GENEVA — Back to business and thrilled to meet again was the overarching sentiment at this year’s physical edition of Watches and Wonders, the annual fair devoted to some of the world’s leading watch brands that concluded on April 5.
Foot traffic was brisk on the first day, which was overshadowed by the successive announcements that luxury conglomerate Compagnie Financière Richemont, French luxury group Kering and Danish jewelry brand Pandora were stepping down from the Responsible Jewelry Council in protest over its failure to cut ties with Russia, one of the world’s leading producers of diamonds, because of the Ukraine war.
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“It’s an impossible situation [among] many impossible situations right now. At some point you cannot be part of an organization that’s here to set principles and that is just not able to follow its own principles today, said Richemont-owned Van Cleef & Arpels’ chief executive officer Nicolas Bos, who nonetheless believed the framework stability and transparency created by the RJC would “remain very much alive and continue to be the way forward for the industry.”
Nonetheless, buoyed by the ongoing upward trend of Swiss watch exports — which continued to rise by a record 24.4 percent in February, driven by high-end timepieces, according to figures released by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry — high-end watchmakers doubled down on creations that made ample use of precious materials, gemstones galore and innovations of all kinds.
“The COVID-19 context has created many accelerations — retail innovations, digital innovations, people staying ‘at home’ in their countries and spending locally,” said Laurent Dordet, CEO of La Montre Hermès.
The luxury house’s watchmaking division saw a 76.6 percent increase in revenues for 2021 versus 2019, a result the executive attributed to the “spontaneous notoriety [of Hermès] for watches,” thanks to attractive designs, the opening of e-commerce capabilities everywhere in the world and increased social presence, particularly in the U.S. and Asia.
This year’s crop included the memorable Arceau Le Temps Voyageur, another Arceau called “Pocket Cheval Punk,” a tourbillon minute repeater pocket watch that features a punk horse figurine in champlevé enamel, and a teaser of an upcoming revival of its padlock-shaped Kelly watch, this time paired with metal bracelets and a leather clochette that turns the timepiece into a necklace.
That said, consumers aren’t necessarily eyeing high-end timepieces as an investment, according to Dordet. “People want to spend because they have money and because they want to have fun,” he added.
That aspect felt particularly key. Although high-end horology is often seen as the remit of an older consumer, an increasing number of young collectors are entering the game.
“Younger generations have a lot of affinity with watchmaking,” said Chopard’s president Caroline Scheufele, who connected this growing interest to the desire for transparency and ethical practices across the board.
“In Europe, we tend to [think] that if you pay a lot for a watch, you tend to be older. In the U.S., we see people who are 21, 22, 25 years old and [who are] very knowledgeable. It’s a collector market, so it’s a natural fit for us [as] a collector brand,” said Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne at a panel discussion with WWD.
Given how the third iteration of its sporty-elegant Odysseus model — here in a brand-first titanium 250-piece limited edition that confirmed the rise of the metal as a high-watchmaking option — had the watch community atwitter, that is sure to continue.
“And you can’t make a marketing story. Specifically, when it becomes a tale, they will spot it and you lose credibility forever,” Schmid continued.
Offering a recognizable signature was noted as a factor of success. “In 2022, no one needs one more watch, bag or pair of shoes,” said Frédéric Grangié, president of watches and jewelry at Chanel. “It’s all about desirability, and [that] comes from creation and brand equity, where you are positioned.”
Between the mischievous figurine of Coco Chanel peeking out on the side of the J12 XS; the métiers d’art-inspired Mademoiselle Privé Bouton cuffs that hid the timepiece under a bejeweled button, and a birdcage necklace that hid the watch face in its base and was inspired by an item still in the couturier’s Rue Cambon apartment, there was no mistaking the origins of these designs.
Asked if watches’ meteoric rise would continue, he was of the opinion it would “for the best of the best,” with a caveat that the house felt strongly about reaching the end client and avoiding the secondary market’s speculative aspect.
Hence why Cartier focused on clarifying its image and identity as “a watchmaker of shapes, designs, styles,” said Arnaud Carrez, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the Richemont-owned French watches and jewelry house.
Presented in Geneva were therefore striking shapes, including the Coussin, a flexible cushion made of a 3D printed gold grid pattern; the Tank Chinoise, which celebrates its centenary this year and is revisited as part of the Cartier Privé limited-edition collection; as well as the Masse Mystérieuse, which saw the watch’s caliber condensed into the semicircular skeletonized oscillating weight, leaving the hands to float in the transparent dial.
This approach allowed Cartier to weather the pandemic and come out with an estimated 39 percent rise in sales compared to 2019, according to a recent Morgan Stanley research note.
While Carrez declined to comment on the figure, he confirmed that all regions were performing strongly for the brand, especially in China and the U.S. where “Cartier has reinforced its position in the past two years,” he noted.
Asked how Cartier balanced its heritage and the purpose-focused new luxury consumer, he said consistency was a priority and about the house being “obsessed with planning for the long-term and not…short-term, opportunistic moves or making noise.”
According to him, the brand’s strength rests on being “a universal maison with transgenerational creations” that allowed it to be “very connected and engaged with a young clientele [with] 50 percent composed of Millennials — more in some regions and markets.”
With the U.S. emerging as a key motor for growth in the past 24 months, Cartier wasn’t alone in looking across the Atlantic.
Montblanc’s chief marketing officer Vincent Montalescot credited a “glocalization approach” that hinged on expressing the brand through “mark maker” ambassadors who spoke to each territory for the dual boom the instrument specialist is experiencing in the U.S. and China.
