Watch Fans Have Eyes on Watches and Wonders Geneva

Last year was a record one for Swiss watchmaking. The value of exports soared as top watchmakers cashed in on the continuing global appetite for expensive and exclusive statement timepieces. They will be hoping to feed that hunger this week as 48 brands gather for Watches and Wonders Geneva, now the only major watch show in Switzerland. Many of the big dial names will be there, including Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe, while Audemars Piguet, Bulgari, Breitling and the Swatch Group, which includes Omega and Longines, continue to stay away. Their moments will come another time.

Absolute novelty is not a 21st-century Swiss watch industry preoccupation, at least not in design terms. Most houses plow a familiar furrow, relying on reiterations of past winners to stimulate the market. But with buyers still hankering for the ageless and consumed by considerations of resale value, that’s a smart play.

Cartier Santos-Dumont Skeleton

Singling out just one of Cartier’s expanding collection of artfully shaped watches for appraisal doesn’t get any easier. As in the past, the Parisian house’s vast 2023 collection surpasses all others in scale and ambition, but one piece that does emerge is this skeletonized version of its square-ish Santos-Dumont. It tells the story of the Brazilian aviation pioneer for whom the original piece was made 119 years ago better than any of the many other watches that have carried his name. The plot centers on a brass weight set onto the micro-rotor and cast in the shape of the Demoiselle, an aircraft Alberto Santos-Dumont designed in 1907. Almost as memorable are the new skeletonized movement and the blue-lacquer yellow gold case, which has the intoxicating whiff of 1980s indulgence about it. Just 150 pieces will be made. $41,600

Zenith Pilot Big Date Flyback

Ten years ago, Zenith — under the leadership of Jean-Frédéric Dufour, now chief executive at Rolex — set about trying to convince watch buyers that it was one of the original makers of pilot’s watches, airspace it had long since ceded to the likes of Breitling and IWC. And that it alone had held the trademark for using the word pilot on a watch dial since 1904. More recently, its focus has shifted to pieces such as the hugely successful Chronomaster Sport, but this year it has returned to its old muse with a new Pilot collection, the word proudly printed on each dial. There’s a modern-vintage feel to the line, particularly this thickset steel model with its multicolored flyback chronograph minute counter, which echoes the El Primero Rainbow of 1997. $11,500

IWC Ingenieur Automatic 40

The mystery behind the return of the Gerald Genta-designed version of IWC’s Ingenieur is not that it’s back, but that it ever went away. The value of Mr. Genta’s 1970s stainless steel sports watch designs have skyrocketed, with demand for Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus the spice in both brands’ recipes. Added to that, IWC is one of Switzerland’s more masculine brands, yet for years it has not had a stainless steel watch with an integrated bracelet in its lineup, even though that cocktail has been catnip to sports watch buyers. The omission is now remedied with a model that’s a faithful reworking of Mr. Genta’s 1976 Ingenieur SL. Like that original design, the new watch has a slimline profile, and it is powered for the first time by one of IWC’s in-house calibers with a 120-hour power reserve. $11,700

Oris ProPilot X Kermit Edition

For all its commercial maturity, the Swiss watch industry is awash with cartoonish collaborations. Popeye, Snoopy and even “South Park” have all been sketched onto dials in recent times. Next in line — somewhat unexpectedly — is Kermit, the genial singing frog of Muppets fame, who has tuned in to the fact that the midrange independent Oris has been steadily climbing the sales charts of late. The green dial of this titanium ProPilot X watch is the giveaway, while more discreet is Kermit’s face, which is set to appear in the date window on the first of every month: Kermit Day, according to the brand. The 39-millimeter watch offers some mechanical muscle to accompany its cheery face, with a five-day automatic movement that is resistant to magnetic fields that we encounter in daily life. Oris also says the watch is guaranteed for 10 years. $4,600

At a design level, every watch brand is fighting to achieve the same thing: a watch that people recognize without having to think. Here are eight from the exhibiting brands at Watches and Wonders that have either won that battle or are well on the way.

TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph

It’s now been 60 years since Jack Heuer issued the first Carrera, which he often said was his favorite design. Mr. Heuer is 90 now, but in 1963, he was a spirited young brand boss, creating aspirational sports watches and energizing his business with ties to the glamorous world of motor racing. His incredible story and that of one of the industry’s defining watches are condensed in this chronograph, which features a raised “glass box” crystal over its black and silver dial. $6,450

Montblanc 1858 The Unveiled Timekeeper Minerva Limited Edition

Montblanc’s bid to put its watches on an equal footing with its writing instruments (as it calls its pens and such) will rely on consumer appreciation of high-end pieces like this one. It’s a chronograph, produced by Montblanc’s specialist movement division, Minerva, and inspired by a caliber created 100 years ago. Its party trick is that the chronograph is activated by twisting the bezel, rather than by pushers, a haptic gizmo that will entertain the mechanically minded. This one, in steel, is limited to 100 pieces. $36,500

Chanel Monsieur Tourbillon Meteorite

For reasons that escape this reviewer, Chanel’s Monsieur has yet to be recognized by the horologati — if you will — as a triumph of contemporary watch design. Chanel’s most masculine watch creation is a lesson in proportion, balance, massing and, if it can be taught, sublime sophistication, backed here by an in-house flying tourbillon and a monochromatic palette of matte black ceramic and fragments of meteorites. Only 55 are on the way, each contributing to a design story that grows stronger all the time. Price on application

Ulysse Nardin Freak One

Now fully reorganized after a management buyout last year, Ulysse Nardin is setting its sights on the esoteric Freak and on finally earning it the icon status it’s never quite achieved, despite winning the title of Switzerland’s first mechanical watch with a silicon escapement on its release in 2001. The watch, which the brand says has “no dial, no hands and no crown” is still a glorious oddity. Time is set via a rotating lockable bezel and displayed by pointers integrated into the exposed carousel movement, and it comes on a strap made, in part, of waste rubber. $68,600

Piaget Polo Perpetual Calendar Obsidian

The Piaget boss Benjamin Comar coined the word “extrelegance” to define what he called his brand’s “extravagant yet elegant” watch design approach. The term may not convey much on its own, but at least it’s given some context with this perpetual calendar version of the preppy Polo. The watch is decorated with an unusual obsidian dial, said to have acquired its iridescent quality from sulfide drops trapped in the rock millions of years ago. A ring of blue sapphires completes the picture. $114,000

Hublot Big Bang MP-13

Hublot’s enthusiasm for collaboration can cloud the fact that back at its Nyon base, a half-hour drive up the road from Geneva, it employs some very gifted watchmakers. Their zenith is the masterpiece, or MP series, of high-end watches that don’t look like conventional timepieces. This is the 13th iteration (no place for superstition at Hublot), and features a double-axis tourbillon and a double-retrograde display. The brand says the combination is a first in Swiss watchmaking. $160,000

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Duoface Tourbillon

An obscure anniversary this: It’s 30 years since the debut of the first Reverso with a tourbillon. Even so, Jaeger-LeCoultre has not passed up on the opportunity to mark the event, equipping a pink gold version of its singular Art Deco watch with a tourbillon and a second time-zone display. As is the way with the company’s reversible watch, that second time is shown via a second dial tucked on the watch’s flip side. $139,000

Hermès H08 Colours

When Hermès published its 2022 financial report in February, the numbers revealed that watchmaking division revenues had grown 46 percent year-over-year. Much of the acceleration is down to the H08, now two years in circulation. Famously not a sports watch — because, as the division’s creative director Philippe Delhotal has said, “You don’t sweat in Hermès” — it has nonetheless tapped into a market thirsty for everyday luxury sports watches dripping with design and brand equity. Four colorful automatics join the line this year, including this punchy yellow number. $7,420

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