Disclaimer: Those who know me also know I do not have the gift of termination. Sure, I could “keep it short,” after all, in my day I did write compact one-minute reports, and could still do that, but my editor is often out these days working on other assignments, so I get away with writing as thoroughly as I would like to, even if that means losing the reader somewhere along the way. Besides… I write about big topics in vintage style, i.e.: as if it were for a big ole magazine, the kind people read when they had time for something more substantial than fast food, micro-waved dishes, and 300 words max.

Here goes:

Recently, I received a very kind letter from a gentleman named Art Donovan  commenting on  the Letter to the Reader I always publish in Wristwatch Annual, the book/magazine/catalogue I edit each year as an English-language partial version of Armbanduhren by the brilliant Peter Braun of Germany. Donovan, owner of Donovan Design, a company manufacturing rather fascinating illuminating devices, welcomed my mention of the small independent brands that drive innovation in this industry and, of course, in others: “… it is our small size that affords us the flexibility to experiment and create new styles that are not yet produced by the majors. Sometimes we get lucky and our designs become popular. We can then continue to make and sell them, sometimes for years depending on the style . The majors can then jump on the new styles and manufacture the high volumes necessary to carry them through the year. Everybody is happy.”

This plain fact can been found in many other industries as well, notably the automobile industry, which relies on the flexible creativity and genuinely innovative powers of smaller units, start-ups, and brilliant engineers, especially in a time of rapid and deep change. This is true even in the age of Information by the way. Comforting, too, is the thought that there exists a creature such as the “inventor,” who, we might conjecture romantically, slaves away in his or her workshop or lab, coming up with new ways to make our lives easier while earning a living at the same time…

The watch industry is a good example of this at times uneasy relationship between Goliaths and Davids. At issue are not the core competencies, to use a tired business term, but rather thunder stealing. Most majors in the industry can produce technically and esthetically outstanding products but after attending the presentations, you can’t help noticing the fact that they are hampered by a need to feed their market and fans. So straying far from the beaten path is not really an option. That leaves it to others to capture the eye of the buyer with something unusual, rare, if not unique, elegant, muscular, perhaps a little crazy or playful…   The 28th edition of the SIHH, held in January 2018, revealed this dialectic between the established brands and the independents.

An overview of the SIHH…

In its early days, the SIHH was basically a rave devoted to the brands of the Richemont Group. Collectors, buyers, sellers and journos/copy writers came together with brands to inform the world of the Group’s latest products and drive the market forward. It was also the first big horological meet of the industry year.

H.Moser & Cie: the cheese watch is serious business

Other brands soon responded and started setting up shop in the local hotels or exhibition rooms, drawing. So two years ago, the SIHH decided to “keep its friends close and its competitors closer.” And so appeared the Carrée des Horlogers, a delightful “square” where smaller, independent brands could come and show their wares. It’s here that visitors could discover what really makes the industry tick, and where inchoate trends were being tested.

So what seems to be happening to the brands? The longish introduction may explain my initial impressions… In brief: Following the colors and a return to soberer vintage-influenced pieces, comes what one can best describe as a touch of madness, expressed in various ways, either as a real dial animations, technical advances, or – here I am somewhat critical – a tagline that is supposed to “disrupt,” one can only guess, by expressing toil, excessive speed, pressure, madness.

Are you nuts?

MoonMachine, MB&F plus Sarpaneva

The “touch of madness” has always been the spirit in the independents’ domain.

{Memories…Somewhere in my archives is an interview I did with Vianney Halter in 2007, in which he says “I’d like to make a watch that doesn’t tell time.” It was at a table  at the Métropole in Geneva with Felix Baumgartner and Max Büsser, who had kindly arranged  the three-way panel. Of course, Halter’s  Magritte-like statement was born of the overheated pre-Recession years, but fast forward to the Carrée des Horlogers 2018 and you find a watch in a case of cheese made by Moser & Cie. as a way to express support and solidarity with for really Swiss watchmaking. }

