am here), I’d go for the Cartier Santos-Dumont Micro-Rotor. With its skeletonized movement and innovative and artistic use of the micro-rotor, it is a blast to see. It cleverly connects the past with the present in a way that I hope sister-brand Piaget is taking notes. On the wrist you cannot keep your eyes off it. While the yellow gold version with blue lacquer is the ultimate one to get, but Cartier released it in stainless steel, making the dream of owning one a bit more realistic as this model is also not limited.
IS: This is an easy one for me this year: the best in show and my prediction for (another for the brand) Aiguille d’Or or Mechanical Exception prize at the GPHG in November is the Ferdinand Berthoud FB 3SPC. It features a cylindrical hairspring, stop seconds, 72-hour power reserve, sensational hand finishing and is a C.O.S.C. certified chronometer, I thought that it was absolutely phenomenal!
GG: As I usually do, I’ll limit my consideration set here to brands that exhibited at Palexpo rather than extending my view to include those at satellite locations – although I’ll cheat and come back to some of those brands in other categories.
Speaking of cheating, for best of show I’ll declare a tie – between an expected candidate, the Lange Odysseus Chronograph, and an unexpected love, the Rattrapante Minutes from Parmigiani Fleurier. The latter has a simply presented, highly useful small complication: a countdown timer that can be set with pusher buttons to five- and one-minute increments, and displays the “target time” with a second minute hand that stays neatly hidden until called into use. As a friend said, it’s a true “rattrapante” in that the running minutes hand really does “catch up” over time to the target time hand telling us our meeting is over, or our risotto is cooked.
JM: For me, the 2023 edition of Watches & Wonders was a very solid show but lacked a clear, dominating stand-out watch that stood head and shoulders above the rest. There were many great pieces that are on the grail list for sure, from the fully hand-engraved Grand Seiko SBGZ009, to the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Dual Moon Grand Complication, but I didn’t leave the show with one specific watch in my mind as the pinnacle of the exhibition, the one watch that shined the brightest.
JM: It’s worth noting that I left the show with was a deep appreciation and astonishment at the quality and kindness of the workers and waitstaff at the show. Typically, Switzerland isn’t considered a bastion of hospitality compared to certain countries, or the American South where I live. Great service and friendliness is not a requirement for various social and economic reasons, and so to be shown such fantastic service by those working the fair was something that I took great notice of. Be it the people working the bar counters or the waitstaff serving lunch every day, even down to the bathroom attendants who have every reason to have a foul disposition but would joke and laugh with us journalists and other attendees, I was struck by how welcoming it was.
In the luxury world, where most people attending these shows are in a very different socio-economic segment of the population than those working to serve, I was moved to see how well I was treated, and how well they were also being treated. I am sure there were more than their fair share of rude or entitled show attendees, but the vibes between guests and workers was surprisingly positive and friendly. I’m sure their employment necessitated an affable demeanor, so we must take it all with a grain of salt, but I would say the best of show were the workers striving to provide a truly top-notch fair experience. They may not have been adequately thanked by other attendees or their employers, but I would gladly say that it was one of the best parts of the show for me, especially after a decade of fairs under my belt.
IS: Agreed 100% about the service staff Joshua, every one of them was unfailingly helpful, friendly, and attentive. They really set the bar! Switzerland has a reputation for the high quality of its hotel and restaurant schools it looks like that reputation is well merited.
MG: I thought the new IWC Ingenieur was underwhelming, especially relative to its hefty price tag. IWC was always the home to a more affordable Genta design, but not anymore.
I also found that there was quite a gap between the feel and finish of the stainless steel model and the titanium. The first felt like a watch at half its price, while the titanium was more elaborately finished on the case and bracelet, offering more bang for its even steeper buck.
GG: A friend who is a senior executive at a competing watch brand told me that he had been blown away by Cartier’s new offerings, and so I stepped into their booth with great expectations. After a half hour of touring the cases, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss had been about; to be sure I’m no student of Cartier history and how that lineage has been translated into new references, but I can’t say that I was wowed by anything I saw.
