Watch special: A milestone year

31 Oct 2019 by BusinessTraveller
Rolex GMT Master II

Anniversary editions, playful creations and innovative designs characterise 2019’s best watches, says Chris Hall.

I suppose it isn’t really surprising that a business whose stock-in-trade is marking the passage of time should be so charmingly, hopelessly addicted to celebrating anniversaries. While some can be tenuous in the extreme, 2019 has seen a flurry of major milestones.

There must have been something in the air in 1969, because this year marks the half-century of the automatic chronograph (and that of influential models such as TAG Heuer Monaco and Zenith El Primero), as well as 50 years since the commercial launch of the quartz watch by Seiko, a development that would send shockwaves through the industry.

In a sense, we are still feeling the ramifications of that invention; the balance of power shifted from west to east, particularly in consumer electronics. More than 90 per cent of all watches are made in Asia, and while they are overwhelmingly at the lower end of the market price-wise, many parts in a “Swiss Made” watch also come from factories in China.

This change forced the Swiss to make their watch industry into a luxury business (so successful that, ironically, Japan’s Seiko is now equipping its premium brand Grand Seiko to go toe-to-toe with the major Swiss firms), and to invest heavily in a continuous cycle of mechanical innovation that regularly injects the fundamentally anachronistic device that is the wristwatch with new appeal.

This explains why we have seen carbon nanotechnology deployed at TAG Heuer, advanced silicon-based mechanisms used at Zenith, and brands exploring new materials and techniques. Unlike some of the whizz-bang watches from five or six years ago, the big bucks are now spent on measures that make a watch better at its basic function. Slowly, the big luxury brands are making their sales pitch more about efficiency, longevity and reliability rather than show-stopping complexity.

The difficulty is that their core audiences still want watches that look like the old ones. Some, like Omega and Rolex, focus on improving their movements without drastically updating the looks of hero pieces such as the Speedmaster or GMT-Master II, but others are insistent that their clever new watches exhibit a suitably sci-fi aesthetic, banking on it appealing to a younger generation.

I see no sign that audiences are so easily divided up; twenty-somethings with the watch bug are just as likely to go straight into vintage pieces, and I am often left cold by new designs even though I firmly agree that if the watch industry is to reach 2069 in rude health, it will need to do more than relentlessly excavate its glorious past – big birthdays aside, the returns are definitely diminishing.

This tension – what does a “modern” mechanical watch look like, and do we really need such a thing? – will continue to dominate the conversation as watchmakers plan for a time when few people remember the moon landings first hand, but jolly well haven’t forgotten which watch Armstrong and Aldrin were wearing.

2019's finest

Another year reporting on the wondrous, idiosyncratic and sometimes downright odd world of luxury watches; another impossible task whittling the hundreds of dazzling, clever and finely crafted new models down to just 12. With the usual caveats – personal taste plays a huge part, just as it does when buying a watch – these are my very own awards for the watches of the year.

Best tribute to the glorious past, part one: Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch 50th anniversary

As already discussed, it was a bumper year for notable anniversaries. No one embraced this with as much verve and energy as Omega, which went to town on the 50th birthday of the moon landings (as the maker of NASA’s chosen watches) with two commemorative Speedmasters. My pick is the more affordable and attainable of the pair, a stainless steel 42mm hand-wound chronograph with a dark-grey dial and lashings of gold trim. Bringing home the Apollo 11 connection is a delicate rendering of Buzz Aldrin descending from the lunar lander in the 9 o’clock subdial. Among watch nerds, Omega takes some flak for its near-constant procession of limited-edition Speedmasters, but whatever your thoughts on that, this is a watch that harks back to the core of the Speedmaster’s appeal and celebrates a genuine milestone with taste and style.

Best tribute to the glorious past, part two: TAG Heuer Monaco 1980s

Another brand celebrating an icon of 1969 is TAG Heuer, which has decided to mark the 50th birthday of the Monaco with five separate limited-edition timepieces, one for each decade. Each is markedly different, and I’ve selected the 1980s model for its big, bold, glorious red dial.

Best vision of the future: Ressence Type 2

The Belgian luxury brand’s Type 2 uses a solar-powered Bluetooth module to “remember” the time when the mechanical parts run down (and adjust it automatically when you travel) – simply tap the dial and it syncs. A marvellous example of how the traditional watch can still evolve.

Best investment: Patek Philippe Aquanaut

For a lot of people, the mere use of the word “investment” around watches is contentious – we don’t buy watches to make money, and you can never count on them to hold their value. So why is this award even here, you might ask? Because despite all that, the market around Patek Philippe Nautilus and Aquanaut models is currently red hot, and if you are able to get your hands on this year’s 5168G, a 42mm white-gold Aquanaut with an automatic movement and a military green rubber strap, you could certainly realise a tidy profit, with examples currently listed for more than double the retail price. If you could bring yourself to part with it, that is: as many of us know, what’s bought as an “investment” can very quickly find a place in your heart.

