Watch lovers have rarely had it so good and 2018’s designs offered increased vibrancy and flair, says Chris Hall.

Fifty years ago, a mechanical watch was a necessity and the industry was booming – thanks in part to associations with motorsport, adventure, aviation and space flight that captured the public imagination. But disaster lay around the corner, in the form of the battery-powered quartz watch. Launched in 1969, it would drive down prices and force hundreds of Swiss companies to close. These days, we take the existence of mechanical watches – importantly, now “luxury watches” – for granted once more, but it is sometimes surprising that they are here at all.

Seen in that light, the state of the industry today is cause for celebration. Recent years have been turbulent, but it feels like watch fans have never had it so good. This year, there have been signs that the industry is growing once more, and when it comes to the watches themselves, 2018’s offering has been more diverse than previous years.

As the world around us has seemed to get a little darker, the luxuries with which we distract ourselves have got a little brighter. Watchmakers continue to gleefully plunder the richness of the 1970s, bringing us designs that sing with blues, oranges and greens. There is also a hint that the 1980s are ripe for revival, with the success of models like the Cartier Santos, and the general willingness to embrace “two-tone” watches of steel and gold once more.

As metals go, however, third place is the new first, with bronze watches emerging as one of the must-have trends. And, thankfully, for those of us covering this fascinating industry, there have also been more signs of life from the artisan watchmakers, whose creations we can only dream of owning – although it has to be said, it remains a tough time to be a small, independent high-end brand.

Almost as vibrant as the watches themselves is the battle to market them, a contest which is increasingly being fought online. Cracks began to appear in the Swiss brands’ resistance to the internet a couple of years ago, but 2018 looks like the year that the status quo might start to crumble.

Disruptive micro-brands can undercut traditional players and are better at using social media, but the real threats to the luxury maisons are the sites dealing in “pre-owned” – often grey market – watches that lop hundreds of pounds off the price of as-new watches. Luxury Swiss brand Richemont buying up the UK’s Watchfinder is a sign the industry is attempting to get its house in order, and there are reports of other brands embracing sites like Chronext and Chrono24, but who will win and who will lose under this “if you can’t beat them, join them” strategy remains to be seen.

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to look back at the watches that have stood out from the crowd. The full breadth of styles and prices is represented, as Chris Hall picks his favourites.

1) Tudor Black Bay GMT

One of the major trends of the year has been watches equipped to keep time in two time zones at one, and this being Business Traveller it seemed only fitting to highlight the design that best meets a globe-trotter’s needs. The Black Bay GMT looks great – especially on the brown leather strap – and is a cinch to operate; the large red diamond-tipped hand indicates the time at home on the 24-hour scale around the bezel. To make it, Tudor borrowed the key parts from Rolex’s outgoing GMT movement, so you know the mechanics are foolproof. Best of all, like all Black Bay models, it isn’t outrageously priced – yours for less than the price of a business-class flight. From £2,400.

2) Farer Segrave Chronograph

My best-value pick comes from a British brand cutting out such costly encumbrances as retail premises or brand ambassadors. Come on Switzerland – you can do it! But even on its own merits, Farer’s Segrave wins out: an ETA chronograph with characterful design for £1,675 is a no-brainer.

3) Patek Philippe 5270P

We all have the same dream, only the details change. If you should suddenly become a millionaire, reward yourself with an ageless beauty from Patek Philippe – a perpetual calendar chronograph in platinum with “salmon” dial, £143,230. It’s so tasteful people will assume you’re old money.

4) Greubel Forsey Differentiel D’Egalite

Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey are perfectionists among perfectionists; their workshop produces around 100 watches a year and each one is a perfect demonstration of their aim to take mechanical timekeeping as far as it can possibly go, all executed with a level of hand-finishing that is unsurpassed. The Différentiel d’Égalité employs something called a remontoire spring together with a differential gearing to ensure extremely smooth delivery of the watch’s power to the escapement, which is angled through 30 degrees for greater stability, and revealed by the opening that crosses the lower left third of the dial. It’s a mechanical masterpiece ten years in development, albeit one most owners won’t even notice at work, let alone fully examine – and the bits you can’t see are polished just as finely as the ones you can. Nothing sums up the charms of high-end watchmaking better than that. Around £200,000.

5) Rolex Deepsea

Nothing could fill me with more dread than the idea of descending 3,900m below the waves, so I find the idea of this watch being up to the task awesome – in the original sense. Rolex has beefed up the case, bracelet and clasp and upgraded the movement: the tough just got tougher. Priced £9,700.

