Baselworld 2019: peaks and peeks

Baselworld 2019 was quite exciting even without a slew of major brands, which stayed away this year.


The trickle of brands leaving Baselworld a few years ago turned into a torrent in 2018, with Swatch Group packing up its castle and kaboodle and leaving a big space free on the ground floor of the main hall in 2019. For the media, it was not a bad deal, since the press center was installed right there in the heart of things.  And it left a lot more time to visit those who were at Basel…

The nuclear option, from Urwerk

Five days, about forty-five meetings, three interviews and many spontaneous conversations about all sorts of topics cannot by any stretch of the imagination be properly condensed into a single article, and these days, even scrolling seems to sap the energy of the online reader …

MeisterSinger, just the facts

 At any rate, all shapes and sizes were on display, and all price ranges, from Urwerk’s AMC with an  atomic  time-setting machine already seen at the SIHH and going for around $2,700,000, to the delicate regulator watches of the Münster-based company, MeisterSinger, whose prices begin at around $800.

A coup de coeur is a French term indicating something that takes your breath away.  And this Baselworld was quite rich in these, so here are a few that I picked up along the way, certainly not an exhaustive list… And there will be follow-ups for certain brands:

Nature morte, really

ArtyA’s hypnotic Butterfly Iridescent

Day one,  Wednesday, March 21. My first appointment was at 1:30pm at the Ateliers , site of many smaller brands (Czapek &Cie, MB&F, Urwerk, Louis Moinet…the usual  suspects).  Being quite early, I sauntered over to ArtyA, where Yvan Arpa was setting up along with his extremely talented artist wife Dominique, who contributes her creativity to many dials, notably of the Son of Earth series. Arpa is a small fellow, the way a 300-Watt bulb is small.  He’s exuberant, full of vim and vigor, and very direct, which always makes for terrific banter.  He started laying out the novelties and other pieces the company produces, rapid-firing  the details, a watch with a dial of spokes inspired from motorcycles (“…each one is hand assembled.”),  the Son of a Gun Extreme with the 6mm  rounds in the dial,  a brand new Megève with the dial carved like a snowflake. And then there was the Son of Earth Butterfly Iridescent, which was a genuine coup de coeur. It’s a simple three-hander (essentially dauphine hands), powered by the ArtyA  automatic Aion movement (made in collaboration with Concepto, 28,800 vph, côtes de Genève, 25 jewels). The beauty is the natural mauve iridescence of the single butterfly wing that almost covers the dial and catches the light every time the watch moves. The luminescence reveals the structure of the wing and gives the dial depth, as if you were looking into a magic fountain filled with mystically glowing water.

 

Time unexpected

Same day, later…. An annual pilgrimage to the small booth of Itay Noy, whose watches – all in limited editions – engage the beholder in a conversation, usually about something larger than just time. And so his timepieces become like small poems, chrono-haikus, or philosophical fragments, or simply good old friends you like to meet over and over again… I haven’t asked him yet for his own interpretations (in my Maximalism, for instance, I see solid straight roots/rationalism on the lower half of the dial, and turbulent, baroque thoughts on the upper half…), in part because discussing it would be like writing the first sentence of a story, which will create certain inevitability in interpretation. REORDER WHITE LOW-REZNoy’s  concept of “dynamic dials” brings liveliness to the wrist and opens many possibilities for the creative watch designer. But what could be a worthy successor to the Full Month, which tracks the day using thirty-one numbers painstakingly cut into the dial over a disk that turns the right number red?  The answer is simply Reorder. Also a sandwich dial, but this time it’s the hours that are cut haphazardly into the dial. Noy prefers not to explain the system he developed to display time in this fascinating manner (no, it’s not as strident as Franck Muller’s Crazy Hours). It’s not about omerta, but rather to keep the mystery alive, he told me. “If you know how the magician does his tricks, it’s no longer any fun to watch.”  The watch features the movement he worked on together with a little company called IsoProg.

Art and the machine

One brand that has shown remarkable resilience in spite of recession and fitful starts and stops is Hautlence. Their products – 1970s-styled, television-shaped timepieces with intricate engines inside – are not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the classical purist…. Let me put it this way, if it were music, a modern Eduard Hanslick would  have had a fit. But, but, but:  You can’t deny the effort and the technical hijinks that go into these odd pieces. Becoming a member of MELB Holding, run byHL SPHERE_Mushroom_White Background

HTL 501-1_Front_Black Background
The HL Sphere’s mechanics.

