The last two years have been difficult for the high watchmaking industry. Not so much in terms of sales — as with luxury cars, demand has never been higher — but engagement and interaction with customers and retailers. As the pandemic raged, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) pivoted to a digital format in 2020, with participating brands addressing press and public from studios across Europe.
As the other major Swiss watch event, Baselworld, last opened its doors in 2019, the Geneva-based SIHH — now called Watches & Wonders (W&W), as a new format called for a new name — is a key event for the industry.
In 2021, W&W was still primarily digital as the Delta variant made it unsafe to travel and several countries had tightened border control measures. Last November, however, the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) governing body decided that 2022 would mark a turning point. The Palexpo Convention Centre in Geneva would welcome visitors once more and the fair would adopt a hybridised physical and digital format to support those who are able to attend as well as those for whom international travel remains a challenge.
A month before the 2022 edition of W&W, scheduled for March 30 to April 4, it is not an understatement to say that the anticipation has hit fever pitch. “It is quite possibly the most important watch fair of all time,” comments Singapore-based publisher and watch retailer Wei Koh. “In one space, you’re going to find Richemont brands, big names like Rolex and Patek, those from the LVMH Group as well as independent watchmakers. For collectors and watch journalists, this is really a must-attend fair since it is the first one since the pandemic began.”
This is what we know so far. A total of 38 maisons have signed on to be part of W&W this year. The tradition of giving a space to independent labels continues with the Carres des Horlogers, which features 11 brands. A substantial amount of content at W&W will be accessible to the public, as keynote speeches and major announcements from brand leaders and ambassadors will be broadcast live on watchesandwonders.com and on social media.
The heritage maisons in the main hall of the Palexpo include the who’s who of watchmaking. Among them SIHH stalwarts (and Richemont’s biggest brands) like Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Montblanc; LVMH Watch Group’s Bvlgari, Hublot and TAG Heuer; Kering’s Ulysse Nardin and independent maisons such as Rolex, Tudor, Grand Seiko, Chanel and Hermès. Brands from the Swatch Group are notably missing, as the group has opted to host its own fair, Time to Move, since 2019.
Wei believes that while some watchmakers have opted out of watch fairs altogether, by and large, these events are important and necessary to advance the agenda of Swiss watchmaking, and ensure that the industry remains viable, active and innovative.
And if one must state a preference for any one watch fair, he rates the Dubai Watch Week as the gold standard, citing its incorporation of panel discussions and networking events as pivotal to driving the industry’s growth and development. In fact, it was during Dubai Watch Week that Bulgari’s watch designer Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani met independent watchmaker and MB&F founder Maximilian Büsser, leading to their collaboration on the brains-meets-beauty Legacy Machine Flying T Allegra.
Might such genius be born at the upcoming W&W? One can only hope and wait. In terms of format, the FHH has created a complex system for attendees to plan both in-situ and online appointments to meet with the brands and view the watches for themselves. While doing this digitally is not ideal, it makes the best of the current situation.
“Photography has evolved quite a bit and images are now better and more accurately represent the actual dimensions of a watch. Nothing will replace the experience of seeing a watch in the flesh and getting a feel of it on your wrist, but doing it virtually is better than not at all. Besides, we have amazing technology, so widely available now, that connects people like never before, and we should be using it,” Wei says.
Outside of scheduled appointments, there will be initiatives that will connect a global audience to the happenings in Geneva. For example, The Morning Show will be broadcast live every day at 8.30, providing the day’s highlights and conversations between brand managers and experts to follow the news and decipher new trends. At 6.30pm — 1.30am for those in the GMT+8 timezone — The Late Show will provide a summary of the day’s events, including exceptional objects selected from the exhibiting maisons. Meanwhile, members of the global press fraternity will have access to three new presentation formats that will enable them to stay abreast of the news, both online and at the salon.
The brands themselves remain tight-lipped on what will be launched at the fair; at press time, only Piaget had provided a sneak peek of what it will be showcasing at W&W — the Polo Skeleton and Limelight Gala Aventurine. “Everyone is banking on the anticipation,” Wei says. “Some brands announce groundbreaking watches at the fairs and I think that will be happening this year, alongside the unearthing of a lot of closely guarded projects that have been in the works for a while.”
W&W promises to be a physical event that observes health restrictions, supported by digital solutions — we must say this is a thoughtful approach that defines the FHH’s visionary and forward-thinking position. “The FHH is really doing everything it can to ensure that W&W isn’t just an inward-looking, self-serving platform,” Wei agrees. “It is looking to be innovative and far-reaching, and deserves a lot of credit for that. If you only make it for one watch fair in your entire lifetime, this year’s W&W should be it.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we will see you at the fair.
This article first appeared on Feb 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.