The dust has finally settled after the roaring success that was Watches & Wonders, yet the indisputable feverish energy it has created will no doubt reverberate throughout the year. There were many predictions and forecasts for the 2023 edition, but what took place exceeded all expectations, with shocking surprises aplenty (more on this later). The fair closed with record figures: 43,000 unique visitors, almost double last year’s numbers, from 125 nations across the globe. Those who made the Swiss sojourn participated in the unveiling of a myriad of exceptional novelties by almost 50 maisons and watch manufacturers over the course of a week.
Though last year’s hybrid format was maintained — 2,600 journalists followed the entire programme online — the press recorded an over 50% increase in attendance with the return of many Asian markets, including China and Japan. This year’s rendezvous also welcomed the public for the first time, albeit for only two days. The response was enormous though — all 12,000 tickets were sold out before the weekend started. And as the hub expanded well beyond the Palexpo this time around with Watches & Wonders’ first In the City experience, where special activities and installations were held across major watch boutiques in Geneva, culminating in a boisterous festival overlooking the iconic lake.
All of Richemont’s brands were in full attendance, of course, with Jaeger-LeCoultre, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, IWC Schaffhausen and Piaget, as well as LVMH’s Hublot and Tag Heuer and Kering’s Ulysse Nardin garnering noticeably high foot traffic. Eyes were also on independent brands like Rolex, Chanel, Tudor and Hermès, who had more than a few tricks up their sleeves. And though Armin Strom and H. Moser & Cie sat out the fair this year, there were 13 new faces, including Bell & Ross, Frederique Constant, Hautlence and Hysek.
This year’s layout bore a number of changes. Sundered into two halls, the convention centre aggregated independent companies on one end and groups on the other. Though comments have been made on how disparate it felt last year, maintaining the tradition of positioning the Carré des Horlogers, which hosts indies, in between the halls became somewhat of a balm. The same could not be said for this year, though; even the independent brands were seperated into two groups. While holdovers like Arnold & Son, Trilobe and Czapek remained in the Carré des Horlogers, newcomers, such as Alpina, Beauregard and U-Boat, were stationed at La Place.
Apart from that, the LAB was also moved to a more obscure and less accessible location. What’s interesting is that, according to statistics collected by the fair, 25% of the tickets sold to the public were purchased by people under 25, with an average ticket-holder age of 35. These visitors were particularly drawn to the LAB experience as it offered a glimpse of the innovative projects for the future of watchmaking. This suggests two things: the trade show is proving its appeal to the younger generation and they are interested in what lies ahead.
The fair has evolved quite a bit since its Baselworld days. While its attendees are still mainly retailers, media and the who’s who in watchmaking, a different breed of enthusiasts has now been thrown into the mix. With a triple-take watch on their wrist and millions of people in the palm of their hands, watch influencers wield social media like a superpower. Watches & Wonders revealed that the number of shares on social networks were staggering, with its #watchesandwonders hashtag attached to 1.8 million posts and an estimated reach of over 600 million. That’s more than half a billion people. Here is what they saw:
Top trends of the year
Let’s cut to the chase. Yes, it was not an April Fool’s joke. Rolex did release the Bubbles and Puzzles watch. In a move that no one saw coming, Rolex threw all seriousness out the window and said (or emoted) “let’s have some actual fun”. It created a frenzy, we kid you not. A cluster of bubbles adorn a sky-blue “Celebration” dial on the new Rolex Oyster Perpetual. Available in 31mm, 36mm and 41mm, the watch reunites the colours of the lacquered Oyster Perpetuals introduced in 2020 in one lighthearted collection. The new Oyster Perpetual Day-Date 36 boasted the same spirit. In place of the day of the week, the disc at 12 o’clock now displays seven inspirational words: “Happy”, “Eternity”, “Gratitude”, “Peace”, “Faith”, “Love” and “Hope”, while the date window at three o’clock reveals one of 31 emojis, including a heart, jack-o’-lantern, snowflakes and the Rolex coronet. The puzzles on the dial (take your pick between turquoise or orange) are champlevé enamelled and further enhanced with rainbow baguette-cut sapphire indices.