JM: My biggest disappointment wasn’t a watch or a brand as I would have need to have expectations of what a brand should have done. Instead, my biggest disappointment was how similar the show felt to Baselworld with the sheer number of things to see and little time to see them all. To adequately experience the pieces on offer I would have needed a second full week for longer sessions covering all the cool pieces I got a glimpse at in the short time at every brand, not to mention all the pieces I never even got a chance to hold due to the inability of getting appointments with every exhibiting brand.
I did manage to keep a few time slots open to keep from being overwhelmed, but like every major fair it was still exhausting to try to see and handle everything. Only now after the fair have I been able to track what I did not get a chance to see, and it was a lot more than it seemed after all of the appointments. I saw a lot of great stuff, but there is a sense that large fairs will always come with the caveat of missing something, no matter how well you plan.
IS: My biggest disappointment was that there weren’t more of my favorite independent brands in the Carré des Horlogers at Watches and Wonders. I missed the likes of Urwerk, De Bethune, and MB&F at the fair. Yes those brands were exhibiting in Geneva, but it takes a lot of time traveling around to see them. And the AHCI should be there too. I know I’m sounding like a broken record, but I wish W&W would open another hall for smaller (and larger) independent brands to affordably exhibit so that we could have everyone under one roof.
MG: Piaget also disappointed me. This once powerhouse of ultra-slim elegance had some lovely ladies’ watches and a Polo with a perpetual calendar, but apart from that, not much. Are they ramping up behind the scenes for their anniversary next year? I surely hope so, as there is not another brand in the watch world with more potential right now than Piaget.
MG: My issue with this year’s Watches & Wonders is that several watches were very tempting to me. I love the Patek Philippe Calatrava Travel Time Ref.5224R-001 with 24-hour dial, but I was also very much taken (to my surprise) by the titanium Yacht-Master from Rolex. I always had a soft spot for the Pasha de Cartier, and this year ‘La Maison’ released a version with a stunning dark salmon-colored dial and blued hands. It is so incredibly beautiful that I may not be able to resist the temptation. While I would probably buy it on the bracelet, I would wear it on a strap, as this further underscores the vintage look and feel of the watch.
GG: I’ve already placed an order for the Grönefeld Deltaworks, which to split hairs was not introduced at Palexpo but was the brothers’ newest reference shown at their booth. I’m going for the one with khaki accents and steel bumpers.
IS: This is another easy one for me, because for the first time ever, I actually bought a watch I saw at the fair during the fair. My wife wears a watch all day every day yet doesn’t have a ‘beater.’ I saw a Tudor Black Bay 31 with blue dial and thought it would be perfect for her. And luckily for me, she loves it!
JM: This is a rather easy one as there are not a large number of watches that I could or would even consider buying with my own money, and the Oris ProPilot X Calibre 400 was already a piece that I have had on my personal shortlist for possible acquisition. The watch construction and design are both top notch for the price point, and the color of the Kermit Edition is hard to ignore. I will always like colorful watches, so a stark Muppet green is right up my alley. The addition of a Kermit image on the date wheel replacing the first of the month is a cleverly simple way to put Kermit in the watch without becoming overbearing. This is a fun and super practical and functional watch at a great price, and it’s one I would consider putting my own money on the line to buy.
Money no object
GG: This one was newly introduced, but not at Palexpo: the Petermann Bedat Ref. 2941 monopusher rattrapante chronograph. It’s simply splendid in person, and the finishing is not to be believed.
If you have money left over after presenting me with the PB, you might throw in the Odysseus Chronograph I mentioned earlier – I love the watch and admire the challenges Lange overcame to make it, but at a price higher than my 1815 Rattrapante Honeygold it’s out of reach for me.
MG: Does it have to be only one? After seeing their watches in the metal for the first time, Charles Zuber impressed me very much,. They come with a superb bracelet, and I also love the micro-rotor movement.
IS: If somebody else was paying I would love to own a Ferdinand Berthoud Chronomètre FB 3SPC. Usually, the best of show isn’t a watch I’d necessarily choose to wear as they are often too complicated, but this is a watch I could see on my wrist and drool over. And if I could have two (money being no object), I’d also follow Gary’s lead and go for a Petermann Bedat Ref. 2941 monopusher rattrapante chronograph.
