In mid-April 2021, much of the luxury watch industry participated in a novel event known as Watches & Wonders 2021 — an entirely digital trade show dedicated to brand presentations and new model debuts. A physical version of the event is due to take place later in 2021 in Shanghai, China, which, as of now, is the only planned in-person event for the Watches & Wonders show (which replaces the legacy SIHH exhibition name that much of the industry is already familiar with). Today, the aBlogtoWatch team recaps the overall themes and trends we saw from Watches & Wonders 2021, as well as the new models that we feel are the top 10 timepieces of the show.

Watches & Wonders 2021 was challenging for its exhibitors because, in addition to having to prepare new watches and news, they also had to adapt presentations for a digital format. This includes a range of Zoom-style presentations, discussions, and meetings. While such tools are effective at giving the watch industry a chance to present new watches during the pandemic when people cannot physically meet, the overwhelming sentiment from the luxury watch industry is that in-person meetings and events are crucial to the long-term success of their businesses. Why is this, exactly?

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It goes to the heart of why many people wear and enjoy watches, in the first place. Wearing watches is a social experience. We wear watches to express something about ourselves, and the ability to truly appreciate a timepiece is limited if you cannot see the physical products in person. This is doubly correct, not only in giving consumers an opportunity to evaluate new products but also in regard to why many consumers buy luxury watches: as an accessory when socializing in public. Thus, the limitations of the pandemic have illuminated some of the core elements of what allows a luxury watch industry to thrive.

That said, watch sales to hobbyists during the pandemic have thrived. These are consumers who purchase watches, in large part, for personal pleasure and enjoyment. Most of this behavior was online already, and so the pandemic amplified the experience of being a modern watch hobbyist in that members of this larger group a) learn about new watches online; b) research potential new acquisitions online; c) actually purchase watches online; d) socialize with other timepiece enthusiasts online; e) and, in many instances, resell no-longer-wanted watches online. Watch hobbyists have been extremely active during the pandemic, especially considering the fact that mainstream luxury buyers have not been very active, for the above-mentioned reasons. How has this “new reality” manifested itself in regard to the new products and directions we saw from luxury brands at Watches & Wonders 2021, and otherwise?

Luxury watch brands today, for the most part, attempt to carefully listen to the market when it comes to deciding on watch products to release. The current mentality is that novel designs and original thinking are too risky. It takes several years of marketing effort to promote new designs and saturate the market with information and validation sufficient to allow mostly conservative buyers to feel comfortable buying and wearing something new. The desire to receive quick market results (faster sales) and to limit the production of inventory that doesn’t sell as immediately has translated itself into a strange situation in which fresh faces and new ideas are particularly hard to come by.

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While Watches & Wonders 2021 certainly had its share of attractive, desirable, and interesting products, almost everything released had the look and feel of a product that came before it (either recently or in the distant past). This was to be expected given current market trends, but the new releases from Watches & Wonders 2021 felt so “safe” that a large quotient of the watch hobbyist community collectively lamented what they saw as a “lack of innovation” from brands this year.

The aBlogtoWatch team is a bit more forgiving, given that we understand much of the business context around which new watch releases are based. The vast majority of brands are nowhere near pre-pandemic sales figures and are also trying to work with substantially smaller budgets across all areas ranging from marketing to research and development. At the same time, watch brands (like movie studios) are holding back “big hits” for when they feel the public is most likely to act. If consumers are seen as still being cautious, a brand will not want to release an ambitious new product or idea to a public that simply isn’t ready for it yet.

Playing it safe is what much of the luxury watch industry does well, but for the last couple of decades, watch media professionals and collectors have been delighted with the swathe of fresh ideas from smaller, mostly independent brands that helped balance out the staunch conservatism displayed by most of the older brands — or those owned by risk-averse corporate entities. These are companies less interested in promoting new ideas and novel concepts, and much more interested in the bottom line and business stability. Accordingly, the pandemic has seen some of the independent brands with futuristic ideas falter, unable to compete in today’s less open-minded consumer environment. Thus, old-style conservative watches are here to stay for the time being, and areas of “innovation” mostly take the form of new colors, materials, and messages tangential to the products themselves, such as being tied to political messages like sustainability and diversity. All of these decisions are related to fragile businesses that are doing their best to wait out the pandemic and experience a return to normalcy (which, in large part, simply means socializing and global travel).

Many of the new watches released at Watches & Wonders are either upgrades of previously successful watches or line extensions designed to look at though they were part of the collection all along. At many brands, it can actually take expert eyes to notice which watches are new and which have already been part of the collection for a while. This is what brands have decided is a good working model during the pandemic, and it does have a logic behind it for brands who are mostly interested in surviving versus thriving.