 Georges-Henri Meylan, kept Hautlence in the market … After five years, according to Nathalie Cobos, the company came up with what should by rights be a winner:  the HL Sphere. Its most striking feature is the hour display on the left of the dial, a kind of blue globe engraved with numerals that travels on three rotational axes to give the hour. To the right is a retrograde minute display with a special twist. Thanks to a set of braking gears, the minute hand travels back to the big double zero  at a moderate pace. It allows one to really watch the mechanism at work, from both sides, if necessary, especially considering the artistry of the four conical gears that drive the “hour bubble,” as it were.

Simple complexity

Hautlence’s group sister, H. Moser & Cie, has been making a name for itself these past years, though without ever changing its essence:  minimalism. In January at the SIHH (Ed. Note: the review is still being tweaked), it presented a watch with a tourbillon, and that’s it. That didn’t mean the owner couldn’t tell time. The watch had a minute repeater as well.  Very clever, but it was merely a prelude to the  Endeavour Concept Minute Repeater Tourbillon, which has two hands and is all the more practical for it.

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H.Moser & Cie, the simplest complicated watches.

The dial is more exciting thanks to the two repeater hammers have been placed on the dial side and stand out sharply on the black lacquer dial. Not surprisingly, Pierre Favre and the Manufacture Haute Complication is behind this double whammy, the same company that provided the engineering  for ArtyA’s combo double-axis tourbillon with three-gong minute repeater.  The H. Moser piece distinguishes itself by being of manageable size (ø43 mm x 14mm) and with its white gold case, it’s not too showy until one looks a little more closely…

Interlude

I could mention at least a dozen other watches that made the trip to Basel well worth every minute. Nomos, for example, has gone sportive, with new additions to its Neomatik line that will thrill swimmers who refuse to wear some pedestrian waterproof watch. This sleek timekeeper can take a 300-meter dive. Note, too, the unique bracelet of tightly assembled slats that look like the smooth scales of a supple aquatic creature. From the same region, Glashütte, comes the magnificently elegant gold Tutima Patria with power reserve and a green Flieger that is taking the brand into a new era of color… all material that will show up in Wristwatch Annual 2020.  Some 40 kilometers from Glashütte is Dresden, home to another maker of classically fine watches, Lang und Heyne (see the Moritz, below).

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The children are OK

 

Almost too perfectly, though, my last two meetings of the fair were with “watch-men” whose idea of design is very similar though the outcome is different.  The first man is Chris Long, founder and CEO of an unusual brand called Azimuth (which has been in Wristwatch Annual for as long as I can remember)….  A watch lover from his days as a student engineer, Long has never lost his youthful sense of humor and playfulness, and they pervade his brand’s output.

There is, for example, the Landship, a homage to the first tanks of World War One.  Or the King Casino, with a baccarat and roulette function. There are some simple regulators (Back in Time),  or more complex ones, like the Predator series, which feature a large fang-like minute hand with an opening at its base that reveals the hour on a disk, the whole thing skeletonized for lightness.  Others are inspired by sports cars (the Gran Turismo or the Twin Turbo) … When we met at the Swissôtel Le Plaza bar,  Long was wearing one of my favorites: The Mr. Roboto, now in brass, a face, with regulator hours, and small seconds for eyes, and a mouth housing retrograde minutes…. inside,  a movement modified in-house. More to come on this remarkable brand and its CEO.

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Serendipitously, my final appointment of the fair was with MB&F, a brand with a similar vibrancy as Azimuth, though on a different level altogether. Founder and CEO Max Büsser,  the creative impulse behind MB&F, not only makes watches and clocks that do more than tell time; they function equally well as works of kinetic art, and like art, at times they turn the world upside down. Büsser works with a growing roster of “friends,” experts and paragons in their own fields, so the engineering and finishing are always top notch, and each new “machine” is unique. But so far, the watches were always inspired from external objects or ideas. The latest in the Legacy Machine is far more personal, as a quote on the MB&F website suggests: “I wanted LM FlyingT to possess the epitome of femininity as reflected by the women in my life, particularly my mother. It had to combine supreme elegance with tremendous vitality.

What the watch tells.

 

“Flying T” refers to the flying tourbillon that is built up vertically in the center of the dial and topped with a single diamond.  The area around it comes either in diamonds, a snow-covered field,  or in plain black, a deep sea. And at 7 o’clock, a small watch face, stares at the wearer from a perfect angle. It means an intimate moment with time, excluding all others for the duration of a glance . The entire dial is under a vaulted sapphire crystal, which instantly suggests one of those globes, which, when shaken,  produces a snow storm. All that’s missing is a dancing ballerina atop the flying tourbillon. Instead of a dancer, though, the tourbillon is topped with a single diamond.

