In today’s fast-paced digital age, there is a resurging appreciation for the timeless artistry of watchmaking. As the world becomes increasingly automated and disposable, individuals are rediscovering the allure of meticulously crafted timepieces. These intricate mechanical marvels are not just instruments of timekeeping; they are symbols of precision, patience, passion and artistry.
Therefore, it is necessary to recognise and celebrate excellence in horology to drive innovation and set industry standards, all while honouring craftsmanship and design. Enter the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG), a foundation created in 2001 that highlights and annually rewards the most remarkable contemporary creations while promoting watchmaking art worldwide.
Annually, the GPHG awards — often referred to as the watchmaking world’s equivalent of the Oscars — feature a series of exhibitions showcasing the nominated timepieces. These exhibitions are held at carefully chosen venues. Following the announcement of the winners, an exclusive display spotlighting the victorious watches takes place.
In collaboration with local partners, these shows attract an international audience of watch enthusiasts and connoisseurs while promoting watchmaking culture worldwide, offering talks, discussions and workshops as well as other public and private events.
The Academy, as the jurors have been known since 2020, has shortlisted 90 watches, out of which 84 will go on display in Macau (Sept 25 and 26); Hong Kong (Sept 28 to Oct 1); as part of the Timeless Watch Week in New York (Oct 18 to 22); with Watches of Switzerland in Geneva (Oct 25 to Nov 12) at the Musée Rath in collaboration with the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (MAH); and for the first time ever in Kuala Lumpur (Oct 4 to 8) in partnership with The Hour Glass. Shortlisted entries for the mechanical clock category, however, will not be included.
It is a rare opportunity to be able to peruse the crème de la crème of horological excellence gathered in a single location. The watches will span 14 categories encompassing Men’s; Ladies’; Men’s Complications; Ladies’ Complications; Iconic; Tourbillon; Calendar and Astronomy; Mechanical Exception; Chronograph; Sports; Jewellery; Artistic Crafts; Challenge or entry-level; and “Petite Aiguille” or mid-range priced. “Fundamentally, it’s a testament to the maturity of the market itself. Secondly, it’s a testament to the watch community that already exists and more importantly, we want to raise awareness and the culture of watchmaking in Malaysia,” says Michael Tay, The Hour Glass’ group managing director.
Although Singapore leads in the global rankings of the most sophisticated watch collectors in the world, Malaysians’ interest in the fine art of watchmaking is on the rise. “What really excites us is the interaction we have with our clients here. Their thought-provoking questions, boundless passion and profound knowledge drive them to delve deeper, going the extra mile to explore and understand every brand, product and watchmaker within the industry.
“This is why we felt this time around that it was crucial for us to make this very important contribution to the development of this community in Malaysia,” Tay explains.
He has served as a jury member for many years but will not participate this year due to scheduling conflicts. “I’m a jury not only because I’m involved in the industry. Besides the commercial basis, I am there because I’m a collector myself. Each jury brings a very different perspective and the debates are extremely vibrant and lovely.”
He adds that there’s a lot of sharing of knowledge within the deliberations on each watch. “It’s a completely democratic process. What I appreciate is the transparency and that all the watches are subject to this very rigorous process of debate and decision-making.”
The category that gets the most attention is men’s watch. “It’s the most hotly anticipated because this category usually has the simplest watch presented. It’s usually a time-only watch with hours, minutes and seconds. When you distil a watch down to its most simple baseline attributes, as often reflected in the men’s watch counter view, so how do you compete? How do you win in a category where it’s really the most basic timekeeping indications that you have? So, this category is always most anticipated.”
In recent times, Tay has noticed a growing diversity of nationalities participating in the competition, extending beyond Swiss brands. It has evolved into a global competition, featuring watchmakers and brands from various corners of the world. “In the previous year, we witnessed significant awards being secured by watchmakers from Japan, China and Austria.”
Another observation Tay shares is the participation and interest in artisanal watches. “Five years ago, there were just a handful of nerds who were interested in it. Now we’re seeing that it’s really entered the popular consciousness of many enthusiasts and collectors. Even in GPHG, you will find plenty of the shortlisted nominees hailing from the artisanal independent watchmaker genre.”
The Hour Glass is on a mission to advance watch culture through various initiatives aimed at promoting artisanal independent watchmaking. One of these introduced by The Hour Glass in 2020, is The Persistence of Memory: A Survey on artisanal watchmaking. It also carries 11 brands, including Roger W Smith, FP Journe, Urwerk, De Bethune and MB&F.
The judging process
“It’s a very important moment and recognition that Malaysia is an important market for the watch industry. We are also very happy to see a watch industry in the making in Malaysia, which won an award a few years ago,” says Raymond Loretan, president of the GPHG Foundation, referring to the country’s pride, Ming, which won the newcomers’ award in 2019.
Loretan has been president since 2019 and, for him, the biggest turning point of the GPHG is the creation of the Academy a year later, which is a change of paradigm in terms of selecting the winners.
“Before this, winners were selected only by a jury of 30 people designated by the organisation. Now we have about 850 members consisting of watchmakers, designers and artisans, watch-related industry experts, distributors and retailers, journalists and influencers, brand representatives and guests as well as young people under 25,” says the former Swiss ambassador to Singapore and Brunei, who served from 1997 to 2003. He hopes to have 1,000 Academy members by 2025.
In the GPHG competition, timepieces are first submitted for consideration by members, who participate in the initial voting round via a secure digital platform. In this round, each member selects and ranks six timepieces per category based on personal preference, assigning points from six to one. This process results in the selection of 90 nominated timepieces across 15 categories, which will proceed to the final competition and exhibitions.
In October, Academy members will cast their digital votes once more to contribute to the selection of the winners. Concurrently, a jury comprising 15 individual members chosen by lot by a notary and 15 selected by the president of the jury and the GPHG, will convene privately in Geneva to physically assess the competing timepieces. The collective results of electronic votes from the Academy and the jury will ultimately determine the list of award recipients, which will be unveiled at the 23rd GPHG Awards Ceremony in Geneva on Nov 9.
For the competition, Loretan stresses the importance of neutrality and impartiality. “We can say, objectively, there is no room for manipulation in the voting mechanism. We have a secure and notarised platform for the selection process. All under the watch of a public notary.
Then there is the universality of the competitors. “We are open to the world and not just promoting Swiss watches. If you look at this year’s statistics, 48% of the competing brands are Swiss while 52% are from the rest of the world. And this premise is something I want to build on for the future.”
The third principle is solidarity, as Loretan elaborates, signifying that GPHG extends an open invitation to all brands to participate. By doing so, they actively promote the watch industry as a unified entity.
Aside from the competition, there is also a strong emphasis on education. “We want to motivate people to rediscover all the skills, creativity and innovation needed to make a watch. We want to attract the younger generation to appreciate watchmaking.”
Within the Academy, GPHG has created a college for those aged between 16 and 25, so they can also participate in the selection process “especially in Geneva, where we have a long exhibition at two to three weeks with workshops and events to stimulate the young minds and encourage participation and the discovery of the art of watchmaking.”
Loretan says it also has its eyes set on sustainability in the way watches are made and promoted. “ESG principles are being implemented in almost every company out there; it’s the same for GPHG.”
In an era where time is often reduced to digital digits, the appreciation for watchmaking craftsmanship reminds us of the beauty of finely crafted components and intricate movements, preserving a tangible connection to the past while celebrating the artistry of the present.
The GPHG KL tour takes place from Oct 5-8 at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur’s Centre Court.
This article first appeared on Sept 25, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.