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Amid Troubling Conditions, What’s Next for Luxury Watches?

At the Baselworld fair this month, the Swiss watch industry will showcase how it plans to grapple with troubling global conditions for the timepiece market.
Romain Gauthier's Logical One Natural Titanium | Source: Romain Gauthier
  • Bloomberg

BASEL, Switzerland — Since March of 2015, exports of luxury watches from Switzerland have been steadily declining. In January, the value totaled 1.5 billion Swiss francs, which is down 7.9 percent from the same month a year ago.

The dampening factors are well-known, starting with the spike in relative value of the franc after Switzerland's central bank changed its policies in January 2015 and stopped pegging its own currency to the euro. To the rest of the world, suddenly Swiss watches became more expensive, while not much within the Swiss manufactures had actually changed. Followed by extreme global market uncertainty later in the year, and China's slowdown, the combined effect was tough for an industry that had, previously, been on something of a roll.

And yet, international luxury watch and jewelry brands will gather at Baselworld this coming week in Basel, Switzerland, to show off their wares and try to gin up excitement for the coming year. We've been seeing a trickle of previews from companies large and small, and it looks like the major brands are still traveling in the same trajectories as last year: experimenting with new materials, tiptoeing into the smartwatch world, and attempting to excite with new colors and skeletonized faces.

This is because watches take years to develop, and because riffing on past successes is what these brands do best. But journalists, who travel from appointment to appointment over the eight-day fair, will be wondering about the future of the industry. The question on their lips: Are you going to change your pricing? Are you going to make more watches at entry-level price points?

What Is Entry Level?

According to a Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry report, exports of watches made of gold and other precious metals declined 14 percent in January alone, steel watches and steel alloy watches only declined 9 percent and 6 percent, respectively. The latter could be a bright spot for many watch brands facing a retrenchment among their ultra high net worth clientele. The introductory luxury timepieces still have opportunities among the growing Chinese middle class, and an American upper middle class that is saving money on gas and is enjoying a strong dollar.

On the flip side, on the very lowest end, exports of watches in the 200 to 400 franc range ($203 to $408) also slumped by 12 percent. That's the price range of an Apple Watch and comparable smartwatches, which have been giving quartz watches a run for their money.

Regardless of whether the brands will find a sweet spot in terms of price, and will evolve in the face of changing global financial conditions, what we've seen so far from sneak previews is promising in terms of technology and aesthetics. There will be a lot of exciting watches on the market this year, here are a few.

Omega Planet Ocean 600m Speedmaster

One of the many watches to debut at Baselworld that will experiment with rare and proprietary materials, this elegant Speedmaster from Omega is small enough to be called "unisex" (39.5 mm), and boasts a new movement for the series. The black enamel face and bezel is an attractive match with Omega’s proprietary pink Sedna Gold—an alloy of gold, copper, and palladium that's scratch resistant and less likely to suffer from discoloration.

Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Off-Centered

Even if you don't know Jaquet Droz watches, you'll notice immediately that the simple face here features a figure-eight pattern in the overlapping hour-and-minutes dial, and the seconds dial. The JD watches have proven very popular in China because of exactly this—the layout looks like a lucky number eight. This "Off-Centered" version is a new design, though the automatic movement is the same as previous brand models. In this model, the polished black onyx face adds a modern sleekness.

Bulgari Diva 

While Bulgari's new women's watch, the Diva, is powered by a quartz movement, it's hard not to get titillated by so many diamonds handled in such an elegant, straightforward way. Here, the Diva 102561 dial consists of 233 brilliant-cut pavé diamonds and blued hands. The straps are satin, but you could replace them with whatever you like and still have a showstopper.

Chopard L.U.C Perpetual Chrono

This manual flyback chronograph and perpetual calendar is a new addition to Chopard's L.U.C. line of watches. It's made with Fairmined 18-karat white gold (ethically sources from mines in South America), and the Calibre 03.10-L is structured around a column wheel that serves as the backbone of all of the chronograph operations. Only 20 will be made.

Romain Gauthier Logical One Natural Titanium

This partially skeletonized watch is another experiment with an unusual material: titanium. While the metal is light, strong, and resistant to scratches, it's just not common in high-end luxury timepieces. The movement is also rare—it features a chain-and-fusee style constant force system, and the winding is not accomplished through a crown, but rather a pusher.

By Chris Rovzar; editor: Justin Ocean.

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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023