The brand brought the 1858 Geosphere Chronograph 0 Oxygen LE 290, featuring a chronograph movement, devoid of all oxygen, which brand ambassador and record-breaking mountaineer Nimsdai Purja will soon roadtest on Mount Everest, and the Unveiled Secret Minerva Monopusher Chronograph Limited Editions, which features a movement flipped back to front so that collectors may admire the intricate mechanics without having to remove their watch.
Later in the seven-day Watches and Wonders event, the pace became more sedate. “You realize that [the fair] has a bit less people. We are still missing the crowd of Asian visitors,” remarked Franziska Gsell, chief marketing officer of IWC Schaffhausen.
“My sense is that foot traffic was definitely down relative to the SIHHs and Baselworlds of years past for a few reasons, including the absence of Russian dealers and lingering COVID concerns,” said Win Betteridge, CEO of watch and jewelry retailer Greenleaf & Crosby, who remarked that large dealers had also reduced the size of the teams attending.
Befitting the first physical edition of Watches and Wonders, watchmakers were keen to point out the experiential side.
Panerai continued to focus on experiences connected to its models. In a departure from its army-focused experiences that saw participants train with, say, the frogmen of the Italian special forces, buyers of the Luminor Goldtech Calendario Perpetuo will be heading for the rolling Tuscan hills on a journey to discover the seat of the brand’s heritage.
Being immersed in the crystalline sound of the models created in honor of the 25th anniversary of Chopard’s L.U.C. manufacture was another way to live the moment, watching as crystals grew and components flew to form its headliner Full Strike Sapphire.
Emotion was the key driver here, with timepieces like the rose gold Happy Sport Chrono and the steel Alpine Eagle Flying Tourbillon only nominally meant for a particular gender.
“There is no reason a woman should not wear a watch with complications…or that a man could not wear diamonds. Look at the music industry,” said Scheufele, noting that female collectors had often started by appropriating male watches. “The world has become so crazy that sometimes, you need good emotions and energy.”
Reading time itself should be an experience that brings delight, as evidenced by the number of timekeeping objects that forwent precision in favor of poetry, like Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Atmos Hybris Mechanica Calibre 590, a clock figuring the cycles of the Earth, sun and moon that will only need to be set again in 2412 — 390 years from now.
“Nobody needs a watch to tell the time, and once you acknowledge that, you feel better in a way,” quipped Van Cleef & Arpels’ Bos.
Hence Van Cleef’s trio of automatons — the Planétarium, the Fontaine aux Oiseaux and the Rêveries de Berylline — or, for anyone looking for something more portable, its wristwatches where reading the time is done by counting flowers or looking at where a ballerina is pointing.
“More than a style, it’s about showing the philosophy around the presentation of time,” he continued, outlining that adhering to this fundamental of the house was one of the drivers of its sustained period of development and growth.
Likening the watch industry to museums, who speak to a wide audience “whether they can afford to buy [the art shown] or not,” he explained that watchmakers and jewelry houses had a wider role to play in showing the vibrant ecosystem they generated.
It was an opinion shared by Jaeger-LeCoultre’s CEO Catherine Rénier, who insisted that opening the doors on watchmaking secrets through exhibitions and educational programs “to anyone, not just passionate watch lovers” gave “more life to these crafts and ensured [their] future resonance.”
“History and patrimony are great, but it’s the way you can make them relevant today [that matters].…If you only talk to your clients, that’s when you start having problems,” Bos concluded.
The idea of talking to a different category of watch appreciators underlined the NFT efforts seen at Watches and Wonders this year.
For those skeptical on what it could bring in the watchmaking space, one of the perks was unveiled at the fair: an entry into the real-life raffle to own Louis Moinet’s newly released Super Moon timepiece.
The independent watchmaker had launched an initial run of 1,000 NFTs in February, in partnership with digital creator Tafi, which sold out in minutes — no watch ownership necessary.
In the case of Hublot and Takashi Murakami’s ongoing collaboration, the Japanese artist’s smiling flower dropped as digital collectibles on the second morning of the fair. Going forward, they “will be an integral part of the ‘Hublot loves art’ artistic world,” said CEO Ricardo Guadalupe.
While most of their digital counterparts were earmarked for the owners of the sold-out Hublot Classic Fusion timepieces, a limited number of them will be available to the public from May, hinting that NFTs may be a way to broaden the consumer base for brands without diluting their designs with entry-level offerings.
IWC drew visitors to its booth with the announcement of its Diamond Hand Club — named after the moniker given in digital circles to those who retain their digital assets as investments – and giving out 1,868 tokens to celebrate the launch. Although those were claimed within hours, those who acquire its new colored-ceramics Pilot watch will get an exclusive NFT granting them access to this virtual ecosystem created in partnership with French blockchain specialist Arianee.
But don’t see this as a gateway toward smartwatches. “Those are devices that you throw away after two or three years and move on. [Whereas] even for younger generations, for special occasions, you are gifted a precious timepiece. In the context of [reducing] waste, I think this plays another role,” said IWC’s chief marketing officer Franziska Gsell.
For a more tongue-in-cheek analogue approach, H.Moser offered the Swiss Alp Watch Final Upgrade, featuring a fully mechanical hand-wound movement housed in a case designed to be a nod to a disruptive smart watch designed by a certain firm in Cupertino, Calif.
During the Tag Heuer keynote, CEO Frédéric Arnault confirmed that NFT-related projects were in the works as he believed the brand has a voice in “new technology and new asset class.” While he wouldn’t be drawn on specifics, he hinted at a May announcement that would coincide with the addition of a crypto-payment option.