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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Watch World Has Gone Mad (in a Good Way)

Geneva’s Watches & Wonders fair, essentially the CES of the watch world, brings together almost 40 of the industry's biggest brands, including Rolex, Patek Philippe, Tudor, and IWC, alongside a sprinkling of smaller, independent marques, to all reveal at once their major launches for the year. It's big business. Despite inevitable Covid-related downturns—particularly in an industry still resistant to ecommerce—in 2021, Swiss watch exports totaled a value of more than $24 billion.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Much like the conspicuous Apple-shaped hole left in Las Vegas each January, the Swatch Group, whose brands include Omega, Longines, and Tissot, decided back in 2018 that it would no longer be present at watch fairs, opting instead to run its own event. This year it went as far as to potentially skewer Watches & Wonders before the show even began by breaking the internet with the poorly handled launch of its Omega/Swatch collaboration, the MoonSwatch, last week.

Still, this W&W is the first major watch fair to take place physically in three years, and sees industry players returning to a forcibly changed world—one in which the watch market has altered during the course of the Covid pandemic, and the hidebound traditions of old have been replaced with a hunger for color, strong design, hype, and inventiveness. Below are the 2022 offerings that we think are particularly WIRED.   

A World-Record Watch Thinner Than a NickelBulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra

Over recent years, Bulgari has used its Octo Finissimo range to set a succession of records in slimline watchmaking, making itself the world-leader in one of horology’s most demanding technical disciplines. Having made the world’s thinnest chronograph, the thinnest tourbillon, and the thinnest perpetual calendar, it’s now made simply the world’s thinnest mechanical watch. 

The $440,000 (£332,695) Octo Finissimo Ultra is just 1.8-mm thick—that's all the cogs and mechanics crammed into a space with less breadth than a nickel—and has the feel of little more than a piece of paper wrapped around the wrist. Along with its eight patents, it packs in some  2022 zeitgeist content in the form of a QR code laser-cut into the circular barrel containing the mainspring (which is wound up to power the watch). There are just 10 watches being made, each with a different QR code that will connect to a Metaverse site for the owner to explore, including an NFT-attached video artwork that’s unique to each watch.

The Blackest Watch Ever, Worthy of Vader BallersH Moser Streamliner “Blacker than Black”

From the people that brought you the anti–Apple Watch comes a timepiece so dark that Robert Pattinson's brooding emo Batman or even Sith Lord Darth Vader might think twice about making a purchase. Only they wouldn't be allowed to. This concept piece is not for sale. 

Independent watchmaker H Moser & Cie has the unique license in watchmaking to use Vantablack, the super-black coating that, with 99.965 percent light absorption, is the darkest human-made material on the planet. So far it has produced a number of watches with bewitching Vantablack dials, but at this year's Watches & Wonders it has revealed an entire watch covered in the substance.

Viewed against a Vantablack background, it’s almost invisible, save for its white and red hands. Sadly, it isn’t commercially available: H Moser reports that the substance is, for now, too fragile for wearing but that ways are being researched to strengthen the structure and make it more shock-resistant. Watch this space (not that you can see much of anything if you do).

The First Watch Made With Lab-Grown DiamondsTAG Heuer Carrera Plasma

Most natural diamonds are between 1 billion and 3.5 billion years old and were formed at depths of 93 to 155 miles in the earth's mantle, although a few come from as deep as 500 miles down. With it's latest piece, the Plasma, TAG Heuer seemingly has neither the patience nor the energy to harvest such gemstones, opting instead to be the very first to adorn its sporty Carrera chronograph with lab-grown diamonds, which are incorporated directly into the body and dial of the watch itself. 

Lab-grown, or synthetic, diamonds are made via a chemical vapor deposition process and are considered more ecologically sound, as mining natural diamonds is destructive, with an estimated 250 tonnes of earth excavated for every single carat of diamond. Here, the watchmaker called on a network of specialist partners to develop 48 such diamonds, totaling 4.8 carats, in shapes and implementations that would otherwise be impossible. That includes the polycrystalline diamond dial itself, as well as diamond indexes, sections of the case, and a spectacular winding crown made from a single piece of lab diamond.

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Despite the manufactured nature of the precious stones in the Plasma, TAG Heuer will be producing the watch in extremely limited quantities, and potential owners will have to ask for a price estimate when buying.

