The steel-grey Palexpo convention center leans over the freeway leading to Geneva airport. It's an imposing, rectilinear building without an obvious entrance but, for the past week at least, its interior was nothing short of palatial.
I was there for the 25th annual Salon International de Haute Horlogerie
(SIHH) -- arguably the world's most exclusive luxury watch fair.
Part exhibition, part theater, part very serious business, 16 brands display their latest wares at the invite-only event -- from widely recognized names like Montblanc
, to the more rarefied grandes dames
of fine watchmaking like Audemars Piguet
All but three are owned by Richemont which, with $13 billion revenue last year
, trails only LVMH for the title of world's largest luxury goods conglomerate.
At the gates I'm welcomed by a group of finely dressed women whose hair has been configured into neat, flat discs, expressive of a dial.
A corridor opens out into a vaulted hall where each brand has staged an elaborate showroom, all attempting to convey a distinct sense of their company values or the spirit of their new collection.
Van Cleef and Arpels brought a sense of French Art-Deco chic with a splash of fantasy at this year's SIHH Credit: Courtesy point-of-views.ch
Stepping into maison Van Cleef and Arpels
-- the 118-year-old French outfit known as much for its jewelery and perfume as its watches -- is to emerge into a fantasy Art Deco conservatory looking out onto a felt and velvet rose garden.
Meanwhile, just a few rows down, Roger Dubuis
has fashioned a sort of sci-fi infused arachnid's lair, with black web-like arches, ominous red under-lighting and the odd crash of thunder over-head.
As contrasting as each showroom is from the next, all exhibit their watches behind shatter-proof glass display cases, mounted like priceless artifacts in a museum.
Being here is a reminder that fine watchmaking is one of the few major industries where the dominating players have, with only a few exceptions, been in existence for more than a hundred years. Swiss haute horologist Vacheron Constantin
, for instance, was busy celebrating its 260th year of business.
This heritage and the creation stories that surround it play an important role in both the design philosophy and marketing of the new ranges.
Attendees at SIHH were greeted by neatly dressed hostesses, whose hair had even been fashioned to the shape of a watch. Credit: courtesy point-of-views.ch
"It's not just important; it's fundamental. Our heritage is the most significant element of our brand, and without it we wouldn't exist anymore," says Angelo Bonati, CEO of Panerai
, which was established in Florence in 1860 and built a name for itself manufacturing dive-proof watches for the Italian Royal Navy during the Second World War. It's now positioned at the upper end of the market, with most of their lines having strictly limited runs.
But at the same time as reveling in their past, all the brands are locked in a technological arms race that inevitably propels them into the future.
From high-tech new carbon-based materials to smart straps to a record-breaking ultra-thin chronograph, this year's SIHH wasn't short on innovation.
The stars of the show were those that successfully managed to integrate these astonishing feats of craftsmanship into timepieces that still manage to reach back to the past.
Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech
This year Panerai continued to draw heavily on its sea-faring roots with the Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech, based on a 60-year-old model originally created for Italian commandos.
Carbotech is a new material made by compressing sheets of carbon fiber with a polymer to form an ultra-strong material that, according to the company, is 10 times lighter than steel, as well as being anticorrosive and hypoallergenic.
But it's carbotech's natural variation in appearance that gives it a distinctive visual edge: "The most import thing about the configuration of the material is that it allows us to present watches that are each different from the other, because the stripes represented on the watch are never the same," explains Bonati.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Acoustic Research Concept
One of the most technically flamboyant watches on display came from Swiss-based Audemars Piguet.
In the making for over eight years, the company drafted in an expert on stringed instruments and an academic from the Geneva conservatory who specializes in the psychology of perceived sound to create the Royal Oak Acoustic Research Concept . The achievement here is a timepiece that squeezes the pleasing mechanical chimes reminiscent of a Grandfather Clock into the miniature real-estate of a wristwatch.
"If they were alive and 25 years old today, they would be on the quest for the next Holy Grail," says effusive CEO François-Henry Bennahmias of the two men who founded the company 139 years ago. "No matter how great their latest watch would be, the day after they would already be on the next one. It has always been part of who we are."
Piaget Altiplano Chronograph
Piaget dominates the market of ultra-thin watches. At last year's SIHH they unveiled the world's thinnest mechanical watch, and this year they set the record for the thinnest chronograph.
"The watch itself is 8.24mm, the movement is 4.65mm, and has 240 components which, by the way, are thinner than hair," beams Piaget's charismatic CEO Philippe Leopold-Metzger.
Aside from this fairly astonishing technical achievement, there's a refreshing simplicity about the watch's design. "When you look at a watch you can't see all its internal complications; you just see something beautiful," adds Leopold-Metzger.
IWC Portugieser Annual Calendar
The newly developed Portugieser Annual Calendar closes the gap between the perpetual calendar and the simple date display. Credit: Courtesy IWC
Unlike all the other Swiss watchmakers at SIHH who are based in the Francophone west, IWC has its HQ in the north-eastern city of Schaffhausen, close to the German border.
"This means there is a very Germanic approach to design; a very rational, very pure and more technical aesthetic," explains the company's director of design, Christian Knoop.
With the Portugieser Annual Calendar, IWC marks the 75th anniversary of its most popular Portuguese range. As its name suggests, the watch carries the IWC's first annual calendar -- displaying the month, date and day in three separate, semi-circular apertures around the 12 o'clock mark. The shade of deep royal blue on the dial I happen to think is particularly fetching.
Rotonde de Cartier Grand Complication Calibre 9406MC
Once described by the British King Edward VII as "the jeweler of kings and the king of jewelers," Cartier is today still most popularly known for its decorative prowess. But since it recently started producing its own in-house mechanical movements, the quintessentially French brand has made a mark in the exacting world of haute horology.
The Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication is Cartier's most complicated watch to date. It's made up of 578 components and takes 15 weeks to create. It includes a perpetual calendar, a minute repeater and a flying tourbillon, and only needs to be adjusted once every 100 years.
But as technical as it is, Cartier CEO Stanislas de Quercize is keen point out that this is not a case of innovation for its own sake, stressing that "it has to be as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside...but mechanical movement is always at the service of design."