And speaking of chronographs, I thought that the new De Bethune DB Eight monopusher chronograph (unfortunately not at W&W) was both one of the most beautiful chronographs I’ve ever seen and it had the most pleasurable crown pusher I’ve ever used. Nothing else comes even close to the smooth, light (but not too light) touch required to actuate the chronograph.
Here’s an early longshot trifecta bet for the 2023 GPHG: the Petermann Bedat Ref. 2941 monopusher rattrapante chronograph for the Aiguille d’Or, the Ferdinand Berthoud Chronomètre FB 3SPC for the Mechanical Exception Prize, and (if they enter) the De Bethune DB Eight wins best Chronograph. Three of my top watches seen in Geneva, none of which were exhibiting at Watches and Wonders (which brings me back to that second hall again).
MG: Another I liked that will require a substantial investment was the double tourbillon from Arnold & Son with a malachite dial. Unfortunately, a piece unique was already sold and I think that it will require a lot of persuasion for its current owner to let go of something so beautiful!
MG: I hate seeing watches as an investment commodity, although some can play the part. Any of the sport Rolexes and nearly Patek Philippe’s entire collection will fit the bill, as would the Odysseus Chronograph from Lange.
JM: Over the last decade there have been many brands that I have fallen in love with, but few have been as consistently high on my list with every release as Ferdinand Berthoud. Each timepiece the brand releases is horological perfection and the Chronomètre FB3 is the latest in this prestigious line. It may have come out in the fall of 2022, but out of everything I saw at Watches & Wonders, this is a watch that I would have absolutely zero reservations about investing in for the long haul.
I still think that watches make terrible investments as speculative assets, the same as crypto, but I’m not worried that I would lose much money if I was able to procure something from this brand, much less the Chronomètre FB3. It does stick with the traditional round case instead of the much more interesting octagonal case, but it still does pretty much everything right for a watch that you would trust to hold its value long term.
GG: I prefer to think of this category more in terms of “foundational” watches that form the backbone of a collection, as I’m the world’s worst at predicting how watch prices will move. Using that frame, I’ll go with the Vacheron Constantin Traditionelle Tourbillon Retrograde Openface; either you like the multi-layer grooved design, or you don’t, but to me it’s a welcome modernization of Vacheron’s traditional design codes and a lovely, wearable complicated watch.
IS: I agree Gary, I think we should rename this category for our next Round Table as watch prices (like most things) tend to go up and down depending on demand. Traditionally most Rolexs and Patek Philippes would be considered safer investments, but these days the independent brands have also taken off. If I had to choose a foundational watch for a collection from this year’s W&W it might be the Rolex Perpetual 1908 or if I had to have just one watch it would be a Tudor Black Bay 39.
IS: A patronage watch for me has to help support a relatively new brand or independent watchmaker, and these days they seem to require little assistance to get started. While I don’t think they need my patronage, again I have to pick the Ferdinand Berthoud FB 3SPC here.
GG: Easy choice for me: the Sylvain Pinaud Origine, another independent watch that was introduced in late 2022 but first available for broader public viewing this past week. I hadn’t been fully convinced based on the photos I’d seen, but there’s something compelling about this watch that pictures simply don’t seem to convey. And Sylvain is a lovely fellow – as I’m fond of saying, meet the maker, want the watch! It took all the restraint I could muster to avoid ordering one on the spot – among other things I couldn’t make the relatively simple choice between silver and black dial, and among silver, blued, and pink gold hands.
MG: Ferdinand Berthoud is letting the curtain fall for their FB1. With their final version, now with customizable options for its clients, they say goodbye to their groundbreaking first caliber. That might also make it the ultimate version of the watch to have, although I personally also favored the octagonal-shaped cases.
JM: I love Trilobe as a brand and have since it first launched, and each new model has shown that there is variety within a single display concept. The Une Folle Journée collection kicked things into overdrive when it was launched and created a new grail for my imaginary collection. The latest version of this piece, the Une Folle Journée Diamant, showed exceptional skill in adding stones to a movement that was already a challenge of construction. Adding all the weight of the stones to the exploded platforms of the display was a risk, but the cherry on top are the numerals.