6) Baume & Mercier Clifton Baumatic

Intricate movements and superstar designs may dominate here, but sometimes you just want a watch that’ll do a great job without fuss. Anti-magnetic elements, a five-day power reserve and good daily accuracy make the Clifton Baumatic the ideal Monday-to-Friday watch. From £2,300.

7) Nomos Glashutte Autobahn Neomatik

To make a “motoring watch” is nothing special, but to make one that eschews race-car touchpoints like punched-leather straps, tyre-print rubber, red-and-black instrument dials and, shudder, carbon fibre, now that’s more interesting. There are echoes of the German motorway and a nod to dashboard design but, at all times, the need to make a beautiful watch has come first. There’s great texture in the concave dial and raised luminous segments, and a sporty simplicity to the single-piece case. Most of all I like the overall sense of lightness that comes from the sparse typography and commitment to white space – it’s a design that never fails to put a smile on my face. Around £3,800.

8) Bamford Zenith Chronograph

Watch geeks know Zenith’s pedigree is impeccable, and that George Bamford is flavour of the month for collaborative designs that lace established models with hipsterish designs. What’s unexpected is for his work to be so far ahead of Zenith’s own ideas; while it searches for its missing mojo, Bamford has it in spades. Priced £6,100.

9) Oris Carl Brashear Bronze Chronograph

Nothing says “I bought my watch in 2018” like a bronze-cased retro-inspired chronograph with a blue dial and a subtly textured leather strap. Luckily, this Oris is more than a box-ticking exercise, it’s a cohesive and compelling overall package that’s also well-priced at £3,600.

10) Glashutte Original Sixties

Glashutte Original spends most of its time cleaving to classical ideals of German watchmaking, but it’s at its best when it channels the raw, esoteric creativity of the GDR years. It’s cleaner and simpler without the date window interrupting that fantastic rich dial. Priced £5,000.

11) Bulgari Octo Finissimo rose gold

Sure, the power of an all-gold watch as a status symbol is nothing new – and not always associated with good taste and refinement. Bulgari changes that by giving the Octo Finissimo a sandblasted finish that dials down the harsh gleam of gold to a warm, powerful glow. Priced £37,700.

12) Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar

This was tough – I’ve seen more than 200 new watches up close this year, and many more that have impressed from afar. So to pick one that was released at the start of the year feels bold – was it really better than everything that came after? Well, in engineering the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar to be thinner than most standard watches (just 6.3mm) Audemars Piguet pulled off an enormous technical feat. Typically, that kind of achievement does not go hand-in-hand with flawless design, but it’s an aesthetic triumph as well as a mechanical one. Which makes it my watch of the year. Price on application.


We’ll hit peak Micro-Brand

This year has been notable for the proliferation of small, hipsterish watch companies, sometimes crowdfunded, usually boasting a USP (anything from enamel dials to making a virtue of Chinese design) and always big on Instagram. Watch fans have lapped them up for offering cheaper, more interesting and more niche alternatives to major brands (all things I’m in favour of). I predict 2019 will see more and more “micro-brands” launch, followed by a natural thinning of the ranks as only the best survive – hopefully not before the big brands get the message.

Eco-concerns to the fore

The imperative to tackle climate change is unavoidable for every industry. Watch brands already yoke their marketing efforts to sustainability and conservation initiatives, and many run carbon-neutral factories. But if they’re serious about being green, it’s time to insist that their eco-friendly credentials extend to their supply chains, not just the shiny Swiss headquarters and the ad campaigns.

Vintage Breitling to boom

Since vintage Heuer watches (the forerunner to TAG Heuer) shot up in price between 2014 and 2016, watch pundits have been looking out for the next big thing in the vintage market. All talk now is of Breitling as the one to watch, with new CEO Georges Kern shaking things up and renewing interest in the back catalogue. Nothing is ever certain when it comes to vintage watches, but it would make sense if it were Breitling, when it comes.

Buying watches could get easier

As I already mentioned, the business of selling watches is in turmoil. Tied into this is the declining popularity of the watch world’s major trade fair, March’s Baselworld, as numerous exhibitors – notably the Swatch Group, including Omega, Breguet and Blancpain – pull out. This could be good news for anyone buying a watch: firstly, the tension between retail channels has the potential to lower prices; and secondly, being freed from the schedules of annual product launches means brands can announce new watches much closer to when they’ll actually be available in shops – currently a six to nine month wait is typical. We can but hope, anyway…