The luxury watch industry is never very far from the collective social sentiment in the world, and so these trends and practices are being experienced in many industries right now. Those who lament the lack of innovation are mostly retailers and media professionals who need novelty to create new conversations. Market data does seem to suggest that consumers are still happy lapping up retro-redo models or incremental upgrades over previous years’ models. As long as that remains the fact, expect iteration versus innovation, and extension versus evolution to lead the decision-making process at many of the brands that make our favorite timepieces.

Now let’s examine the aBlogtoWatch team’s top picks for new products presented at Watches & Wonders 2021:

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar

The Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar is the first time we see the complication in a Lange 1 without any major additional complications like a tourbillon. This, in and of itself, likely wouldn’t reserve a spot in my top picks from Watches & Wonders 2021, but there is something so effortlessly graceful about the Lange 1 QP that it makes other perpetual calendars look just so…clumsy. Rote allegiance to the artless concept that “symmetry=good” turns to dust when one considers the Lange 1, and this Perpetual Calendar goes further by communicating so much information so easily, beautifully, and asymmetrically.

There’s not much I would change other than maybe shaving a millimeter off the 41.9mm-wide case. The rose gold/gray dial model ($104,500) is classically beautiful Lange, but the 150-piece limited-edition variant in white gold with pink-gold dial ($116,000) is a showstopper. I did get a bit of sticker shock at seeing six-figure price tags (the Vacheron Overseas QP in full white-gold bracelet is $97,000), but I wouldn’t call it egregious. — Bilal

hermes h08

Hermès H08

The new Hermès H08 is a great-looking everyday watch that actually follows through on the “versatility” promise so many make. It has a lightweight, highly scratchproof titanium or Graphene case with 100M of water resistance, and, while it’s a little more casually designed than previous Hermès watches like the Carre H, it is distinctly Hermès. Little details like the numerals and orange-tipped seconds hand give the cushion-shaped case a lot of personality without being too in-your-face or flamboyant. 

Does the Hermès H08 have the potential to be the other great square watch from a brand that transcends fashion (or jewelry) roots? I think the pieces are there, though timelessness takes, well, time. Until then I would give the H08 an honest endorsement and say that it’s absolutely worth taking a look at in the metal. A do-anything watch starting at $5,500, the Hermès H08 earns a spot on this list. —Bilal

Hublot Big Bang Sang Bleu II Ceramic Chronograph

Kicking things off with an appallingly self-centred note: I hope to have a full review coming on the Sang Bleu II Ceramic simply because I want to have one to wear – that’s how much I like this thing. Yes, yes… “Where are the hands?” and all that fun stuff I hear echo in my head, and I’d say those are valid criticisms… On a Rolex Day-Date 40 that, idiotically, has shiny hands over a shiny dial. But here, they are words shouted into the wind. This thing, in my mind, is just a block of scratchproof awesomeness – and I wish all other Watches & Wonders 2021 novelties evoked half this much awe from me. Maybe I’m wired up all wrong. Maybe I’m just tired from dull exercises in one-upmanship, which most watches are these days. And so, I celebrate the existence of the Hublot Big Bang Sang Bleu II Ceramic Chronograph – and anyone brave enough to buy one (at $27,300) and wear one as their daily: kudos to you. — David