What the eye does not see

 

The Flying T can be read at a deeper symbolic level as well, perhaps channeled by the designer.  The little dial recalls the moon revolving around the earth. The smooth rounded crystal could symbolize the rounded belly of a pregnant woman, or even a breast, traditional symbols of life itself. And the transparent case back reveals a special rotor, a voluble sun, symbol of nourishment (as Büsser himself states), and also of masculine energy and that of the visible world that meets the mysterious lunar world of the feminine.  Of the many complex watches that have emerged from the MB&F forge, this one, in its apparent simplicity, is perhaps the most complex and the one with the most profound story. It tells us that there is a lot more in time than meets the eye. None of us will survive time, but there’s hop in the cycle of death and life, and the magic of procreation that runs through the feminine.  The one woman from Büsser’s life who did not see this gem was his mother, who died a year ago. It may be solace to know that we all inherit our mother’s heartbeat, so a bit of her always lives in us and our children.

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Sun, earth and moon meet in one watch: MB&F’s FlyingT.

Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch

 

A special diving watch: the Italian brand U-boat thinks big

Watch yourself!

Baselworld 2010: a review

Part 1

 If we are to believe the chroniclers of the wealthy like Steve Forbes, what affects the world’s haves, will also have an impact on the havenots. It’s a bizarre thought based on some strange algorithm only Forbes might understand – it assumes that X not being able to afford another luxury car is equivalent to Y and his family being expelled from their home. But when it comes to watches, the algorithm might just work. Because luxury is the projection and realization of some personal fairytale, and it touches everyone at all levels. For some, purchasing a muscle car is the lonely cherry atop an otherwise gloomy cake, and for others gazing at a tourbillon and a pumping hairspring may be the only way to remember one’s own beating heart in a life of soporific board meetings and business-class plane travel. You don’t really buy a watch, especially a mechanical one, to tell the time, but rather to have a little bit of the galaxy on

Blast from the past, Baselworld in 2008

or on the wrist of a loved one.  It makes no difference whether it’s a €210,000 Chanel limited edition, or an entry-level Eterna …  It’s one of the messages that became quite obvious at Baselworld, the annual watch and jewelry orgy held in Basel, Switzerland.

This great trade fair just closed its doors on a happy note, with attendance up by 7% over last year, according to the fair’s daily herald, and the industry generally upbeat about the future. But optimism among the watch brands is not new. Even in the depths of the recession, CEOs and the brands’ majordomos of communication were grabbing at any number that suggested black and not red, and smiling through the drizzle of bad news. As a last resort, they would point to the overheated market until 2008 and suggest that the ensuing crash was merely a natural correction.  Quite true, of course, but since the Lehmann vaporization, the Madoff hanky-panky, even the now forgotten scandal at the Société Générale, the luxury industry has been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, liquidity problems and continuing insecurity in the markets — see Greece – means that the recovery has the energy of the prisoners staggering into the light at the beginning of act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio. On the other hand, the very raison d’être of luxury, exhibitionism, is now considered to be in even worse taste than it ever was. Money is a little tight for everyone thanks to the pathological greed of the past few years, but for those who have it, broadcasting the fact seems to suggest a “let them eat cake” attitude. And we know where that ended.

Eterna Soleure, traditional values are in style

Turning back the clocks

So it’s no surprise to hear just about every brand speak of “classic” values mixed in with the usual fusion of traditional crafts with innovative ideas. The era of bling has passed, and serious watch aficionados are not entirely unhappy with that state of affairs. Just as censorship in the former USSR led Russian writers and composers to weave a great deal of dissident subtlety into their creations, so, in the year 1 after the Great Recession, sleek lines are back, thin, elegant watches with plain bar indices are in, so are the comfortable rectangular shapes of the 1950s,  1960s and 1970s. Symmetry, or at least harmony and balance, has returned to the dials, but without the slightest sense of stodginess. And steel casings are suddenly quite fashionable — whereby red and yellow gold are beginning to return.

