With her Issey Miyake dress, avant-garde jewellery and distinctive hairdo – part shaved, part shock of red – Sara Sandmeier stands out like a Swatch at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), where the high-end watch world unveils its new creations each year in Geneva. In part, it’s her style, set against a sea of conservative suiting. But more so it is because she’s a woman. “This is a man’s world,” concedes Sandmeier, the watch designer for Baume & Mercier, and the woman behind its new contemporarily classical Clifton model. “You have to be a strong woman to survive in it. But it means the results are different too – watches are softer, more detailed, more about colour and less about aggression. Put it this way: when I first showed my portfolio of designs, they said it was very ‘poetic’. And that was their way of saying it wasn’t very good.”
Such an approach may, however, be in strong demand now as watch companies – buoyed by increased consumer spending on watches, such that the once nearly extinct mechanical watch has become more mainstream – seek to assert a strong identity. For some, that means, in different ways, underlining the masculinity that Sandmeier is conscious of: Montblanc, for example, has announced the actor Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman as its new “ambassador”; IWC – as much an engineering as a watch company – has relaunched its Aquatimer line, which now includes a model capable of operating 2,000 metres below the surface or in the shower. Yes, IWC “is a little macho,” admits its marketing director Goris Verburg. “We’ve even toned down the headlines in our ads now for PC reasons, although we still get away with it in Germany.”
Even Cartier, synonymous with Parisian chic, has gone back to its action-packed roots – as creator of the first practical wristwatch, 110 years ago this year, for the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont – with the launch of its first diving watch, the Calibre de Cartier Diver. Water-resistant to 300 metres, it combines the practicalities of the international criteria for a diver’s watch with the brand’s distinctive, bold style, and comes in three versions, all resplendent with Roman numerals.
Meanwhile, Panerai, pioneer of the enduring big-watch trend, keeps its offerings as chunky as ever. “Our smallest watch is 42 millimetres,” notes Panerai’s dapper boss Angelo Bonati. “A brand identity is not easy to build, but easy to lose. And ladies’ watches from us just wouldn’t be right. That said, around 10 per cent of our sales are to women. They must think our watches provide a good piece of armour.”
On the other side of the equation are the likes of Van Cleef & Arpels or Piaget – jewellers as much as watchmakers – with new models, even those for men, that veer towards delicate classicism over sporty cool. Indeed, the greatest division in high-end watchmaking among those companies with historic pedigree now seems to be between those for which a fresh, modern aesthetic is important and those for which exploring new feats of mechanical ingenuity is key.
For the former, trends have their place, and it’s possible to see any one of various companies’ new propositions catching on: matte finishing or “yellowed” numerals from Panerai; wooden dial insets from the likes of Ralph Lauren and Roger Dubuis; 1950s-era, raised, gold numerals, as seen at Montblanc and Baume & Mercier; the use of bronze and other live materials for casing, as seen at IWC; and, at last, downsizing, after years of the out-sized, with Ralph Lauren taking the unusual step of issuing a smaller, rather than an even bigger, edition of its rugged Safari model.
For the latter, it’s more about the art inside. Take Vacheron Constantin: two of its latest models include its Patrimony Traditionnelle 14-Day Tourbillon Openworked, a Gothic-architecture-inspired skeleton watch with the longest power reserve for a tourbillon on the market, and its Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre, the thinnest manual-wind minute repeater on the market (at least for those with around €300,000 [Dh1.5 million] to spare). Or A. Lange & Söhne, a company with products that are so elite, if you haven’t heard of it, you can’t afford them – certainly not the likes of its new Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna, a watch with a price tag that doesn’t mean that its patent-pending orbital-moon-phase display won’t eventually need adjusting, even if that won’t be for another 1,058 years. As its CEO Wilhelm Schmid puts it: “We’re about rarity, because the number of watches we make is the number of hours in the day times the number of watchmakers we have. And that’s not many. Rarity is the only luxury now. It’s why, although nobody really needs gold, still it’s highly regarded.”
