The problem with any ‘best of’ list is that it is typically subjective. What we’ve looked to do to avoid this is categorise watches that we believe are important, interesting or simply indicative of what’s happening in watchmaking and watch design at the moment. That still leaves plenty of room for subjectivity of course, and also for disagreement. Feel free to disagree. Or agree. Different tastes and points of view are the fuel of this fascinating industry.
Rolex and Omega have led the way on making base watch movements perform better. This year was TAG Heuer’s turn. While the Autavia relaunch did little to inspire aesthetically, the Isograph carbon hairspring in its upgraded, chronometer-certified Calibre 5 automatic is a big step forward for the brand, offering its customers improved stability and durability. Zenith’s Defy Inventor became the first watch to carry an industrialised version of its frenetic, 18hz single-piece escapement, the Zenith Oscillator, although it’s likely there’ll only be around 500 of them for now. And special mention for Bulgari’s 6.9mm Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT Automatic, which bagged the record for the world’s thinnest mechanical chronograph.
The simple act of adding a couple of millimetres to the case of what becomes the Yacht-Master 42 earned Rolex widespread praise. Despite the general reduction in case sizes since the financial crash 10 years ago, some watches are still best made big, particularly tool watches. A mention also for the mid-century chronographs dominating collections across the spectrum. Breitling’s Premier line grew a few more notches, as did Oris’s Divers Sixty-Five and Tudor’s Black Bay. Critics seemed pretty united in accepting the novelties into the standard.
Something for the ladies?
The shift towards complicated women’s watches seems to have stalled. Instead, brands have switched to producing elevated designs, such as Bulgari’s new Serpenti Seduttori, or scattering precious stones with ever more wanton abandon, as did Hublot, Rolex and Patek Philippe. But particular credit to Chopard, which launched a vast collection of stunning women’s watches covering rainbow sapphire settings, stone dials and floral themes, often powered by Chopard’s elegantly decorated micro-rotor movements.
All that said, it was hard to look past the trilogy of watches launched as the Legacy Machine FlyingT by MB&F for one of the best launches at the fair. Period. The brand’s first women’s watch was a revelation – a huge domed sapphire over a mechanism stacked in the dial centre like a talismanic pillar, with black lacquer and diamonds doing the rest. A hugely successful foray for the young independent.
One of the most noticeable trends across both men’s and women’s watches was the promotion of rainbow watches from collection outlier to central pillar. From Rolex’s Day-Date 36, which put 10 baguette-cut rainbow-coloured sapphire hour markers on a pavé-set diamond dial, to Casio’s G-Shock MT-G 20th anniversary piece with a rainbow finish on its case, the effect popped up all over the place. Hublot’s Big Bang Unico Rainbow went the whole hog with a rainbow dial, bezel and strap.
Closer to the mainstream, two-tone or bi-colour watches were everywhere this year – a trend we covered in detail here, so won’t go over the same ground again.
In a year of few new designs, Gucci’s Grip caught the eye. The Italianate company had a ‘greenhouse’ in Hall 1.0 and had given the whole thing over to the many iterations of this cushion-shaped piece, said to have been inspired by 1970s skate culture. Every model is 35mm in diameter (but feels bigger on the wrist), quartz, and shows the time via two discs visible through a pair of dial apertures.
The other surprise was at Patek Philippe. The Ref 5212-A is a rare Patek not just because it’s a steel complication, and not even because its weekly calendar complication is a Patek novelty. No, the raised eyebrows were reserved for the dial typeface. It was hand-drawn by a designer during the visualisation phase, and management liked it so much, they kept it. That sort of organic spontaneity is unlike Patek, but welcome nonetheless.
At the London Horology Forum last September, hosted by Dubai Watch Week and Christie’s, one of our panels gave ambassadorial brand partnerships a big thumbs-down, and we won’t be delving into the latest of those here. Genuine collaborations can still be hugely productive, though. Richard Orlinski’s Hublot Classic Fusion cases are colourful, disruptive and memorable for all the right reasons; Junghans’ Bauhaus celebrations were apt and sensitively handled (even securing permission for a watch with a case back opening into the mechanics – not strictly Bauhaus); and Urwerk’s collaborations with blade maker Emmanuel Esposito and engraver Johnny Dowell a.k.a ‘King Nerd’ were both a match made in watchmaking heaven.
Peak luxury smartwatch?
Smartwatches have hovered over watchmaking like an existential grey cloud since Apple launched its Watch four years ago. The immediate rush to produce luxury equivalents has now subsided into a trickle as brands recognise the threat is at the lower end of the market, and that the audience for pieces mixing short-term tech with long-term prices is small. The only significant smartwatch story at Baselworld 2019 was TAG Heuer’s assault on golf, the brand launching not just a golf version of its Connected, but accompanying proprietary software that’s also available on iOS and Android devices.
Rolex’s decision to make a yellow gold and steel version of the Sea-Dweller left plenty scratching their heads – although others thought it a masterstroke. Chanel’s redesigned J12 carried an interesting new movement made by Kenissi, but the watch itself, said to include 70 per cent changes, felt like a non-starter of a story. And a final word for Porsche Design, which said it had invented an industry first GMT movement that could be adjusted forwards and backwards with plus and minus pushers and that had a date that took into account time zone shifts back and forth over midnight. Oris and Patek Philippe did that in 1997, and Ulysse Nardin shortly after. Solid watch, though.