Just when the luxury watch industry was nicely settling down after a reasonably good 2019, the Covid crisis hit hard. As a result, the two major watch fairs – Baselworld and SIHH Geneva (now rechristened as Watches & Wonders) – stood cancelled. While W&W has consolidated over the past few years, with more high-end premium brands opting for their luxurious setting and trade and media partners, it’s Baselworld which has been struggling, first with the Swatch Group (Breguet, Omega, Longines, Rado, Tissot, Swatch and more) moving out in 2018 and then the Breitling announcement last year, both deciding to focus on their independent exhibitions. Very recently, the big blow was delivered by Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard and Chanel walking out, followed by the LVMH Group (Bulgari, Hublot, Zenith, TAG Heuer). The future of this century-old exhibition hangs in the balance. Meanwhile, Watches & Wonders did a digital release of the novelties by all the brands last weekend, on April 25.
The Swiss constant
Where does the watch industry go from here? Are there any definitive trends in design, marketing and distribution coming up? I spoke to a few CEOs to gauge the mood of the industry and the likely way forward. Greubel Forsey, a regular participant of SIHH till 2019, had already announced their quitting W&W to focus on brand-exclusive events. The brand sells just about 100 timepieces a year with price tags going northwards of a crore of rupees, so meeting customers personally is a better strategy, no doubt. Taking me through the strategy, co-founder Stephen Forsey, indicates that supply has always been a bigger concern than demand for them. It’s a big year for them as they are launching the first sports-oriented watch – the GMT Sport or the pinnacle of craftsmanship, the Hand Made 1, made using only hand-operated tools, one single timepiece requiring an extraordinary 6,000 hours work. Though most of the Swiss manufactures are shut, including the GF Atelier at La Chaux de-Fonds, skeleton staff have started returning. Most of the staff are restless and want to go back to work, Forsey says.
Cartier Santos Dumont
IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr accepts the choice of the Portugieser line as the key launch of 2020 was probably the best decision the brand had taken. Talking to us on a Zoom call, he admitted that it was sheer luck, as these things are planned well in advance. Portugieser will be the right kind of product in the post-Covid era where consumers will seek comfort from trusted brands. For now, the ability to appreciate completely new designs or vintage re-issues will be low.
Meanwhile, Favre-Leuba, the second oldest Swiss watch brand, now owned by the Tatas, is taking 2020 as the year of transition. Echoing the sentiment of the industry, CEO Philippe Roten admits that increasing the otherwise low percentage of online sales of luxury watches is the need of the hour.
- Online retail is likely to grow as will personalisation in digital marketing
- Bling is not the way forward in the short term. Classic elements, heritage and craftsmanship will drive product strategy
- Collectors will continue to acquire masterpieces and are willing to wait longer for them
Return of the classics
Panerai: It continues to invest on futuristic materials while celebrating the 70th anniversary of Luminor, the luminescent substance now synonymous with the most iconic watch families. Three new Luminor Marinas have been launched: DMLS, CarbotechTM and FibratechTM in limited editions of 270 pieces and an astounding 70-year warranty. FibratechTM, a resilient composite of fully recyclable mineral fibres from molten volcanic rock, is used for the first time in the watch industry.
Cartier: The brand digs into its archives and presents contemporary classics of three of their icons – Tank, Pasha and Santos, in multiple references. It’s the Santos that remains the most exciting in 2020. As a tribute to the first pilot watch and aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, the new Cartier Santos watches beat to the rhythm of 430 MC manual winding mechanical movement and are engraved with the original plans of Santos-Dumont.
Hermès: Created by Hermès designer Philippe Apeloig, the elegant Slim d’Hermès collection has hogged the limelight. The GMT model, added this year, is a worthy addition, in a rose-gold case and multitextured blue dial, with a sunburst centre, snailed date counter, and grained, silver-toned subdial with playfully arranged numerals allowing for a second time zone.