The watchmakers at last week's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva were in a philosophical mood. Georges Kern, chief executive of IWC, quoted Darwin in presenting his company's new line of diving watches—and its sponsorship of the Darwin Foundation in the Galápagos: it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent but "the one that is most adaptable to change" that survives. Elsewhere I heard echoes of Eco, Sartre and Calvin—as well as homespun philosophy along the Newtonian lines that what goes up has a habit of coming down. Jasmine Audemars, the proprietress of Audemars Piguet, told me that in recent years, "we had the feeling that everything could be sold, even hot air."
Well, the hot air has gone and the balloon is deflating. This, the 19th edition of the Geneva watch trade fair, was the most subdued that I can remember. But while sober, the mood was far from suicidal. Indeed, the consensus was that things are not as bad as feared. Cartier CEO Bernard Fornas even suggested that the new conditions present certain opportunities. In recent months, he said, he's noticed a purchasing pattern of "passion investment," in which people "fearing for the money they have in the bank" buy something that will give them pleasure while also retaining financial value. Often in the course of my five days at the watch fair, and over meals with watchmakers, CEOs and brand owners, I heard how customers are still shopping but more selectively, and how much easier it is to sell a rare and expensive piece than a basic entry-level item.
And though it would be ridiculous to say that the crisis is welcome, it should have the effect of making the great watchmaking houses truer to themselves, forcing them to communicate their core values more accurately. Cartier, for instance, reintroduced its classic baignoire and broadened its collection of haute horlogerie, the pick of which has to be the Tank Americaine tourbillon, building on the launch last year of the first Cartier watch with a movement bearing the poinçon de Geneve. The poinçon is a small stamp guaranteeing that the movement has been hand-finished in Geneva according to a set of esthetic criteria established in the late-19th century.
It is to the values of the poinçon—namely traditional craftsmanship and superb levels of finishing—that the industry is returning at a time of crisis. Under new CEO Juan Carlos Torres, Vacheron Constantin is moving toward 100 percent Geneva Hallmark production. No wonder purists delighted in the watches it showed—among them the elegant, cushion-cased American 1921, a re-edition of an Art Deco classic and an understated perpetual calendar chrono in its classic Patrimoinie line.
Echoes of classicism and restraint were also evident at Jaeger LeCoultre, which stripped away much of its attention-grabbing gimmickry of recent years. My favorite was the simplest: the classic Grande Reverso, in a new slimmer case, with the subtle addition of being able to change the hour hand while keeping the minutes and seconds running, making changes across time zones more accurate.
A. Lange & Söhne, the leading German low-volume, high-quality watch brand, went for discretion and subtlety with the Richard Lange Pour le Merite. From the front it looks like the plainest of plain three-hand watches, but when turned over its true beauty is revealed through a crystal caseback: a fusee chain mechanism. This is a fiendishly finical horological complication involving a tiny chain of more than 600 components that links the barrel to the wheel train and ensures even levels of torque as the spring unwinds.
These are the kind of incremental improvements that accrete over generations to form the horological culture into which the consumer of fine watchmaking is buying. Dottore Gino Macaluso, the cerebral owner of Girard-Perregaux, this year showed classic pieces with a twist, such as a new example of his tourbillon with three golden bridges (the signature of the brand), and a slim annual calendar that is the distillation of discretion. "Everybody says we are going back to the classics," he says, but adds, "business in these times is about being creative."
Ralph Lauren has even chosen this moment to launch a new brand. He linked up with the Richemont group, owner of, among other brands, Cartier, which Lauren greatly admires. Lauren's watches are, as one would expect, restrained rather than ritzy. While bling is an endangered species, it is not entirely dead, as demonstrated by some of the watches shown by Richemont's recent acquisition, Roger Dubuis. I have always been surprised that the cheerful polychromatic exteriors of these watches mask truly exigent mechanical movements. And if they seem as subtle as a Hawaiian shirt at a state funeral, maybe there is a place for a little gaudiness to cheer things up.
Laureato, Split Seconds Foudroyante
2. VACHERON CONSTANTIN
4. RICHARD LANGE
A. Lange & Söhne, Richard Lange Pour Le Merite
Tank Americaine Tourbillon
Aquatimer Deep Two
7. JULES AUDEMARS
With Audemars Piguet Escapement
Chronoscope MV Agusta Brutale Nera