Baselworld 2012

H1_Side HYT H1

As much as the annual watch industry event called “Baselworld” is a shrine to the new, it’s also a wonderful showcase for continuity. By its very definition, a trend should be something transient, with its own sell-by date, yet the watch industry grabs trends and makes them permanent sub-genres. The 2012 event was therefore a case of “more of the same”, but with novel twists. All watches might have only one purpose – to tell the time – but that hasn’t put a limit on imagination nor variety.

Of all the recent fashions that have spread through the industry, the most notable are serious, complicated watches for discerning women, and a backlash against the triple threat of comically large sizes, too much bling and too many complications. That’s not to say the show was free of 44mm, diamond-encrusted tourbillons and minute repeaters. Rather, it identifies a new wave of ultra-tasteful, ultra-conservative watches with clean styling, down-sized to diameters of 38-40mm and possessing the ability to show only the time and the date.

It is unlikely, however, that total sobriety will dominate the upper reaches of the watch market, and no Baselworld would be complete without truly outrageous pieces to attract the cognoscenti. The “edgier” brands, those that will never have exhibition stands the size of the structures occupied by major houses like Rolex and Patek Philippe, always manage to attract just as much publicity, for their offerings are daring, novel and innovative.

Christophe Claret’s X-TREM-1 was one of the most talked-about new models, with its hollow metal balls, driven by magnetism, indicating the time by travelling up and down in tubes fitted to the case sides. But that’s only a part of the recipe: it also boasts a 30-degree inclined flying tourbillon at the 6 o’clock position. Quite massive at 40.80×56.80x15mm, X-TREM-1 boasts two barrels for a 50-hour reserve – one each for the time indication and the movement itself. Only eight examples each in white gold, rose gold and platinum will be produced.

Nearby, Cecil Purnell showed impressive tourbillons in hefty cases, with the minimum dial area so as not to obscure the brand’s in-house movements. The company limits production to 50 pieces a year, and prices start at CHF70,000, quickly moving into six figures – rarity and exclusivity are assured.

Not all of the eye-catchers were priced to cause heart-failure. A newcomer to the specialist watch sector was The Chinese Timekeeper, with a family of cleanly-styled, robust watches inspired by Chinese design values and traditions. This is realised through fat, round cases with robust lugs; movements are in-house-modified Chinese-made movements, in the same shaped cases but differing in materials. The watches vary in a dial selection ranged from Chinese zodiac signs denoting each hour, to one model with chunks of green jade for the hour markers, to more conventional designs with Arabic numerals. Cases are gold, stainless steel, or black or blue DLC-coated steel. With prices starting at €1450 (up to circa-€7000 for the luxury pieces), they represent good value, too.

Pilot watches retain their charm even for those with no aspirations to control an airplane. Zenith’s spectacular retro piece, the manually-wound Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20, harks back to the early days of aviation, when pilots expected their timepieces to measure 57mm across to enhance the legibility. It’s believed that this special edition of 250 pieces has already sold out.

At the other extreme is an ultra-modern pilot watch with no eye to the past: the brand-new De Motu Watches from Finland. Test pilot Sami Kontio was present at the display in full pilot accoutrements to make sure that their airborne credentials were real. Personnel at De Motu serviced SAAB Drakens and BAe Hawks for the Finnish Air Force and were involved in the World Aerobatic Championships. De Motu’s watches use an in-house hybrid electro-mechanical DM101 movement and measure 48mm across. The unique feature for this piece is that it also indicates G-force.

Possibly the most radical watch amidst the thousands launched at Baselworld was HYT’s all-new display: it uses fluids to show the time. HYT combined a mechanical movement with two flexible reservoirs fixed to each end of a circular glass tube that surrounds the dial. In one “side” is an aqueous liquid that glows green and is therefore highly visible, while the other contains a transparent liquid kept separate from the green. The arc of the green fluid shows the hours at the point where it meets the clear fluid. Costing around €45,000-€50,000 each, but the fluid element is guaranteed for five years, and servicing will include replenishing of the fluids.

Ikepod’s 44mm Horizon watches looked crisply modern with their “golfball” dials, the choice broadened by “pop art” versions of the Horizon with the dial forms devised by graffiti artist KAWS, arresting shapes based around an “X”. Though not worn on the wrist, visitors were seduced by the absolutely gorgeous 10-minute timer version to accompany the utterly beautiful Ikepod hourglass, produced in blue. Also bearing their own X motifs were Romain Jerome’s Steampunks and Titanics, marked for special attention this year as it is the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. The watches contain actual material salvaged from the wreckage.

Of all the amazing pieces at Baselworld, the one that had a number of purists taking deep breaths was De Bethune’s Titan Hawk. While its functions are the basic hours-minutes-date, the Titan Hawk is the usual De Bethune “statement”: it uses the company’s Calibre S233 mechanical self-winding movement with hand-decorated main plate and hand-chamfered, polished steel parts.

Its technical prowess? The movement incorporates such technical breakthroughs as self-regulating twin barrels designed to eliminate friction and efficiently transmit a maximum of energy, and the exceptionally light silicon/white gold balance wheel with flat terminal curve, which enables the balance wheel to reduce mechanical friction and deliver an ideal inertia/mass ratio. And it’s handsome, too.

Everywhere you looked were tours de force, from the Breguet Reine de Naples with is “gold hairs” bracelet and moonphase for the distaff client, to Rolex’s Sky-Dweller with quick-change timezone, to Harry Winston’s Opus 12 with indices that change colour. For those who fear that the mobile phone might kill off the wristwatch, just ask yourself this: is checking the time on a miserable little LCD anywhere near as much fun?

(Bespoke, 2012)