You can always count on Max Büsser and his MB&F(riends) to freely mix creativity with technical virtuosity. This year, the Can-Am case of the Horological Machine No. 8 was borrowed to house a second collaboration with the renowned Stepan Sarpaneva for a special moon phase, which is projected onto the lateral window using the clever and technically virtuosic prism system. A reminder: The “Frog,” MB&F’s HM No. 2 dating to 2012, also received a Sarpaneva moon…

At any rate, MB&F was my opening shot at the SIHH itself, and not one to be forgotten. It was followed by some meandering around the Carrée des Horlogers, a warm-up of sorts for the eyes, to see what was really happening in the industry. Having exploited the wow effect of its dual fluid pumps to the max, HYT is now exploiting the intricacy of its movement in the H20, whose sapphire crystal has expanded to act as a barrel for the watch. The customer and his or her neighbors can now admire the mechanism from all sides. Shaping sapphire crystals that way is no easy task, and it’s a testimony to the brand’s willingness to push the envelope, even though the result may not be to everyone’s taste.

Being and nothingness

Hautlence shares space with its MELB sister brand H. Moser & Cie. The latter still seems to be making heavy water of it with its very singular shapes, especially since the departure of Guillaume Tetu. The brand has gone through several crises already, but has always managed to recover somewhat and plough on. Whether the use of an ambassador like ex-soccer player Cantona was a good idea still remains to be seen. None of my American colleagues has ever heard of the man.  And as a non-fan, I must confess to my own ignorance of this erstwhile celebrity of the field.

Hautlence complicates matters

The company, however, has always  worked the edges, producing complex mechanical toys, with lots of crystal to exhibit the brand’s main claim to fame, a movement the produces jumping hours on a chain, or retrograde minutes, and so forth…. an engineer’s dream. H. Moser & Cie is quite the opposite.  The hallmark of the brand is a mysterious, smoky dial on the Endeavour or Venturer series. The simplicity extends to a number of technical/esthetic features, beginning with the escapement module inside, which vastly simplifies servicing thanks to the replacement of pre-adjusted modules. Add to that hacking seconds (precise adjustment), flash calendars, where needed, a seven-day power reserve (less winding) and a delightful miniature hand that serves as a date pointer by following the hours, of which there are twelve, just like the months….

Back on the grid

There is life outside the Carrée des Horlogers of course. It would be lèse majesté to elevate on the independents onto a pedestal, while forgetting the brands that toil in large, well equipped buildings and have markets and deadlines and major investors, even stockholders. The Carrée, though, is the place to whet your appetite for more reasonable watches … or spoil it, as the case may be….

The safest way to navigate choppy waters is to shore up what one has – and the waters are choppy, since the industry just came off one crisis, and the USA is on some strange self-destructive trip that may well engulf the planet. Montblanc, IWC, Girard-Perregaux, even Piaget are exploring some of their greatest hits. Montblanc is relying more and more on Minerva, loves the classics and the ultra-thin, IWC has revived an old 19th-century pocket watch whose bare-bones dial and digital hours and minutes actually look very modern, so when the presenter says timeless, this time you can believe it. This is the Tribute to Pallweber 150 Years edition (albeit driven by the 94200, a 28,800 vph  machine with a 60-hour power reserve). Vacheron Constantin has also steered a conservative tack with several lines, like the 56, but their métiers d’art series keeps on giving works of art, tiny vignettes, like the Aérostiers de Versailles 1783, featuring the hot-air balloons.

Testing, testing…

Some of the regulars at the SIHH were also showing signs of adventurousness and readiness to move into a different lane. Baume & Mercier, for example, took leave of the carefree and chic Great Gatsby-ism and is trying its hand at revving engines along with the Indian Motorcycle Company… . Bikers and Baume? It doesn’t fit somehow, not yet anyway, though the design of the trotteuses are really very sharp, no doubt about it. And for someone wanting to buy a totally in-house watch for a reasonable price, the new Baumatic is definitely worth the money. You get a silicon hairspring and other contemporary knickknacks, and all that at a very reasonable price. The big 35 on the dial might remind one of BRM, but that is just me, I guess…