The 2021 Rolex Explorer II With A Black Dial

“The what?” – I hear you asking. Although it was the white-dial version of the 2021 Rolex Explorer II that enjoyed most of the limelight in Rolex’s presentations, the black dial Rolex Explorer II is my choice because with the previous version’s rather odd “phantom hands” (that had black painted bases) now gone and the case and bracelet proportions slightly changed, it looks both more purposeful and more classically beautiful a watch now. I love white-dial watches for their crisp look but with the fully exposed (should I say, regular) 18k white-gold hands, the wider bracelet, and narrower lugs, the Explorer II in black looks like one heck of an all-rounder watch to me. I would have liked to see a Cerachrom bezel just for versatility’s sake, but the unofficial mock-ups I have seen of it only looked goofy, as opposed to enticing. Price for the reference 226570 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II watch is $8,550 USD. — David
With the sheer volume of timepieces we here at aBlogtoWatch interact with day in and day out, it can be a struggle at times not to become jaded about new releases. The ultra-complicated limited edition Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185, however, could be prescribed as a cure for horological ennui. This is the first timepiece in a long time that has brought me back to those feelings of awe and spectacle I had in my first encounters with high-end watchmaking, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way. Everything about this watch is sheer drama, from its 11 complications spread across an industry-first four dials, to the two new patented complications for tracking the moon’s orbital distance from the Earth and for predicting solar and lunar eclipses, to the artistry of the flying tourbillon, minute repeater, and hand-applied lacquering. Even the otherworldly price tag is dramatic. What really sets this above its competitors, however, is its size. Most high complication watches in this segment are hulking oversized architectural wonders, more suitable as an art installation with a strap than a genuinely wearable timepiece. At 51.2mm by 31mm wide and 15.15mm thick, the Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 avoids this problem entirely. It may be on the larger side for a Reverso, but the watch maintains the series’ iconic lines admirably and could pass undetected from across a room. In an ultra-high-end market dominated by ostentatious show pieces, there’s something comparatively stealthy and refined about this Reverso that I can’t help but love. Only 10 examples of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 will ever be made, with each one carrying an eye-watering price tag of €1.35 million, but one can only hope this is a beacon for the future of haute horlogerie– Sean
While it is less conservative than big brother Rolex, Tudor has still earned a reputation in recent years for being risk-averse when it comes to new watch releases. The brand’s smash hit Black Bay Fifty-Eight line of vintage-styled dive watches has been a perfect example of this strategy, with the brand releasing only a black dial and blue dial variant since 2018. Those two models have carried the line to the forefront of the current diver trend, however, and now that Tudor has built one of the hottest properties in watchmaking it should be time to explore the concept in new directions. Tudor delivered on that with the Black Bay Fifty-Eight 925, bringing a display caseback, a tropical-inflected taupe dial, and a genuinely offbeat tarnish-resistant 925 silver case to the mix. Silver is a true rarity in the sports watch market, and while it does bring a different glow than stainless steel this is a low-key and relatively affordable alternative to simply offering the watch in gold. For those that love the look of the Black Bay Fifty-Eight but want something off the beaten path, this is the watch for you, and the simple fact that Tudor is willing to try something different with its core models is encouraging. The Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight 925 is priced at $4,300. – Sean
Watches & Wonders 2021 was a great time to be a dive watch fan, and perhaps the sleeper hit of the entire show was the TAG Heuer Aquaracer Professional 300. The Aquaracer line has always flown a bit under the radar, and with a fresh redesign, the series seems poised for a wider breakout in 2021. While the new look strips away some of the yachting-inspired quirks that set previous Aquaracers apart from the competition, the angular design of the Aquaracer Professional 300 still offers some unique cues in a more crowd-pleasing package. The overall new design is almost entirely hard angles as opposed to rounded forms, which leads to an early-2000’s computer graphic feel to the watch that sets it apart from a sea of ’70s lookalikes. It’s solidly capable with 300-meter water resistance, and at a starting MSRP of $2,800 it’s priced aggressively against some of its chief rivals. – Sean

Big Pilot’s Watch Shock Absorber XPL (ref. IW357201)

Year after year, we can always count on SIHH (now Watches & Wonders) to give us an arm’s race of the extravagant – watches designed for the most extreme ends of opulence, that exist solely to drive headlines. As fun as those sorts of novelties are to cover and explore, there’s a part of me that craves opulence in the name of innovation that can one day serve “the rest of us,” so to speak. This year, Panerai’s über-expensive, but open-sourced recycled Submersible, while noble, came close – hinting at a potentially more sustainable future for Panerai and its own competition. But at the end of the day – it was still just a Submersible, which is why my favorite watch of the show goes to IWC’s super-innovative Big Pilot’s XPL concept watch, a ground-up designed skunkworks project from Schaffhausen’s own newly developed experimental division, whose ultimate aim was to produce the most shock-resistant pilot’s watch possible. How’d they make it, and did they succeed? Well, you’ll want to read the full story where I try to drive home just how incredible the real-world application of 30,000 G-resistance for a mechanical watch really is, but the real punchline here is that if this is our first hint of a more capable, more innovative, and more shock-resistant modern IWC Big Pilot, then the future is looking very bright indeed. — Zach

Chopard L.U.C. Time Traveler Ceramised Titanium

I’m cheating a bit for my second pick, as not only is it not particularly innovative or even all that “new,” we also haven’t formally covered it yet (my colleague Bilal has one in for review, so expect a story shortly), but the new Chopard L.U.C. Time Traveler in the super-light and super-hard ceramised titanium still left me with the impression as one of the show’s few watches that I’d love to potentially own, should we be returning to more travel this year. 2021 is the 25th anniversary of the premium L.U.C. collection, and while the brand has already made a splash with its hero pieces for the commemoration (like this awesome new jumping hour reference), it has introduced special edition L.U.C. references across the board – and this new worldtimer slipped relatively low on the radar, seeing as it’s essentially a re-skinned version of an existing watch. But boy, is it ever awesome in this stealthy, fully monochrome approach – which plays host to a myriad of interesting textures and finishes throughout the dial. Herein you’ll also see some really intelligent variances in grey creating surprising depth and contrast, which is really quite an interesting feat to see for even the most well-meaning of all-black watches. Given its more luxe ceramised titanium case, this reference is priced at 15,500 CHF, a significant premium over its stainless steel variant. — Zach

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