Style: Timing Is Everything

Walking around the Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie, the annual luxury-watch trade fair in Geneva, Switzerland, it is difficult to get much of a sense of the impending disaster that stalks the world's financial markets. On the first day I was shown a baguette-set tourbillon wristwatch made by Jaeger-LeCoultre, retailing for €409,840; three orders had been taken before lunch—and the fair hadn't even officially opened yet. Across the country, at Switzerland's other, older watch fair in Basel, Jean-Claude Biver, the effervescent boss of the newly resurgent sports brand Hublot, told me he took orders for €159.4 millions' worth of watches, compared with €81.9 million at last year's fair. If anything, the problem that many brands have encountered is managing to deliver all the watches for which they have taken orders.

While dramatic, the story of Hublot is emblematic of the market for high-end Swiss mechanical watches in recent years. Biver is an industry veteran who joined Hublot in 2004: back then Hublot took orders for only €4.5 millions' worth of watches at the Basel fair. Since then, Biver has radically overhauled the brand, using innovative materials such as carbon fiber, Kevlar, ceramic and so on to create a bold timepiece he named Big Bang. He called this "fusion" watchmaking, and through his powerful personality and cunning brand-synergy work with the likes of Wally yachts, it has become a hot watch. His aggressively styled high-tech esthetic is instantly recognizable.

Other companies showing at this year's fairs demonstrated similarly innovative thinking, with even more outrageous results. Felix Baumgartner, an iconoclastic young man whose Urwerk watches use carousel-like systems of rotating cubes and retractable arms to tell the time, showed me a watch that had little spinning turbines visible at the back of the case, the speed of which could be altered using a little lever to regulate the airflow. In addition to providing amusement, the self-winding rotor, I was assured, is adjustable to compensate for violent wrist movement.

One of the pioneers of this sort of avant-garde watchmaking is Richard Mille, who has found huge success with his eponymous brand.

This year the talking point of his marque was a pocket watch, for which one will need deep pockets, both figuratively and literally. This is an uncompromisingly contemporary timepiece, a virtuoso jeu d'esprit, with dimensions that allow it to double as a desk clock—and a price tag from €226,700.

The appearance of Mille's monster montre de poche has got some pundits carried away, predicting the return of the pocket watch. While I think it unlikely that we will see men of fashion rummaging in their waistcoat pockets for their timepiece—even though Tom Ford loves a weskit—it does point up the fundamental paradox of luxury watchmaking. Modern men seem to be turning to watches much in the way that women have handbags and jewelry to amuse themselves; yet the basic technology of wheels and pinions, springs and levers, interacting to record the passage of time, would be recognizable to a watchmaker of a couple of centuries ago. What is interesting is seeing how this technology is improved upon using modern advances; it can be likened to applying advanced automotive science to the horse and carriage.

From time to time there are fascinating breakthroughs. For instance, this year Girard-Perregaux unveiled a new escapement. The escapement is the regulating organ of the watch, and at the heart of this new creation, the constant escapement is a blade of silicium, finer than a human hair. I found myself captivated by the regular pulsing motion of this tiny component, which almost seemed to be alive.

Still, the traditional tried-and-tested technology is not about to disappear in a hurry. Take the tourbillon: initially devised as a way of compensating for the inaccuracies incurred by a watch remaining vertical in the wearer's pocket, it is still with us even though most pocket watches are not. The hot new watch from Cartier is a flying tourbillon in the successful new Ballon Bleu case, finished to the exacting standards of the Geneva seal (the criteria of which date back to the 19th century).

Tourbillons used to be seen as rather delicate things, but not anymore. Some years ago, Girard Perregaux equipped its extreme diving watch—water resistant to 3,000 meters—with a tourbillon. The watch could keep excellent time at that depth, though any diver wearing it would be dead. This year, Panerai, a brand favored by Italy's Special Naval Forces and known for its butch Italian styling, has launched a captivating tourbillon that spins on its own axis. The German brand A Lange & Söehne has premiered a tourbillon that stops moving when the crown is pulled out for resetting, meaning the time can be reset with absolute precision—a truly Teutonic improvement on the Francophone original.

The continuing love affair with the tourbillon shows that luxury watchmaking is a business with a respect for tradition. Some of the most appealing pieces on display this year owe a great debt to the designs of the past. This year, for instance, marks the 175th anniversary of IWC, the International Watch Co. of Schaffhausen, and to mark the event the brand has released six classic pieces from its fecund archive. Jaeger-LeCoultre, too, has released a cult timepiece from the past: the Polaris, a '60s piece that was remarkable at the time for being a diving watch with an alarm—presumably for those who chose to nod off on the seabed. Another swinging '60s watch, Breitling's Chronomatic, has been revived in all its groovy glory—albeit supersized to 49mm to suit modern tastes. The company has also released a chronograph version of last year's relaunched Superocean Heritage. And Rolex's classic Sea Dweller is now available in a "Deep Sea" version, which relies on technology developed by the industrial deep-sea diving company Comex, only enhancing its appeal for collectors.

Over at Audemars Piguet, an earlier era, the 1920s, is evoked with a large cushion-cased wristwatch with a perpetual calendar and minute repeater: a beautiful and exquisite-looking piece. A bravura piece of watchmaking as high art comes from Patek Philippe, a brand that collectors covet the world over. Long regarded as a classic, its world-time travel watch this year becomes available with an enamel dial depicting the continents of Europe, Africa and the Americas. With production of such a piece likely to be counted in dozens per annum, collectors are in for a long wait.

As more men with money discover the joys of watch collecting, top brands have reported an excellent fair in both Basel and Geneva, which brings us back to the problem of meeting demand. In a way it is this carefulness not to overexpand too quickly that should help protect the industry, which has a long, collective memory of crises reaching back two centuries. The scars of the last crisis—the 1970s and early '80s onslaught of cheap quartz watches from Asia—can still be seen in what might be called a missing generation of watchmakers. Most tend to be either younger than 40 or heading for retirement. Indeed, in a move that might help address this issue, the Swiss bank Julius Bär has just announced a scholarship for talented young Swiss watchmakers. It may be just the haven for funds in flight from subprime exposure.