Tales By The Wayside

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This time at Baselworld

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Whither the watch

Anyone with a decent nose and a functioning lizard brain would have noticed the change 20 meters after the turnstiles at Baselworld 2011. The pungent, oily smell from the tchotchke candles sputtering away at the Zenith stand had vanished into last year’s thin air. Gone too were all the signs of the Thierry Nataf era, including those pseudo-brainy ads with the frowning male models and the girlies pushing very costly and blustery watches. What remains is sobriety, functionality, understatement, in other words pure Zenith from the days of 2 + 2 = 4. The Striking Tenth, already prominently displayed last year, still has flagship radiance, the new Stratos is a relaunch from 1969, sportive, muscular, but not steroidal.

 

This story has moved to http://www.journos-blotter.com

 

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Written by Marton Radkai

April 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Baselworld 2010, Part 2

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Old time in a new bottle

(Part 2-for Part 1, see older post below!)    

 Some novelties at Baselworld 2010 and a winner

 

The One Week "Water" featuring the Strom's new movement

Like every industry, the watch industry likes to speak of innovations. The definition of that word is really in  the eye of the beholder.Some are business moves that could shift the general manufacturing paradigm. Because the industry itself has its own special entropy, where the chaos side of the graph is represented by diversity and this is leading to some genuine innovation. I am referring to the creation of in-house movements. The smallest company with a movement is Armin Strom. The master himself has passed the 70 mark and just powers away without need for external inspiration.  The company’s  brand new ARM09 movement has been used for the One Week collection. Its modern design is in sharp contrast to Armin Strom’s legendary skeletonized watches, which suggest  the voluble baroque decor of Bavarian Catholic churches.    

     

Armin Strom still skeletonizes watches himself

Getting rid of excess metal

The "Clef du Temps" by the Confrérie des Horlogers, just to prove it can be done

Hublot, too, opened a manufacture in the industrial zone of Nyon last year, which is now producing the Unico movement. Like them or not, the muscular Bangs and the playful Tutti Fruttis are instantly identifiable timepieces and have their very committed fans. CEO Jean-Claude Biver has steered the brand to glory, navigating a bold course straight through the reefs of the Great Recession.  A rugged and outspoken warrior of the industry, he wisely gave space to members of the former BNB movement company and brought its select Confrérie des Horlogers on board. So Hublot’s new collection includes the Confrérie’s bullet-shaped “Liberty” watches and the Hublotized “Clef du Temps,” that outlandish confection of diamonds, with a vertical tourbillon visible on the side and an impish complication allowing the user to slow down time for a while. Perhaps a sly comment on the absurdly frenetic pace of our contemporary life.    

The techno-vations

TAGHeuer's unfinished Pendelum Concept could become a pit...

The other approach to innovation is to go right to the heart of the matter and change something in the fundamental technology of the watch. This can be quite radical. Let’s mention first of all TAGHeuer, which has been working on replacing the “spring thing” with an engine driven by a permanent magnet of sorts. The “Pendulum Concept” is still being tinkered with, but should it become viable, I am assured, it will remain a sort of niche product and not invade the industry the way quartz did. But the mere idea of electricity inside a mechanical watch (even in the form of magnetism)  could raise a few hackles. TAGHeuer  has called this little beast a “harmonious oscillator.”    

Rudis Sylva's Harmonious Oscillator, like playing the Minute waltz with one hand

   But the TAGHeuer invention is not the only one on the market with that name: After lots of timetable shifting, I met Jacky Epitaux from Rudis Sylva at the Ramada’s third-story bar for an almost conspiratorial look at a mechanism also known as a “harmonious oscillator.” One could almost imagine the ghost of Sidney Greenstreet there looking over our shoulder trying to steel a small but valuable industrial secret. Rather than no spring, this oscillator has two! They are mounted on meshing wheels and mirror each other, so they open and close alternatively and in opposite directions. The point is to cancel the effect of gravity, not just compensate for it as with the regular tourbillon. The system is intriguing, and looking at the oscillator through the loupe feels like trying to play Chopin’s “Minute” waltz with one hand.  

  

Hamilton Pulsomatic, an ingenious hybrid

Finally, with the 70s booming again, one wonders how could a mechanical watch avoid the curse of digital. No, I am not referring to de Grisogono’s somewhat meretricious mechanical digital dial, but rather to Hamilton‘s rebuilt version of the first solid-state wristwatch ever, the Pulsar. Forty years later, it is back again in bigger and bolder as the Pulsomatic, but it uses an automatic movement to drive a generator delivering an astounding 120 days power reserve. A hybrid for Toyota owners, perhaps?

