4 great things happening in luxury watchmaking

4 great things happening in luxury watchmaking

Make watchmaking great again

Text: Celine Yap

Haute horlogerie moves swiftly and decisively towards modernity — and everybody wins

What is luxury? In the not-so-distant past, it was synonymous with excess and haughtiness and pomp, and also defined by a certain degree of unattainability.

But today, as the new breed of eco-conscious and socially-aware luxury consumer emerges, rapidly replacing the tastes and preferences of the previous generation, that old-fashioned idea of what constitutes luxury is all but defenestrated.

Over the last three years, several prominent trends have infiltrated luxury watchmaking which would have left some old-timers aghast and would have been inconceivable, or even scoffed at, five or 10 years ago.

And the companies and brands that adopted those trends are global market leaders from the biggest conglomerates. So it's not a movement confined to a just small segment of the market.

This clear directional shift throughout the industry shows how willing companies today are to increase the purchasing experience for clients at every level of luxury. Where before, clients are subject to - even at the mercy - of the brands or the retailers, today power has undoubtedly shifted to the customer.

The democratisation of information and opinion leadership facilitated by the Internet and social media is the main agent of that change.

Now that companies have no choice but to do more to court buyers, the core product has slowly but surely received enhanced primary or secondary features, as the market place becomes increasingly crowded and buying behaviour becomes increasingly mature.

Some of them are a long time coming, while others are an ingenious surprise, but all of them serve to benefit the consumer's needs (and wants). More importantly, they make watch appreciation even more enjoyable to a wider audience.

1. Interchangeable and better designed straps
Time was when straps were the least important part of any watch. The entire industry practically subsisted on the following: alligator leather in black or brown, metal bracelets in the few standard designs, calfskin leather in black or brown. Occasionally, you'll get a white satin strap but those are mainly for women.

In addition, getting one's strap changed can take months — no kidding. This writer once needed to wait two months to have a very standard black alligator leather strap switched out. Changing the strap also necessitated a trip to the retail store, which can get awkward, especially when poorly trained retail staff make you feel like you're imposing.

But all that will soon be a thing of the past as interchangeable straps become increasingly de rigueur. In both 2016 and 2017, brands like Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, and Vacheron Constantin have begun to offer some of their watches with this option, although ultra-niche maison Bovet has been doing it since the mid 2000s.

This year, more brands have entered the fray including Cartier with its new Santos, Piaget's new Possession watch, the Roger Dubuis Excalibur, and even Panerai and its Luminor Due.

Interchangeable straps look set to become not the exception but the norm, and it shines new light on the concept of luxury today. Luxury goods are no longer defined by their price tags but by how impeccably they serve and delight the user.

2. Colour options
It wasn't so long ago that luxury watches have a signature look and feel, which is essentially gold or platinum for the case, silver or white or black for the dial, and black or brown for the strap, end of story. Then things began to change with more avant-garde watchmakers introducing alternative materials in luxury watchmaking like rubber, titanium, carbon fibre and ceramic.

This quickly gave rise to a new concept of luxury that was not restricted by the old-fashioned idea that haute horlogerie has to be traditional in its aesthetics. Indeed, luxury is not about conforming to any predetermined set of ideals, but rather, enjoying it whenever you want, wherever you want and however you want.

Five years ago, the industry experienced a blue craze where every brand has a collection dressed in blue. Following that, a chocolate invasion with dials made in brown plus a short phase where brands messed around with grey. Still, nothing too wild or raucous.

Now though it seems that all the conventional rules had been abolished as brands like Audemars Piguet made a beeline for the neon palette and Bulgari knocked itself out playing with a series of wicked colour combinations.

This year, maverick watchmaker Roger Dubuis draws inspiration from the colour markings of Pirelli F1 tyres, releasing one limited edition after another, all designed with bold livery. Even usually tame brands like A Lange & Sohne have made a selection of Little Lange 1s in a kaleidoscope of hues while Hermes shows off primary colours but in a big way.

