Survival of the savviest We're now at the midway point between the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), the first big watch industry event of the year, and the daddy of them all, Baselworld, which takes place in mid-March. If you had read the piece I wrote about SIHH a few weeks ago in the South China Morning Post, you will know that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. By "rotten", I mean it's full-on doom and gloom and by "Denmark", I mean the watch industry (although Denmark isn't looking too crash hot either at the moment).
If I could be serious, which means you should read the next few sentences with a furrowed brow and a look of concern, watch sales are not just down, they are starting to plunge, and the gravy days for luxury horology may be over. Am I being dramatic? Well, I'm typing this wearing a smoking jacket with an unlit cigar in my mouth, so one could argue that I am, but, in reality, the signs are not good for the industry heading into 2016. However, every crisis is an opportunity in disguise and we may see lazy watch brands that add little to the art or innovation of their pieces going to the wall. I, for one, think this Darwinian/Hunger Games-type whittling is a good thing. Anyway, enough of the bad news, the good news is some of the more savvy brands - the survivors - are adjusting their products to this new environment, where you can't just sell something on the basis that it's Swiss and has lots of zeros in the price tag.
Focusing on new watches from SIHH, we'll start with the stainless-steel Vacheron Constantin Overseas Calibre 5100 (top), which is priced at HK$166,000. That's expensive, I hear you say, and how is that adjusting to economic reality? Well, the thing is, there is an elite group of brands that are sort of recession-proof and as each of them makes so few watches, they aren't stuck with a glut of inventory. Vacheron Constantin is one of them and, when it comes to high end, this timepiece is still relatively affordable. What you get for all that money is the highest level mechanical watchmaking in the world, and also the Hallmark of Geneva, probably the most prestigious certification in horology. The watch itself is a simple date-only piece, but inside is a new movement, the Calibre 5100, designed and made in-house and featuring an impressive 60-hour power reserve. The case is a nice and discreet 41mm and other features include 150 metres of water resistance and anti-magnetic properties. Best of all, Vacheron Constantin has included three interchangeable straps, so you get three looks for the price of one.
Next we have the Panerai Radiomir 1940 3 Days Automatic Acciaio PAM655 (above left). Again, outwardly, with a price tag of HK$77,900, this doesn't look like a game changer, and, in reality, it isn't. But peer a bit closer and it's easy to understand why Panerai will ride out the slump. For starters, the Italian brand has perhaps the most loyal, certainly the most vocal fan base, known as the Paneristi. The watchmaker has such steadfast customers that it can tweak its products to appeal to the hard-core without worrying about trends. Standouts on this watch are the white dial - a first for a Radiomir 1940 - the 42mm steel cushion case and the in-house movement. Features include the three-day power reserve and 100 metres of water resistance.
Finally, we have a new edition of a classic from IWC, the Mark XVIII pilot's watch (right). The reason why watches such as this will continue to sell even during a downturn is that there's always a place for iconic design, heck Rolex has built an entire business on not veering too far away from a core collection of three or four watches. The Mark XVIII is timeless, it will never go out of fashion and you will always get admiring glances and questions. Sized at a classic 40mm the design is the unfussy flieger layout and the only complication is the date window at the three o'clock position. Inside is a Sellita movement, which keeps the price down to HK$33,200.