Each of the numerals are painstakingly hand painted (supposedly taking 24 hours for one ring) on the surface of the set diamonds. Close inspection with a loupe reveals the tiny imperfections of the artists hand while also demonstrating the mastery of the brush. The Une Folle Journée Diamant is easily one of the most stunning watches at the show that would make me support a small independent brand.
MG: Ferdinand Berthoud is letting the curtain fall for their FB1. With their final version, now with customizable options for its clients, they say goodbye to their groundbreaking first caliber. That might also make it the ultimate version of the watch to have, although I personally also favored the octagonal shaped cases.
IS: I was talking to Time + Tide founder Andrew McUtchen on the bus into W&W one morning and he asked me what I thought of the Rolex Oyster Perpetual ‘Celebration Dial’, aka Bubble-Dial, watch. I replied that it reminded my of Donald Trump’s remark when running for President in 2016 that, “He could stand on New York’s Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and still not lose voters.” Rolex could do anything equally extreme or outrageous, and whether people loved or hated it they would still sell and generate enormous press coverage. I can’t see a Rolex “Celebration Dial” on my wrist, but it does make me smile!
JM: Since I am sticking solely to the halls of Watches and Wonders this helps me narrow down my selection for my favorite fun watch, but it still results in a tie. The first watch that I thought was so incredibly fun were the latest versions of the Van Cleef & Arpels Ludo Secret Watch which appears to be a simple woven gold bracelet with round jeweled petals wrapped around the glittering ribbon. It actually is, as the name suggests, a secret watch and the two “petals” are pushers allowing the wearer to squeeze them together, revealing a small watch dial under two pod bay doors (the first thing that comes to mind to describe the mechanism). The reveal is such a fun movement, and the interaction is so pleasurably tactile that it may be my favorite secret watch I have ever had the pleasure of using.
GG: At $17,000 it’s expensive for a “fun” watch, but I was quite impressed with the Zenith Defy Skyline Black Ceramic Skeleton. There’s more to this watch than initially meets the eye; it’s endowed with Zenith’s high-frequency El Primero movement, which in turn permits the sub-seconds hand to display one-tenth second increments while circulating in 10, rather than 60, seconds. The ceramic case and bracelet are solid feeling and comfortable on the wrist, and the bracelet has a quick-change mechanism to allow it to be swapped quickly for a rubber strap.
IS: While it’s not a watch, wasn’t at Watches and Wonders, and is electrically rather than mechanically powered, I was entranced by clock at the AHCI exhibition, the Florian Schlumpf ‘Time is Beautiful’ – it certainly is when display like this! It looks like a psychedelic jumble, but the time stands out clearly and changes every 15 minutes. Miki Electa’s Horse Race clock automation (and his horse watch) was another stand out there.
JM: Another watch that ties in my mind for the most fun watch of the fair comes out of left field from a brand not known for fun or frivolity in any way, Rolex. In a move that made a lot of people very excited and very angry, Rolex released two timepieces that can only be described as unserious. For one model, I agree with the wider consensus and feel it was a lackluster concept and implementation, and definitely missed thanks to its emoticon inclusions. But the one that I truly fell in love with and would gladly rock on my wrist with a smile is the Oyster Perpetual Bubbles Up.
The watch features a dial sporting various sized “bubbles” of all the lacquered dial colors from the 2020 collection year, specifically coral, pastel pink, yellow, hunter green, and turquoise. I know this opinion would get me shouted down on most Rolex forums for having no taste, or being a sheep, or of not appreciating Rolex the right way (what exactly would that even mean, Chad?). But since I have already proven I am not the intended Rolex audience, I am happy to say that this is another model that gives me a reason to tip my hat to the most accomplished manufacturer of watches in the world, and acknowledge a fun and irreverent design when I see one.
Does it fit well within Rolex and its core design ethos? No, and that’s probably why I like it so much.
IS: As a horse lover, the Hermès Arceau WOW made me smile.
For more information, please visit www.watchesandwonders.com/en/home