B&M gets funky…

While on the subject of cars and other roughriders, should mention two brands that like Big Effects. The first is Roger Dubuis, whose presentations tend to be similar to earthquakes wrapped in eruptions drowned by tsunamis. It’s fun, no doubt about it, but the stuff should be commensurate with the product at all times… Cars and Dubuis are fairly congruent, especially the kind of steroid-pumped vehicles that are made for speed and seem to inspire lots of men – and women – to race around city districts making noise and  risking the lives of calmer folk. For watches, though, the hard sell on the issue is almost a shame. Noisy Lamborghinis and screaming tires seem as far away from high-powered watch mechanics as Planet X and and the Sistine Chapel. But the brand was selling different-colored watchbands made of the actual rubber of tires used for different weather conditions. 

The other brand that likes its emotions fortes is Richard Mille. The ultimate technophile, Mille has been amazing the world with some genuine innovations. Who can forget the tourbillon with the magnolia for women, which seemed infinitely more erotic in many ways than the sophomoric RM 69? Or better yet, the Nadal watch with the amazing shock absorbing system using pullies and hyperfine cables. This year (2018),  Argentinian polo player Pablo Mac Donough (yes, he is from Argentina) became the model for the RM 53. And if you thought polo was a sport for the dainty, time to reset… Mc Donough suffered a devastating injury to the head as a kid playing polo, but got back up on his horse once healed and went on to become one of the world’s best. What does a watch face under such circumstances: getting bashed out of existence. So Richard Mille set about creating one that could suffer crushing polo whacks.

Revivalists

Not everything that glitters is madness; classic lines never really go out of style even if creative heads in colorful shoes are trying hard to push the envelope. And most brands have some delightful designs tucked away in the attic worth bringing back for a brushing off and some updating. Jaeger LeCoultre relaunched Memovox, a robust 1968 (yes, 50 years) diver’s watch with an alarm to warn the diver when to start surfacing procedures. It is accompanied by the Polaris, etc…  The sales tagline is made by makers, and involved a high-end bootmaker from Argentina and…

The 60s are back

Variations on themes…

Audemars Piguet, for its part, never stopped relaunching its phenomenally successful Royal Oak, which this year comes in a few new versions, like a thinner one, which reveals the brand’s undisputed technical prowess. The publicity film about this was meant to suggest some deep philosophical discussion on how to evolve while being the first (?), on youthfulness and hipness. According to CEO Benhamias, younger watchmakers and older ones were at loggerheads regarding how far to push the technical limits for this new Royal Oak offshore…. This sounded a little far-fetched, but, OK, we old guys are a bunch of sticks buried in the mud of the Joux Valley, and, the young are there to show us how it goes, we got the message, let me take a pic and fire it off to my IG ccount, which is connected to my FB account and automatically sends a link to my Twitter feed… Cool. Nevertheless, with some relief and a feeling of expectancy, Bennhamias announced that after years of development, AP will be coming out with a new line next year. Everyone looks forward to it. (Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication, I like the black version slightly better, because even though the white version may be more technically advanced, there’s something extremely cool about an pitch-black, hyper-complicated, anniversary Royal Oak Offshore.)

AP…. the Oak is still Royal, but is there something new on the way?

Steadier and franker, Panerai made no fiery speeches about innovation and disruption and DNA: The Italian brand, which has a remarkable fan club (I know one or two, they’d kill to defend Panerai’s honor), seems happy with its magnificent Lo Scientato and tungsten rotors, it’s fascinating sandwich dials and for men who want to feel like men and women who like to slip into something more masculine. Now, the same watches are coming out in 38-millimeter case that lets one wear a Panerai without necessarily attracting envious stares or tearing one’s silk sleeve.

Not all brands have chromosomes that reach back multiple generations or deep into the glebe of the Vallée de Joux. But remember when the news came down that Peter Speake-Marin had sold his brand to some investors and was just leaving his name? He may be one of the only living watchmakers who can boast a brand bearing his name and his codes without his having to lift a screwdriver to make it happen. A quick survey of the new collection (I did not see all of it, but keep an eye out or Wristwatch Annual 2019) reveals some refreshment to the brand, a tighter case, a modernized look, with a bolder approach to colors.