De Grisogono -- for the 21st-century technoid man

 

 

 Unique means one of a kind

In the end, Baselworld is heaven, and it is hell. On just a few acres there are a sea of watches to be seen — and I have not even touched the jewelry section — and far too little time to explore them properly. Every stylistic idea is represented, the classics and crazies, the sporty and sportive, the cool and the hot, the dressy and the glitzy, the sober and the off-the-perch, the vanilla and jalapeño. There are entire lines of ladies watches, whereby thanks perhaps to the weakening of the Schwarzenegger gene, many men’s watches have become a little more androgynous and are drawing female buyers – but this is another story altogether. The market for diamond encrustations that make some timepieces look as if they could be used to grate a 36-month old Parmesan is going strong, obviously, but there is something to say for a masculine watch arousing latent male personality aspects. (Perhaps if men would wear some made-for-women watches, the world would be a little less violent.  Just a thought.)    

    

Of course, luxury is still high on the agenda, but it seems to have become more introspective rather than self-conscious. The owner knows the value, maybe a coterie of family and friends will be in on the secret, and maybe the fan with a quick eye might realize he or she has just seen a Vianney Halter or van der Klaauw flashing by. Yes, a new sense of modesty might be an excellent opportunity for the independent watchmakers, who were especially hard hit by the cash drain. In some ways, these are the industry’s genuine visionaries and artists, whose pieces not only reflect the paradigm, but do a great deal to push its fulcrum into new and as-of-yet undiscovered territory. Twelve of these masters have been beautifully portrayed in a brand new book by top horological journalist Elisabeth Doerr and photographer Ralf Baumgarten, a must have for any watch collector or connoisseur (Twelve Faces of Time, available at teNeues ).    

In the machine room of the Jean Dunand Palace

At any rate, it is among this particular — and at times peculiar — brood of out-of-the -boxers, autodidacts or ultimate purists that one can find works of genius, works that leap off the wrist, as it were, especially to the discerning watchista. It may be the colorful, laughing pieces of Alain Silberstein, or the mighty Horological Machines by Max Büsser and his friends, where the steam-punk meets sci-fi.  Another piece of gentrified steampunk – combining Charlie Chaplin, Henri Ford and Fritz Lang, to the tune of Honegger’s Pacific 231 – is the “Palace” from Jean Dunand Pièces Uniques, an unabashed celebration of the industrial age, with little chains, cogs, dials and subdials reminiscent of the meters on a locomotive,the nameplate suggesting a fishplate.     

Itay Noy's CIty Squares: Wear your hometown on your wrist

A soft-spoken philosopher of time is the Israeli Itay Noy, who customizes very affordable watches by putting famous city squares on the dials, or working with hallucinogenic fractals. He was not the only self-taught craftsman there: Konstantin Chaykin from St. Petersburg had a stupendous clock displaying the Jewish calendar day, a Jewish watch, the Decalogue, that displays specifically Jewish time units – helek and regaim – on the rear. Chaykin also created a Moslem clock, but the work he seems especially proud of is a unique clock that manages to display the Orthodox Easter. How different from the his booth neighbor Rainer Nienaber,a genius of the retrograde, who had a watch on display that doesn’t really tell the time, unless you wish to live in a purely decimal world.    

Konstantin Chaykin putting the spiritual into time

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prima inter pares – counter-entropy

 

Applying the KISS Principle to horology in Prescher's (very) mysterious tourbillon

In our age of neue Sachlichkeit, of reductio ad sanem at least, it may seem difficult to find a real show stopper. But maybe we will have to get used to doing without the type of Hollywoodesque hype that has marked the past decades and discover the value of simplicity, of unplugged, of focus. Peace may be more boring than high jinx and wars, but it opens many more possibilities. And so, on day four, while dragging my suitcase full of brochures and electronics through Hall five, between Nienaber and Chaykin (see above),  I stumbled across a  watch that made me loosen my tie, take a deep breath and rub my eyes. It  was a delicate, completely transparent creation with a double axis tourbillon seemingly floating in space right in the middle of the almost square “picture.” The hours and minutes appear on two barrels at the top of the watch separated by a mesmerizing three-dimensional moon, shiny on one side and mat on the other.  The watch is reversible. The date is read at 6 o’clock, as it were, on a semicircular barrel that also serves as an oscillating weight for the automatic.So where is the movement? Tucked laterally under the bezel in the side. The author of this phenomenal piece of equipment, the Mysterious Double Axis Automatic Tourbillon is the German watchmaker Thomas Prescher, whose atelier is in Twann close to Biel, Switzerland.  If any timepiece at the fair reflected a new sense of concentration on the essentials and a return to sobriety and pure art, it was this one.  It should be a pleasure for anyone to be on that wagon.    

