If there were a theme to this year's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Basel, Switzerland, then Gino Macaluso, the profound polymath who owns Girard-Perregaux, expressed it in two words: coherence and focus. Put another way, the majority of exhibitors at this, the first of Switzerland's two annual watch fairs, spent more time being who they are than trying to become something else. In Girard-Perregaux's case, this meant a core range of watches that only Macaluso could make, including a beautiful execution of its classic three-golden-bridge tourbillon in a simple, round 41mm case, and a svelte round 1966 chronograph with two subdials.
It was a case of what those grating consultants would call "revisiting the DNA of the brand." And just to prove that close examination of a marque's heritage can be surprising as well as stylish, Girard-Perregaux chose this high-watchmaking fair to launch a quartz timepiece 40 years after it first put a quartz movement into one of its wristwatches. The irony wasn't lost on the fair's visitors: the introduction of quartz was the last big crisis that threatened to kill off the Swiss luxury-watch industry during the '70s.
Ah, yes, the C word. There has been a tendency to ascribe all manner of social and cultural changes to the vagaries of the world economy, and it did not take long for amateur psychologists to link the crisis to one trend that emerged from this fair: the return of the slim, round, discreet watch, reflecting a new climate of restraint and asceticism.
However, there are brands that blast big holes right through this theory. Take Van Cleef & Arpels, which has enjoyed an artistic renaissance under creative director Nicolas Bos. Van Cleef showed a stunning set of five watches with hard-stone dials depicting various landscapes of the American West. Packaged in handsome veneered boxes, the timepieces are designed to command attention rather than pass sotto voce under the shirt cuff.
Besides, the return to slim watches was already underway: Girard-Perregaux's 1966 and Jaeger-LeCoultre's expanded range of Master Ultra Thin watches, as well as watches from Ralph Lauren and Dunhill, were just a few high-end, low-profile examples. However, this year saw the niche expand into a full-blown market sector. Piaget had reason to be pleased with its new ultraslim automatic Altiplano, a mere 5.25mm thick. Self-winding watches gain bulk when they add a rotor to the back of the movement to translate the wearer's kinetic energy into potential energy in the mainspring. But the 1208P-caliber movement that powers Piaget's new launch overcomes this by using a micro-rotor countersunk into the movement.
There are slimmer mechanical watches, but these tend to be hand-wound. And while Piaget was bruiting its new crash diet about town, Vacheron Constantin, which at 255 years of age has seen many trends come and go, presented a model it first launched in 1955. While not quite as tiny as its forebear, this year's 1955 made use of the classic 1.64mm-high movement that shares the dimensions of a Swiss 20-cent piece. Slim Vacherons are legendary, and I have been fond of them ever since my wife's stepfather told me how he lost his: He was driving to his country house in his blue Ferrari 275 GTB, arguing with his then-wife, when she ripped his white-gold Vacheron from his wrist and flung it through the sunroof he had installed. He stopped to look for the watch, but it was simply too thin to find.
The decades of Mad Men and Austin Powers seem to exert a powerful hold over the watch business—an obsession that plays out in different ways. Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, expressed the trend in a re-edition of its 1950s alarm watch, the Memovox. Audemars Piguet evokes the swinging '60s in the longitudinal oval of the latest watch in its Millenary collection, albeit ingeniously reinterpreted in forged carbon by gifted design chief Octavio Garcia.
Massimo Macaluso, son of Gino, who runs JeanRichard (a sibling brand to Girard-Perregaux), launched an intriguing reworking of a vintage diving watch from 1964 that he had stumbled across a few years ago. He has used the large-sided case design to incorporate a twin crown system: one to wind and set the watch, the other to lock the bezel so that it is not knocked accidentally during diving. The result is a sleek, chic—or "sport glamour," as Massimo calls it—timepiece. And the macho brand IWC invoked the '60s with the Yacht Club, a cult name from its past applied to a new chronograph in its classic Portuguese range of timepieces.
However, my favorite IWC of the show was the simple, hand-wound Portuguese, which proved that entry-level timepieces can be extremely covetable. Panerai launched another such watch; its 42mm Radiomir model is classic Panerai at a competitive price, equipped with the Panerai P999 caliber. In a similar vein, Cartier premiered Calibre, a sober-sided steel watch, also 42mm.
As if to give the lie to the crisis theory of watch design, Cartier also came up with the fair's most recession-busting timepiece: a diamond-smothered cuff watch, a jigsaw puzzle of dazzling white stones shaped like a phoenix. At €1.9 million, it was neither cheap nor ascetic. But it was exactly what a grand jeweler ought to be making, and a perfect example of a coherent and focused watch in touch with its own genetic helix. Clearly I was not the only person to think this way; as I left the fair I heard that negotiations for its sale had already begun.