What are you wearing?” A journalist, buzzing with fascination and intrigue akin to a phytologist who just spotted a rare wildflower in the jungle, was eyeing a striking ticker peeking out from the sleeve of a fellow writer. In another setting, such candour in appraising one’s horological taste and literacy in the open would have been forward and rude. But at the fourth edition of LVMH Watch Week held in Sentosa’s Capella Singapore from Jan 10 to 12 — and other notable fairs in Switzerland where a different kind of “metalhead” jives to the alluring beat of hour and minute hands — it was simply a friendly way of saying hello.
This first major event on the horological calendar, which primed industry insiders, retailers and the intelligentsia for the upcoming Watches and Wonders Geneva in March, was an exclusive village unto itself with its own lingo and celebrities. The latter refers to the quartet of maisons that headlined the showcase, from the boundary-pushing Roman jeweller Bulgari and genre-defying Zenith to the agile risk-taker Tag Heuer and dynamic innovator Hublot. An economically charged Lion City roared in unison with the LVMH group to turn the cosmopolitan hub into one of the fastest-growing affluent markets in Asia.
Executives of the Paris-based conglomerate had ample reason to move the event, which made its 2020 debut in Dubai before adopting a phygital format for its 2021 and 2022 editions because of Covid-19, to Singapore. A luxuriant pool of discerning clientele as well as a heightened appreciation for sophisticated timepieces have made the republic a silver bullet to rejuvenate the Southeast Asian scene roiled by the pandemic. Moreover, with China finally reopening after a protracted lockdown and its citizens looking to spend some vacation dollars in this region, it was only logical for the LVMH group to mine the potential and opportunities of its No 1 export target.
Watchmakers are markedly sanguine about the future, even though a supply chain deficit outpaces a ferocious global demand fuelled by an investment-minded audience with stimulus cash and crypto wealth. “It creates desirability,” the LVMH group recently claimed, echoing the sentiments of Enzo Ferrari who abided by the philosophy of always producing one less than the market needs. As the red-hot secondary platform gradually cools and scores of newcomers discover luxury pieces through creative collaborations, such momentum should help brands tide over the economic turbulence ahead and jumpstart a period of skyrocketing growth.
It would be too cold, of course, to just talk financial numbers about a mechanism that twinkles in the palm, elicits feelings of desire or, in Bulgari’s case, sends hearts aflutter when it coils warmly around your wrist. A watch fair still promises a buffet of newfangled technologies, trends and styles, all of which we will spend the whole year digesting. But most hearteningly, it is a joy to see the horology world still perpetuating a timeless paradox: The art of timekeeping is antiquated yet always in fashion as watchmakers delve into their storied archives for renewed inspiration. These days, having brought the ungovernable storm of rushing upon ourselves, the wonder of human engineering seems to reinstate the illusion of control.
Windable timepieces, antithetical to the pixelated clocks that pulsate inexorably on our smartphones, still capture the imagination and offer a tiny reprieve from the incessancy of computation. Like a mechanical gem, whose accuracy is dependent on our capacity and diligence to set it in motion, the craft of watchmaking, too, will glide imperfectly but beautifully into the future. Here are some novelties to help you seize the hour.
The ebullient, 28-year-old CEO Frédéric Arnault rocked the hair of a piano maestro (he is actually one) at our first port of call. But what immediately struck a chord with a gaggle of journos was his opening salvo: “For our future launches, we will try to be more genderless by producing unisex pieces for both men and women. They can appeal to whoever wants to wear them.” Evidence of this was strewn across the presentation room, from the downsized Connected Calibre 42mm golfing smartwatch to the latest iteration of the brand’s first solar-powered Aquaracer watch, now with a titanium-forged bracelet for ergonomics and better resistance when you plumb the depths of the sea or scale a mountain in harsh conditions.
It may seem improbable for a maison sporting unbridled youthfulness and bravado to harbour a back catalogue this rich. Credit goes to Jack Heuer, who pledged to design an instrument so pure it would be unambiguous in showing the elapsed time that he created the Carrera in 1963. Born from seminal moments in history, either glorified on the racetrack by F1 driver James Hunt or glamourised by Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, the timepiece named after Mexico’s most dangerous road race gets a faithful reinterpretation for its 60th anniversary. The signature “panda dial” aside, period details such as the raised profile “glass box” in sapphire crystal, retro-styled pushers, beige lime and slimline tension ring rekindle a 1970s vibe.
If watchmaking is as much a dance as it is a struggle with physics, the Monza Flyback Chronometer with a 42mm case could very well be Tag Heuer’s best choreography. Clocking 47 years of legacy, the Monza powered by the in-house Calibre Heuer 02 Flyback features a trifecta of functions crucial to a racing driver: a chronograph, a tachymeter scale and a pulsometer that measures one’s heart rate per minute.
If the managing director of Bulgari’s watch division hands you a mystery box, the correct response is always to open it. A most suspenseful Antoine Pin, as if he had peeked at our wishlist, saw a smile unfurl as we giddily tried on the thin-as-a-dime 1.8mm Octo Finissimo Ultra encased within a contraption that automatically winds the watch and sets the desired time. It is impossible that this man isn’t already the most popular person at Christmas parties.