If Rolex’s goal was to generate buzz, it certainly succeeded, though people generally either fall into the “love it” or “hate it” category. But one thing to consider: There is nothing wrong with having a little bit of fun, is there? This playfulness was embraced by other brands too. The foremost priority on Oris’ list for its new ProPilot release with Kermit the Frog was to bring a smile to people’s faces and it most certainly did. Van Cleef & Arpels added a magical touch to the Lady Féerie Or Rose watch, which has retrograde minutes and jumping hours in addition to a self-winding movement. There is also the charming Chanel Mademoiselle J12 Cosmic, where a cartoon Gabrielle Chanel indicates the time with her arms.
Eye-catching colours are by far the easiest way to leave a memorable impression. We cannot get over the Tag Heuer Carrera Date in hot pink (surprisingly popular among men and perfect for the Barbie craze right now) as well as the Patek Philippe Calatrava in striking fuchsia. There’s a Happy Sport at Chopard that features a vibrant blue and purple chameleon dial with the most exquisite guilloché pattern. Montblanc’s 2858 Iced Sea Boutique Edition has a stunning green glacier dial that gives the impression of looking into the depths of glacial ice, which sometimes takes on an emerald hue because of iron oxide. A similar jewel-toned dial was spotted on the Piaget Polo Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin. We should also highlight the new chocolate shade on the Tudor Royal, in case it gets lost in the hype (rightly so!) of the new Black Bay 54.
It was clear that watchmakers had been toying around with new and different materials as well as exploring ways to utilise them creatively. The cushion-shaped case of the Hermès H08 is crafted from a block of braided glass fibre composite coated with aluminium and slate powder. Chopard brought out actress Julia Roberts to introduce Lucent Steel, an innovative steel alloy composed of 85% recycled materials, as demonstrated in the ultra-thin salmon Alpine Eagle 41 XPS. The Chanel J12 Cybernetic immediately comes to mind when talking about creative usage — the pixelated ceramic bezel on the side lends the timepiece strong graphic interest. Over at MB&F, the Legacy Machine 2 is presented in a palladium case, a notoriously difficult metal to work with and a lovely aquamarine dial.
But one material for which all the brands were on board with was titanium. Scratch-resistant, ultra-light and hypoallergenic, titanium was very much the new black. We see it in the Rolex Yatch-Master 42, as part of the glorious homecoming of the IWC Ingenieur, Hublot’s Classic Fusion Chronograph Orlinski watches, Zenith’s DEFY Revival Shadow, De Bethune’s oh-so-elegant DB Eight and Urwerk’s fantastical UR-102 Reloaded, an homage to its first-ever timepiece.
On the other hand, while we noticed a dip in technical innovation, there was definitely an uptick in its appreciation through openwork and skeletonised pieces. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Chronograph stole the show, offering two completely different looks between two dials with synchronised time. It is also powered by a brand new movement — the manually wound JLC 860 has a power reserve of 52 hours. The Cartier Santos-Dumont Skeleton Micro-Rotor adds a touch of whimsy with a plane-shaped rotor. The openworked movement in yellow gold and blue lacquer is stunning, but it is limited to only 150 pieces. One watch that elicited gasps all around was Vacheron Constantin’s Traditionnelle Tourbillon Retrograde Date Openface. Its dial is built on two levels and is part of the striking retrograde mechanism. We also cannot forget Ulysse Nardin’s Freak One, which flaunted its viscera without a dial, hands or crown.
Watches & Wonders 2023 concluded on a high note, with a celebratory mood heartened by reunions and stirring conversations. This year’s edition also welcomed a slew of celebrity ambassadors, including English former footballer David Beckham for Tudor, Swiss former professional tennis player Roger Federer for Rolex, Olympic champion Eileen Gu for IWC Schaffhausen, Chinese rapper Lay Zhang for Hublot, mountaineer Nimsdai Purja for Montblanc and Brazilian striker Ronaldinho for Rebellion.
Although crowd management fell short at times due to the high number of visitors, it is reassuring to know that the salon had served as a platform that federated multiple generations of watch lovers from around the world. For many of the brands, the end of the fair signals the beginning of what is still to come. We are more than excited for what lies ahead.
This article first appeared on Apr 24, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.