A 3D-Printed Squishy Gold CushionCartier Coussin de Cartier

In watches, “cushion” cases usually refer to the shape of a watch case (roughly square, but with rounded corners), but in this instance it refers to a diamond-adorned case that is actually a soft cushion which compresses and retracts into shape in your hand as you wear the piece. 

Cartier used gold 3D printing to create a meshed, flexible, gold latticework, into which more than a thousand diamonds are then set on the Coussin de Cartier. The flexible outer layer sits around a rubber inner core, holding the watch’s battery-powered movement. 

A Stormtrooper Metaverse WatchIWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun “Lake Tahoe”

IWC has been busy of late developing a range of new colors in ceramic and its proprietary material “ceratanium,” a form of ceramised titanium. It’s now working with Pantone, the color-matching organization, to register its latest shades, which happen to include a version of white, apparently inspired by the snow around Lake Tahoe in California, from which it takes its name (but IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr says internally it's being called the “Stormtrooper”). 

The white ceramic is used for a thoroughly modern, high-impact version of IWC’s popular Pilot’s Watch chronograph ($10,700), which descends from its historic mid-century aviation watches. The case and bracelet are in white ceramic, set against a black, high-contrast dial. For something slightly more understated, IWC is offering the same watch in “woodland green” ceramic.

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With the new ceramic watches, IWC is also jumping on the NFT/metaverse bandwagon: Owners will have access to the IWC Diamond Hand Club, a virtual loyalty scheme and members community, with access offered via a limited number of NFT tokens and authentication backed by Arianee, a consortium using blockchain for creating “digital identities” for valuable items.

A Rolex … but ReversedRolex Left-Handed GMT Master II

Easily the most unexpected new arrival at Watches & Wonders 2022 comes from Rolex, which has presented a left-handed version of its all-time classic, the GMT Master II travel watch—what effectively looks like an upside-down Rolex.

That’s because the winding/setting crown is switched from its usual right-hand side of the case to the left, as is the date window. This sinister switching of sides may seem like no big deal, but it's harder to accomplish than one might imagine. For example, moving the crown involves swiveling the mechanism inside the watch 180 degrees, and the entire process involves a great deal more than pressing the “flip” button on the design drawings. 

The colorway is also brand-new, with a rotating 24-hour bezel in green and black ceramic, a new combination for the GMT Master II ($10,050/£8,800) that Rolex says will remain unique to this lefty version of the watch.

An Orbital Dial Watch With No HandsRessence Type 8

Antwerp-based Ressence, the brainchild of industrial designer Benoit Mentiens, has shaken up the conventions of watch design with its patented “satellite” system of handless, rotating subdials at different speeds that’s subtle, satisfying, and very clever.

You may remember how the company broke further new ground in 2018 when, in collaboration with iPod inventor Tony Fadell, it created the Type 2 e-Crown, a mechanical timepiece with an electromechanical module that linked to your smartphone and was powered by the Sun. 

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Now Ressence is back with its most simple and accessible model. The Type 8 strips things back to just a minute and hour indication orbiting the dial, with a streamlined and exceedingly light (33 grams) titanium case and an upgrade of Ressence’s system for setting and winding the watch, which involves a tactile rotation of the back of the $14,800 (£11,300) watch.  

A Patent-Powered Business-Class PatekPatek Philippe 5326G-001

Don't be fooled by the classic appearance; there's some clever tech powering this new travel watch from Patek. The creation of the 5326G-001 saw Patek having to file eight patents for this piece that marries two complications (any function on a watch other than the display of the time) from the brand.

Patek's “travel time” complication, originally developed in the 1950s, usually uses two pushers to change the local time in either direction. This means watches with this function can be swiftly and conveniently be commanded to “jump” time zones without even being taken off the wrist. Day and night indicators even let discombobulated jet-setters adjust to the local time in a familiar 12-hour format.

In the 1990s, Patek developed its annual calendar, a system that meant its mechanical watches could discern the difference between months with 30 days and 31 days (thus you only need modify the date once a year, in February). 

With the 5326G-001, Patek has cleverly combined the two. This is a high-end $76,880 (£59,200) mechanical travel watch with once-a-year date adjustment—and, what's more, Patek has ditched those travel-time side pushers in favor of the whole shebang being controlled via the crown.


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