As an avid watch lover, you’re no doubt already aware of the challenges currently plaguing the luxury watch industry, particularly around how new products will be presented to the public. Baselworld – one of the world’s oldest and, arguably, most famous luxury watch and jewelry fairs – is traditionally where many top brands unveil their latest creations, but it has been canceled indefinitely. This announcement came in the wake of the shocking departure of nearly all the event’s anchor brands (including Patek Philippe, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Bvlgari, and Hublot) and the creation of a new breakaway show in Geneva next year. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been the major catalyst driving this change, it is not the root cause of Baselworld’s woes. The show has seen declining numbers for the last few years, with the exodus of brands beginning back in 2018.
The purpose of this article, however, is not to analyze what went wrong there. Rather, we are looking at the novel approach taken by the watch industry’s other major annual trade show: Watches & Wonders (formerly known as SIHH). For those who aren’t aware, W&W is the forum where the Richemont group debuts new products from its various brands (including notable names like Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Panerai). In more recent years, a number of high-end independent brands have been invited to exhibit there, too. The event was scheduled to take place in Geneva from April 25th–29th but was called off in late February due to the then-growing threat of coronavirus and the travel restrictions imposed as a result.
Rather than postponing the show until next year, the solution Baselworld initially proposed, Watches & Wonders came up with a novel alternative that perhaps better suits the needs of the 21st century. On the April 25th, its online portal hosted the launch of new watches from 18 brands, with new releases from another 12 brands still to come. However, what was perhaps even more exciting and compelling for watch lovers everywhere was the opportunity to see everything in real time for themselves without having to wait for the press to write about it or share it on social media. Likewise, this was also an opportunity for many to hear from the brands’ top executives directly for the first time, making it a more intimate experience in some ways.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to this approach. Due to the constraints placed on many brands as a result of the coronavirus, there was probably more reliance on computer-generated renders than there would have been otherwise. Everyone knows that luxury watches are very tactile objects. The ability to hold a watch in your hands and try it on your wrist greatly shapes your perception of it and is worlds apart from just seeing a photo. This was the case late last year when A. Lange & Söhne debuted their new Odysseus model. People quickly took to social media to deride it only to have to walk back on their comments once they or others posted live pictures of the watch and shared their in-person feedback.
What was perhaps most interesting was the lack of restraint. Even though the world is currently experiencing extremely challenging times, most brands debuted at least one or two exceptionally complicated and exotic – not to mention expensive – models. Piaget led the charge with a standard series version of their Altiplano Ultimate Concept, the world’s thinnest mechanical watch at just 2 mm. Likewise, Vacheron Constantin knocked it out of the park with a number of complicated – and skinny – models, including the skeleton version of the Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin and the unique Les Cabinotiers Grand Complication Split-Seconds Chronograph featuring 24 complications.
On the one hand, this may reflect the industry’s confidence in a relatively fast economic recovery – and realistically, many of these watches won’t be available until later in the year when market conditions will (hopefully) already be showing signs of improvement. But it’s also a reflection of the long lead times the industry works with. Most of these new models would have been in the design and development phase for months, if not years, before the global pandemic hit, so changing plans would not really have been an option. Plus, in some ways, it’s nice to have some fantastical distractions to immerse ourselves in.
Other brands chose to play it a bit safer, focusing primarily on making slight improvements to existing models or introducing new case materials. One of my personal favorites is the Slim d’Hermès GMT, which is now available in rose gold for the first time and paired with a blue dial. I also quite like Jaeger-LeCoultre’s subtle refinement of its Master Control Calendar model in steel. The classic dial design remains, but there are some contemporary touches and a redesigned case – not a showstopper by any means, but a good-looking and well-executed watch.
Overall, I think the Watches & Wonders online portal for launching new watches was a great idea. Brands were able to create engaging content alongside their products and directly track the metrics of how each one performed. That said, I don’t think this is the way of the future. While I can certainly envision something like this working in parallel to a physical show going forward, for most of us, it’s as much about the community as the watches themselves. There is a whole event ecosystem that incorporates brands, retailers, platforms like Chrono24, bloggers, and social media influencers, and the engine that drives it all is people physically coming together to touch the product and talk about it in person.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t see that changing anytime soon, nor do I want to.