Best value: Seiko Presage arita SPB095

Photographs don’t do justice to Seiko’s mid-level Presage range, which appears similar to its cheaper pieces at first glance. Up close, however, the porcelain dial shimmers and shines, and beneath it beats a movement with 70 hours of power; materials and mechanics that aren’t normally found at this price.

Most outrageous: Richard Mille bonbon

When your normal watches are seven-figure creations crafted from sapphire and carbon nanotubes, it takes a lot to raise eyebrows. But a ten-piece range resembling liquorice, marshmallows and candied fruits ought to do it. Priced between £113,500 and £147,000 (cheap by Richard Mille’s standards), they are, needless to say, all sold out.

Best for travelling: Rolex GMT-Master II

Watches that could display the time around the world have existed since the late 1800s, when time zones were formalised. But it wasn’t until the advent of the jet age that the idea of simultaneously tracking time in more than one place became a practical concern, and while it wasn’t the first, Rolex’s GMT-Master (a response to a direct commission from Pan Am pilots) was the watch that epitomised the new trend. Some 65 years later, the GMT-Master II is more likely to be on the wrists of first class passengers than those in the cockpit, but it has lost none of its steadfast usability (with the arrow-head hand and the 24-hour bezel, you can actually keep an eye on three locations at once), even as it has gained a fancier “jubilee” bracelet. New for 2019 is the return of the black and blue bezel, nicknamed the “Batman” by Rolex devotees.

Best first watch: Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical

What better way to mark your arrival among us hopeless watch addicts than with a 36mm hand-wound tribute to a 1970s model made for the RAF? Forget any ideas you might have had about playing it safe; it’s never too soon to start showing a bit of personality on your wrist.

Most ingenious: Vacheron Constantin Twin Beat perpetual calendar

Delivering improvements you never knew you needed is what the top brands live for. In creating a perpetual calendar that can run for a huge 65 days (not hours) thanks to a switchable dual-frequency of devilish complexity, Vacheron Constantin scored the cleverest watch of the year.

Most surprising: Hublot Ferrari GT

Car-branded watches aren’t usually of interest to anyone other than die-hard fans, and Hublot’s prolific volume of special editions means single watches struggle to stand out. But in allowing Ferrari’s design team to have a genuine input, it has produced a striking new shape that turns heads even among automotive agnostics.

Most otherworldly: HYT Soonow

Pioneering Swiss brand HYT uses liquids in tiny glass tubes to mark the literal flow of time, here doubling down with a skull-shaped play on the notion of time’s inexorable passage.

The left eye houses a dial containing the words “soon” and “now”, which alternate every 30 seconds. It’s one for the sci-fi fans and philosophers.

Overall watch of the year: Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph

The matt, muted, monochrome colour palette adopted by Bulgari isn’t for everyone; neither is the multifaceted case shape. I think the Octo Finissimo is one of very few designs of the past 20 years to have really added anything to the watch world, however, and the way that Bulgari keeps developing record-breaking versions deserves applause. This watch is the thinnest mechanical chronograph ever made. If you need context for that achievement, the next time you see an Omega Speedmaster, Rolex Daytona or pretty much any regular chronograph from a mainstream brand, imagine squashing it down to approximately half of its thickness (but around the same diameter) and it still working – with the capacity to tell the time in a second time zone for good measure. It’s a watch you can wear every day that looks like nothing else out there, and also happens to be a work of borderline genius, and that’s why it’s my watch of the year.

Predictions for the year to come

Service standards

For some time, the watch industry has neglected the ownership side of the business, preferring to focus on sales. The cost and frequency of servicing your timepiece (upwards of £500; roughly once every five years) is rarely discussed and hasn’t improved in years; as more watches have been pumped into the world, services have taken longer to carry out. The answer is to make watches capable of going longer without maintenance, and to increase manufacturer’s warranties. Some of the recent technological advances should yield progress on this front, and it was encouraging to see Jaeger-LeCoultre (above) increase its warranty to eight years. I hope others follow suit; the warranty should cover the first regular service.

Smartwatch slide

Since its introduction in 2014, the Apple Watch (pictured) has not had the destructive impact on the Swiss watch industry that many predicted. But it has been a phenomenal success, and 2019 looks like it will be the year that Apple Watch sales outperform the entire Swiss watch industry by value. At the same time, I predict that Swiss firms will quietly drop their own smartwatches; the initial enthusiasm for TAG Heuer’s Connected and Montblanc’s Summit seems muted at best. It’s hard to get excited about chunky, short-lived designs with unremarkable specs when brands want to build their reputations on peerless quality and craft.

Rolex will be Rolex

Taking a broad view, the past few years in watches can be characterised thus: most brands have hugely diversified their ranges, offering more metals, colours, shapes and sizes than ever and numerous new designs. A few – Rolex, Patek Philippe – have offered the same limited selection of models with subtle upgrades and variations. Which approach has been more successful? I predict that Rolex will continue to frustrate and titillate buyers with its Henry Ford attitude to choice and Machiavellian limits on production, shrugging off its critics in the way that only the world’s most trusted brand (according to Forbes magazine) can. Oh, and I foresee a new Submariner. Because one of these years I will actually be right.

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