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?
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.
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:
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
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