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Dozens upon dozens of watches unveiled at SIHH each year give you an insight into the heart and soul of global luxury.
Dozens upon dozens of watches unveiled at SIHH each year give you an insight into the heart and soul of global luxury.

Testing times

The watch industry follows the direction of global luxury design every year. Here's what to expect from a premium event that begins next week in Geneva

The 26th edition of the Salon International De La Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH as it is known by everyone but the most pedantic, will take place next week in Geneva from 18-22 January. This is the first major event in the annual watch industry calendar. Along with BaselWorld, that takes place in Basel, also in Switzerland, in early summer, SIHH sets the tone for the forthcoming year of business, trends and governing priorities of the world watch industry.

SIHH is an interesting, insightful place to go to for many reasons. Of course it is an essential destination for people who like, own and buy watches. Dozens upon dozens of watches are unveiled at SIHH each year that are fascinating in themselves. But these timepieces also give you an insight, if you will, into the heart and soul of global luxury. Not only can it tell you where demand is coming from—China, for the most part—but also what kind of customers are dominant, what kind of design aesthetic is emerging and, thus, what direction global luxury design will move towards in the coming twelve months. If global fashion, say, is tending towards austerity, it is almost certain that watchmakers will follow suit.

The fair is also an excellent place to gauge the health of the global watch industry in particular and the global luxury sector in general. Even if it does have numerous listed companies, the luxury sector is notoriously opaque. Much of a journalist’s job at SIHH involves readings across the grain and against it. The unanswered questions are always more interesting than the answered ones. Are things in China as bad as they sound? Has the Indian dream finally paid off? What will happen to watches if markets in Europe and America remain strong?

SIHH 2016 promises to be an interesting fair for all these reasons and some more.

First of all there is the matter of the expanded brand presence. This year the fair will feature 24 brands—the list of the usual 15 dominated by the Richemont brands but also a group of nine ‘artisan-creators’. These independent brands, promotional material tells us, represent watchmaking’s ‘new guard’. It will be interesting to see how these brands—many of the quite well-known and well received such as the legendary Christophe Claret and De Bethune, the cutting edge HYT, and horological royalty such as Kari Voutilainen—will disrupt the scene for the established maisons. SIHH has always had a certain intimacy about it, unlike BaselWorld, which is a trade fair in every sense of the word with hundreds of brands and thousands of new watches.

It will also be interesting to see how the addition of these non-conformist new brands will impact SIHH press coverage.

The major question however is the health of the market. As has been reported in these pages before, Swiss watch exports have been sluggish and slow. The counter-intuitive post-Lehman revival in watch sales, that took so many by pleasant surprise, seems to be correcting itself. How will brands react?

Classic brands and SIHH mainstays such as Jaeger-LeCoultre tend to react with restraint. They tend to approach short term turbulence with equanimity. As Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Marc de Panafieu told us last year in an interview with Mint, customers for such brands still want three things: ‘craftsmanship, history and legitimacy’.

Panafieu, Regional Brand director for Jaeger-LeCoultre for the Middle East including India, highlighted the brand’s new Reverso collections for 2016. “The Reverso line was born in India in 1931. It will be its 85th anniversary in 2016. We plan to mark the occasion." The three collections—Classic, Tribute and the feminine One—will all hark back to this heritage. This is also a superb example of the kind of response that high-end watch brands have for market uncertainty. They find succour in what they do best: timeless, elegant, detailed watches that make sense in every economic climate.

IWC, on the other hand, will present a brand new collection of Pilot watches. These pieces, at first glance, look quite different from the previous IWC iteration of pilot models. The new models seem to have more classical, elegant lines as opposed to the youthful exuberance of the models we saw before. The prices for many of these pilots also, it is expected, will be competitive, continuing a trend of excellent entry-level IWC watches. The message from IWC is clear: there is more to us than the Portugieser and the prices will surprise you.

Cartier meanwhile has a new skeletonized Cle De Cartier model. Which seems to suggest that the Cle De Cartier family launched last year has been ‘normalized’ into the catalogue with great speed.

Put this altogether and some ‘product’ trends emerge. First of all there is an iterative approach to innovation. That is, brands want to get more mileage out of existing ideas rather than bombard us with new ideas. Secondly pricing continues to be competitive. The choice of great watches at entry-level pricing continues to expand nicely. Thirdly feminine options continue to be strong. It remains to be seen if this will be the case once the fair opens and all new novelties are unveiled. Fourthly, in terms of design, the emphasis remains on simplicity, elegance and restraint. Fifthly, and finally, this does not appear to be a year of big bang ideas and media-darling novelties. That can come later. Right now it appears to be a time to hunker down and sell.

Thus 2016 looks set to be a year that continues the ‘sobriety’ of the last two years. It will be a year in which brands will present many variations that will delight but not surprise at competitive prices. All of which is a reaction to market realities. Purists and this writer has one foot in that camp, will find it delightful. This is a good time to buy watches that are elegant, minimal and restrained. Also global. As Panafieu said, referring to Jaeger-LeCoultre : “Markets and tastes are different around the globe. We don’t design our timepieces according to markets, because then we risk losing our identity." Make no mistake, the best watches are those made for the world and not just for narrow markets and trends. Only then do you get watches that are timeless and worthy of wearing for generations.

This identity sits at the heart of high-end watchmaking. And there is a tendency for the industry to sometimes forget that in the boom years. That is not the case right now. Thank god.

And then, finally, there is the small matter of smartwatches. This writer cannot wait to get to SIHH and harvest the ‘smartwatch will destroy us’ gossip from the corridors. But have they? Will they? Does anybody actually care? Stay tuned.

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