Historian for Audemars Piguet, Michael Friedman, says it well: "Watches are a reflection of our culture. Whatever happens in other spheres very often make its way into watchmaking."

3. High-tech manufacturing solutions
Historically, watchmaking was an industry at the forefront of technology. Obviously in the digital age today, a mechanical watch couldn't fairly compete in that aspect but fortunately watch companies have not stopped innovating. Year after year, novelties brandishing the latest in precision mechanics or the most efficient movement functionality continue to hit the market.

While it is true that we no longer expect a mechanical timepiece to beat the chronometry of a quartz watch or a tourbillon movement to be more robust than a digital smartwatch's motherboard, the effort does not go unnoticed. As a matter of fact, the amazing horological acrobatics that follows is precisely why we love mechanical watchmaking.

For 2018, some of the best examples of watchmaking ingenuity go to these brands: Richard Mille, Cartier, Panerai, and Piaget. Richard Mille's RM53-01 Tourbillon Pablo Mac Donough is conceived for one of the toughest, most violent sports in the world, polo. The watch's movement is almost completely protected from shock thanks to a system of cables that keep it suspended within the case. Resembling tempered glass, its sapphire crystal was constructed as a two piece curved glass sandwiching an ultrathin sheet of vinyl that prevents it from shattering if it gets hit by a mallet or ball.

Cartier's Revelation d'Une Panthere introduces a patent-pending display where its sapphire crystal is a vessel containing 900 gold ball bearings and filled with a viscous transparent liquid. Within its inner walls, a labyrinth had been laser engraved in the form of a panther's face, so that whenever the gold ball bearings move through the labyrinth, they display the panther's face in a languid, dreamlike motion rather than tumbling all over the place.

Panerai continues with its Direct Metal Laser Sintering technique, which is essentially 3D-printing using powdered titanium. They've created a titanium case that is hollow on the inside, so the entire construction is 30 per cent lighter, but no less strong because titanium is known for its incredibly high tensile strength. In addition, for its L'Astronomo watch, Panerai has premiered a new date display using polarised crystal, which is patent pending.

Piaget has outdone itself once again with a world's thinnest wristwatch at just 2mm in overall height, which is quite simply insane even for Piaget. All three essential components - bezel, movement, and case back — has been fused in one, and this watch named Altiplano Ultimate Concept is as thin as the historical 9P calibre.

The Watchbox is a one-stop site and app for watch collectors

4. More transparent product information and a more vibrant pre-owned market
The luxury watch industry has always been an exclusive environment that's fairly difficult to penetrate. Many would even say it's intimidating on some levels. In the early 2000s, luxury watches were understood to be very expensive luxury items — but exactly how expensive? Few would know because prices are almost never communicated or displayed. The saying "if you have to ask, you probably cannot afford it" didn't help either.

Today, prices are much more openly shared as watch companies understand the notion of a good value proposition. Watch consumers today are far more mature than they were 15 or 20 years ago. People are willing to pay for their watches. They just want to know what they'll be getting out of it, and that's the more important point that companies need to focus on, which they are beginning to, as this article has outlined.

Maturation of the consumer also means that the preowned market will be next to rise. In the past, there's a stigma attached to buying preowned watches, or even selling your watch to a preowned dealer. Not anymore. Buffered by the vintage watch trend, preowned watches are finally cool again and as confirmation of that, more avenues have been set up to take care of demand.

Established in 2016, The WatchBox is a platform for preowned watches to be bought, sold and traded. With a website and an app, users are able to track the value of their collection, follow the rise and fall of the price of a watch they're eyeing, and trade in their old watches to fund something new. Run by a group of luxury watch industry veterans, The WatchBox assures full transparency and provides professional assistance on watches for all kinds of watch owners on all corners of the globe. Visit The Watchbox for more information or download the app.

A vintage Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar

A vintage Vacheron Constantin minute repeater

In addition, legacy brands like Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin are or will soon accepting trade-ins of their historical or vintage models, which is a clever move as it enables them to build a long-term relationship with their clients while attracting new ones who are happy to acquire a preowned timepiece from a legitimate source.