(This concludes the very personal overview of Baselworld 2010. I tried here to find themes and patterns, not to describe a maximum of brands. So apologies are due for the absence of many eminent watches and brands, and for not mentioning all the extraordinary watchmakers whose work was displayed at the fair. In months to come, I hope to correct that problem through articles and reports).    

Written by Marton Radkai

April 12, 2010 at 10:02 am

Baselworld 2010 Part 1: Return of the watch

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A special diving watch: the Italian brand U-boat thinks big

Watch yourself!

 Baselworld 2010: a review 

 Part 1 

   

Blast from the past, Baselworld in 2008

If we are to believe the chroniclers of the wealthy like Steve Forbes, what affects the world’s haves, will also have an impact on the havenots. It’s a bizarre thought based on some strange algorithm only Forbes might understand – it assumes that X not being able to afford another luxury car is equivalent to Y and his family being expelled from their home. But when it comes to watches, the algorithm might just work. Because luxury is the projection and realization of some personal fairytale, and it touches everyone at all levels. For some, purchasing a muscle car is the lonely cherry atop an otherwise gloomy cake, and for others gazing at a tourbillon and a pumping hairspring may be the only way to remember one’s own beating heart in a life of soporific board meetings and business-class plane travel. You don’t really buy a watch, especially a mechanical one, to tell the time, but rather to have a little bit of the galaxy on your wrist, or on the wrist of a loved one.  It makes no difference whether it’s a €210,000 Chanel limited edition, or an entry-level Eterna …  It’s one of the messages that became quite obvious at Baselworld, the annual watch and jewelry orgy held in Basel, Switzerland.  

This great trade fair just closed its doors on a happy note, with attendance up by 7% over last year, according to the fair’s daily herald, and the industry generally upbeat about the future. But optimism among the watch brands is not new. Even in the depths of the recession, CEOs and the brands’ majordomos of communication were grabbing at any number that suggested black and not red, and smiling through the drizzle of bad news. As a last resort, they would point to the overheated market until 2008 and suggest that the ensuing crash was merely a natural correction.  Quite true, of course, but since the Lehmann vaporization, the Madoff hanky-panky, even the now forgotten scandal at the Société Générale, the luxury industry has been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, liquidity problems and continuing insecurity in the markets — see Greece – means that the recovery has the energy of the prisoners staggering into the light at the beginning of act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio. On the other hand, the very raison d’être of luxury, exhibitionism, is now considered to be in even worse taste than it ever was. Money is a little tight for everyone thanks to the pathological greed of the past few years, but for those who have it, broadcasting the fact seems to suggest a “let them eat cake” attitude. And we know where that ended.  

Eterna Soleure, traditional values are in style

Turning back the clocks  

So it’s no surprise to hear just about every brand speak of “classic” values mixed in with the usual fusion of traditional crafts with innovative ideas. The era of bling has passed, and serious watch aficionados are not entirely unhappy with that state of affairs. Just as censorship in the former USSR led Russian writers and composers to weave a great deal of dissident subtlety into their creations, so, in the year 1 after the Great Recession, sleek lines are back, thin, elegant watches with plain bar indices are in, so are the comfortable rectangular shapes of the 1950s,  1960s and 1970s. Symmetry, or at least harmony and balance, has returned to the dials, but without the slightest sense of stodginess. And steel casings are suddenly quite fashionable — whereby red and yellow gold are beginning to return.  

Many of the older brands seemed to have had a great time rummaging around their archives and digging up older designs that hark back to simpler days. Eterna, for instance, is pushing its delicate Soleure, with Arabic numerals or bar indices, a day and night watch for all occasions. Longines has a re-issue of the Lindbergh chronograph, a manly piece but hardly Hummer-like; Tutima has resumed its 1941 Flieger Chronograph line, also recalling the brave flyers of yore, while its Classic line is a genuine chameleon, with sharper contours suggesting this millennium.  