For those who have not experienced this engineering ingenuity in person, strapping on the world’s thinnest mechanical watch (though the record was quickly dethroned by the RMUP-01 Ferrari with a mind-boggling 1.75mm thickness) fully articulated to rest languidly on one’s wrist was a treat. Then came the feast. Starting the year strong, Bulgari doubled down on its forte — jewellery watches — by injecting a playful dolce vita spirit with sophisticated motifs, brilliant cuts and garlands of brightly coloured stones. The delicate petals of the Divas’ Dream now quiver, while a cascading of sapphires create a bewitching blue and pink gradient on the Divas’ Dream Mosaica.
Bulgari’s ophidian oeuvre slips into a new skin with the Serpenti Tubogas Infinity, a name suggesting limitless possibilities and mileage for the snakewatch that has vaulted into a metonym for no-holds-barred Italian mysticism. For the very first time, high-level gem-setting expertise and modular construction have enabled a line of diamonds to trail the length of the bracelet’s supple silhouette.
Pin promises this will not be the last metamorphosis of the legendary reptile as the house’s Piccolissimo calibre — the smallest round mechanical movement that debuted last year in the Serpenti Misteriosi high jewellery — will slither into our consciousness as early as September.
A watch that brandishes all the shades on the colour wheel is hardly accepted with alacrity. That is, until you meet Hublot’s fraternal twin Big Bangs: the Unico Integrated King Gold Rainbow and Integrated Time Only King Gold Rainbow are encrusted with buoyantly colourful gemstones that provide bling for days. The pair walks a tightrope between loud and laudable, but for those who can appreciate the intricate setting of 700-plus gems on the bracelet, a pot of gold awaits them at the end of the Rainbow.
Rebellion is a trait baked into Hublot’s DNA, which has extended to its 2023 highlight(er): the Big Bang Tourbillon Automatic Yellow Neon SAXEM (short for “Sapphire Aluminium oXide and rare Earth Mineral”). The man-made sapphire with peerless brilliance that rivals that of a diamond first appeared in the emerald green MP-11 and is now available in a fetching lemon drop hue. Thulium, holmium and chromium make up this ultra-resistant piece, which is malleable enough to be shaped into a 44mm arm candy with skeletonised calibre, a tourbillon that seemingly floats in mid-air and a weekend-proof 72-hour power reserve. The fluorescent neon yellow juxtaposes vividly against the bezel’s six H-shaped screws and crown, all in polished and micro-blasted titanium.
While advancing mechanical wizardry, Hublot is simultaneously racing against the clock to support an initiative close to its heart. It was in 2019 that the brand partnered with Save Our Rhino Africa India, or Sorai, to prevent the horned animals from being poached and becoming extinct. Special renditions of watches, whose sales would benefit the non-governmental organisation by adding more surveillance teams and state-of-the-art monitoring sensors, were released. This year is no exception: the 44mm Hublot Big Bang Unico Sorai is dressed in a colour reminiscent of a sunset on African plains to recall the heightened danger faced by rhinos when night falls. Available in a limited edition of 100 units, the timepiece in polished grey ceramic is powered by the MHUB1280 Unico 2 Manufacture self-winding movement with flyback chronograph.
A memory arrived unbidden when the new Defy Skyline Skeleton was paraded on a velvet tray: Haven’t we seen this symmetrical, four-pointed star display somewhere? This is, in fact, a tip of the hat to the Zenith “double Z” logo in the 1960s. Nostalgia sells, but nothing feels retrofitted as the signature faceted bezel has been reimagined, revealing an angular iteration of its former self with a skeleton dial, in either black or blue, and hour markers coated in Super-LumiNova. Borrowing cues from modern cityscapes where structures and lights are woven in a constantly moving interplay, the watch powered by the same El Primero 3620 is more than just an open-worked version of 2022’s Skyline. The placement of the 1/10th of a second sub-dial has moved to six o’clock and the date has vanished altogether. Despite all that, the dramatic and overtly architectural design is still astonishingly legible.
Zenith has shaped itself into an avatar of adventure, chiefly due to its lofty ambition of constantly reaching for the stars. Following the rugged spirit of its predecessor Defy Extreme Desert, the new Defy Extreme Glacier features pusher protestors and dodecagonal bezel crafted from chalcedony, a crystalline semi-translucent stone with a pale blue hue that evokes a barren, frozen landscape. Each stone is meticulously cut and polished by hand, making all 50 examples of this companion for the great outdoors truly unique.
CEO Julien Tornare does not subscribe to the belief that you need to be a big man to carry small watches. The pendulum is swinging further away from showboat pieces, swaying instead towards covetable sizes that will not awkwardly clank against boardroom tables or bar tops. The mid-size Defy Skyline 36mm, driven by the Elite 670 automatic manufacture movement, is a timely introduction, and you can pick from three dial options — pastel pink, green or a familiar metallic blue tone from the earlier 41mm model — with or without a diamond bezel. For added versatility, the quick-strap change mechanism on the caseback allows for effortless swapping between the steel bracelet and the supplied starry sky-patterned rubber strap with a folding clasp in a similar colour as the dial.
This article first appeared on Jan 30, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.