Intriguingly and perhaps in response to a growing understanding of and appreciation for watchmaking – as opposed to merely the marketing fluff – this year, even makers of relatively mainstream watches now seem keen to underscore their watchmaking credentials: Baume & Mercier launched a tourbillon, its Clifton 1892 Flying Tourbillon, “a master haute horlogerie piece that is reassuring to buyers of our more affordable pieces,” the CEO Alain Zimmermann notes, almost with the suggestion that he doesn’t expect many sales. IWC has launched a new tourbillon too. “You could well say that a sports watch really doesn’t need a tourbillon. But you may well see a sports watch worn on the red carpet now, not for sports – it’s about the wearer projecting a certain image,” says Verburg. “Besides, we like to show that we’re also a watchmaker, and that’s hard to do if you only make automatics.”
Indeed, given that the internet has made those people who are into watches more knowledgable than your average watch-store salesperson – even interest among women is said to be on the up, as the founding of such sites as Eve’s Watch suggests – maybe the future lies in those companies that can blend character in looks with credibility in cogs and wheels, in equal measure. For that, Richard Mille is setting the bar right now.
“Many watch companies are afraid of moving forward, because they’re afraid to lose what they call their ‘personality’,” says Mille, who has made asymmetric watches out of carbon nanotubes and in the colours of the Jamaican flag, developed others in which the movement is suspended on four 0.35mm-thick braided steel cables, allowing it to cope with huge G-forces, and who this year has launched his poetic RM 63-01 Dizzy Hands. It has a button that freezes the hands but then sets the dial turning, thus disorientating the wearer as to the true time; another press of the button reveals it again. “When the watch business is doing as well as it is at the moment, it’s easy for watchmakers to feel comfortable,” he adds. “But then I’m not a watchmaker – and that’s why we’re creative.”
Making moves like Jaeger-Lecoultre
It was something of a surprise last summer when the then CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Jerome Lambert, left the brand to become the CEO of Montblanc, and was succeeded by Daniel Riedo. One of the first things that Riedo did in his new capacity was travel around the world, taking stock of the business, meeting employees and familiarising himself with different markets. We caught up with the 53-year-old when his travels brought him to Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.
The UAE, he says, is a big market for the brand: “We‘ve been present in this market for 27 years – we’ve had ups and downs in this time, but, at the moment, it is definitely up. The market is growing and we are growing with the market.”
There’s one thing that Riedo knew before he embarked on his journey. He was at the helm of a solid business that wouldn’t require any massive changes – his job would almost certainly not entail a reinventing of the wheel. Instead, he found himself in the enviable position of heading up a brand that cannot keep up with demand.
“Demand is there. If you look inside our shops, there is lack of stock in every store around the world,” he says. “There is more demand for products than we could possibly deliver to the market. Basically, now, we are limited by our own production capacity. We have to develop that a little bit faster than we expected.”
This is easier said than done, as Riedo himself will acknowledge. The company’s manufacturing base in Vallée de Joux, where inimitable timepieces have been carefully crafted for over 180 years, has inherent limitations. “We are exclusive by nature. There is no strategy to limit the production. It is just physically impossible. To develop a Hybris Mechanica takes between three to five years and there are very few people capable of assembling these kinds of watches. We continue to ramp up production, but, at the same time, we cannot only have simple movements on one end of the scale and the Hybris Mechanica on the other. To push a watchmaker from the simple movements to the highest level, we need all the products in between.”
If Jaeger-LeCoultre is a company that takes fierce pride in its craftsmanship and history, then Riedo is exactly the right man to lead it. He is a watchmaker’s watchmaker. He remembers buying his first watch at the age of 19, and while he is too discreet to reveal what make it was, the impetus behind his choice is telling. “The form of this watch was not really common – it was octagonal. I also chose that watch because, at the time, the brand was well known to be a manufacturer themselves. They produced the movements.”