Many of the older brands seemed to have had a great time rummaging around their archives and digging up older designs that hark back to simpler days. Eterna, for instance, is pushing its delicate Soleure, with Arabic numerals or bar indices, a day and night watch for all occasions. Longines has a re-issue of the Lindbergh chronograph, a manly piece but hardly Hummer-like; Tutima has resumed its 1941 Flieger Chronograph line, also recalling the brave flyers of yore, while its Classic line is a genuine chameleon, with sharper contours suggesting this millennium.

A fast-beating heart gets a front-row showing in the Striking 10th

No brand epitomizes more the changes of the past three years than Zenith, perhaps. The flamboyant Thierry Nataf of Moet fame had tried to reinvent the traditional brand to meet the exhibitionist tastes of a class of nouveaux riches that partly crashed along with the rest of the economy all the while burying the company’s very DNA. It was like spray-painting flames on the side of a Steinway concert grand for a Grigory Sokolov  recital of Brahms’s late works…. To Nataf’s credit, it might have worked had the world economy simply continued to exist on the hallucinogenic expectations of derivatives. Suffice to say,  Mr. Nataf – who once told me in an interview, he was “born in a boardroom” – was kicked sideways and replaced by the stolid Jean-Frédéric Dufour, a Geneva resident with a real horological pedigree that includes stints at Ulysse Nardin and Chopard. Gone are the über-cool male models with their brummagem scholar-cum-samurai appeal and the glam femmes objets.  Gone are the aphoristic quotes that may be interesting while waiting for the subway, but signified nothing in terms of watches. Gone, too – but not sideways – are about 25% of the old staff. Zenith has turned the clock back and is producing strong, basic, watches, with the good and friendly looks of high-attitude Jura farmers and affordable prices. The big news is the El Primero Striking 10th, which shows each of the ten beats per second of the exceptional caliber (which beats at 36,000 vph), thanks to the jumping seconds hand. Back to the roots, indeed… All that’s left of the flashy pre-Dufour days, apparently, is the company gift candle sputtering away on the receptionist’s pulpit and producing a penetrating, musky-spicy odor that mixed somewhat irritatingly with the garlic used by Zenith’s own booth cooks.

Coming up for air: Doxa divers

 If it ain’t broke …

Eberhardt’s Chrono4 Temerario

Some brands did not need to turn down the volume too much, simply because they never really lost their dignity in the first place. Chronoswiss, Doxa and Tutima, for example, are classics by nature, and like  Breitling, Fortis, TAGHeuer, have all maintained their genetic association with big engines, diving, flying, regattas, while offering the occasional bit of craziness. It might be a surprisingly gaudy strap,  or a limited edition, like Fortis’s Mattern, which was designed by artist Michael Mattern, a specialist in transcending the inner workings of our industrial age.  Another manufacturer worth mentioning here is Eberhardt, whose watches seldom venture beyond the straight and narrow but manage to achieve recognizability without going to extremes: The standard Chrono4 series, with its four small dials, would not raise your granddad’s eyebrows, though the Temerario sub-line, in a tonneau case with the four subdials arranged vertically does generate some additional excitement. And then there is the crown buried like a gas cap behind a metal flap between the two 12-0’clock lugs.

Beauty and the beast, biker chains, head fins, jewels on the DeWitt Tourbillon

Higher up on the scale is DeWitt, where a class and luxury do a little slumming with the steam-punk crowd. That tiny chain used to connect the power reserve in the Academia line is not just a visual delight, but rather part of an innovative system to ensure that the driving force of the tourbillon is constant. Chopard is another brand that has parked itself in the grand old days of leather helmets and mud-speckled goggles. For the company’s 150th anniversary, it has developed several new timepieces, notably a pocket watch that functions as a wristwatch as well as a tribute to founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The movement driving this serene piece was produced by a collaboration between the company and the Geneva Watchmaking School, which needed some components for the apprentices’ master works.

The Esplendido, more après-race than racy

Another brand which has defined itself by sticking to its retro birthright is Cuervo Y Sobrinos. Like Chopard and the Mille Migli, CyS also embraces the world’s great car races, like the Grand Prix, as a sort of public identity. Whereby the dignity of the elongated case of the Esplendidos line suggests more the sensuality of a slow rumba, wafts of sweet and spicy cigar smoke, lazy afternoons, the sexiness of taking time rather than racing through it. The Pirata line offers the same identity, with a little more sportiveness, a whiff of tang coming through the porthole shaped case and the crown and push-buttons recalling blunderbusses and a cannonball, a humorous watch for walking the plank with.

The Cuervo Y Sobrinos Pirata – goes well with an eyepatch.

It’s not over yet: Check out Part 2 .

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