A fast-beating heart gets a front-row showing in the Striking 10th

No brand epitomizes more the changes of the past three years than Zenith, perhaps. The flamboyant Thierry Nataf of Moet fame had tried to reinvent the traditional brand to meet the exhibitionist tastes of a class of nouveaux riches that partly crashed along with the rest of the economy all the while burying the company’s very DNA. It was like spray-painting flames on the side of a Steinway concert grand for a Grigory Sokolov  recital of Brahms’s late works…. To Nataf’s credit, it might have worked had the world economy simply continued to exist on the hallucinogenic expectations of derivatives. Suffice to say,  Mr. Nataf – who once told me in an interview, he was “born in a boardroom” – was kicked sideways and replaced by the stolid Jean-Frédéric Dufour, a Geneva resident with a real horological pedigree that includes stints at Ulysse Nardin and Chopard. Gone are the über-cool male models with their brummagem scholar-cum-samurai appeal and the glam femmes objets.  Gone are the aphoristic quotes that may be interesting while waiting for the subway, but signified nothing in terms of watches. Gone, too – but not sideways – are about 25% of the old staff. Zenith has turned the clock back and is producing strong, basic, watches, with the good and friendly looks of high-attitude Jura farmers and affordable prices. The big news is the El Primero Striking 10th, which shows each of the ten beats per second of the exceptional caliber (which beats at 36,000 vph), thanks to the jumping seconds hand. Back to the roots, indeed… All that’s left of the flashy pre-Dufour days, apparently, is the company gift candle sputtering away on the receptionist’s pulpit and producing a penetrating, musky-spicy odor that mixed somewhat irritatingly with the garlic used by Zenith’s own booth cooks.  

Coming up for air: Doxa divers

 If it ain’t broke …

Eberhardt's Chrono4 Temerario

Some brands did not need to turn down the volume too much, simply because they never really lost their dignity in the first place. Chronoswiss, Doxa and Tutima, for example, are classics by nature, and like  Breitling, Fortis, TAGHeuer, have all maintained their genetic association with big engines, diving, flying, regattas, while offering the occasional bit of craziness. It might be a surprisingly gaudy strap,  or a limited edition, like Fortis’s Mattern, which was designed by artist Michael Mattern, a specialist in transcending the inner workings of our industrial age.  Another manufacturer worth mentioning here is Eberhardt, whose watches seldom venture beyond the straight and narrow but manage to achieve recognizability without going to extremes: The standard Chrono4 series, with its four small dials, would not raise your granddad’s eyebrows, though the Temerario sub-line, in a tonneau case with the four subdials arranged vertically does generate some additional excitement. And then there is the crown buried like a gas cap behind a metal flap between the two 12-0’clock lugs.  

Beauty and the beast, biker chains, head fins, jewels on the DeWitt Tourbillon

Higher up on the scale is DeWitt, where a class and luxury do a little slumming with the steam-punk crowd. That tiny chain used to connect the power reserve in the Academia line is not just a visual delight, but rather part of an innovative system to ensure that the driving force of the tourbillon is constant. Chopard is another brand that has parked itself in the grand old days of leather helmets and mud-speckled goggles. For the company’s 150th anniversary, it has developed several new timepieces, notably a pocket watch that functions as a wristwatch as well as a tribute to founder Louis-Ulysse Chopard. The movement driving this serene piece was produced by a collaboration between the company and the Geneva Watchmaking School, which needed some components for the apprentices’ master works.  

The Esplendido, more après-race than racy

Another brand which has defined itself by sticking to its retro birthright is Cuervo Y Sobrinos. Like Chopard and the Mille Migli, CyS also embraces the world’s great car races, like the Grand Prix, as a sort of public identity. Whereby the dignity of the elongated case of the Esplendidos line suggests more the sensuality of a slow rumba, wafts of sweet and spicy cigar smoke, lazy afternoons, the sexiness of taking time rather than racing through it. The Pirata line offers the same identity, with a little more sportiveness, a whiff of tang coming through the porthole shaped case and the crown and push-buttons recalling blunderbusses and a cannonball, a humorous watch for walking the plank with.  

The Cuervo Y Sobrinos Pirata - goes well with an eyepatch.

Check out Part 2 above.