Of transgender sizes, considered transparency and a few plausible concepts – our thoughts on the state of the industry post Watches & Wonders 2021

The one (and only!?) big watch industry show – Watches & Wonders 2021 – has just concluded. ‘the eclecticum’ considered what we saw, and there’s a few noteworthy developments to share – on a meta level

With the COVID pandemic dramatically changing our daily lives, also the watchmaking industry had to adapt, and one of the first victim of the pandemic were the big annual watch fairs, BaselWorld (now entirely abandoned) and the former Salon International d’Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), recently renamed into Watches & Wonders.

Watches & Wonders 2021 - Intro (Panel discussion during Watches & Wonders 2021)

2021 saw a digital edition of the latter ‘in’ Geneva, and for the eclecticum team it was a decidedly unusual situation to be presented with novelties without being able to touch, to feel and to wear them. Brands approached the challenges and opportunities a purely digital format offer in different way and with different ‘success’ – but it happened!

In the following, we’d like to discuss the more general trends we saw and a few observations we made. The watches themselves will come at a later point in time, when we had the opportunity to make our own impression – in the metal.

(1) Design trends:

Watches & Wonders 2021 - Design Trends Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 Zenith Defy Extreme Patek Philippe Aquanaut Green 5711

Colour of the season: Green!

Let’s go with the obvious first: green dials – a number of brands, including IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget or Patek Philippe (sic!) had this colour in their offerings. Surely, the watches are attractive, but we cannot help but conclude that is just another fad after the industry has milked blue? After all, the colour goes well with bronze cases, in case (pun intended!) someone needs an idea… Seriously, a new colour is not an innovation, and we’re hard pressed to call it a novelty even – it’s a new variant and noting more.

  • From a customer point of view: a wider choice to choose from, to speak (or not to speak) to your own preferences.

Considered Openness: Semi-transparent dials

Open worked and skeletonised dials are around since decades and have been featured intensively as of recent. This year we found that partial transparency of a dial saw a number of implementations, e.g., Baume et Mercier or Zenith.

For brands a semi-transparent dial offers an alternative design approach to skeletonization, without the immediate need to particularly (hand-) finish parts beneath. Add to this that such dials allows to diversify offerings and to distinguish from competition, and you find its quite attractive from a production/costs/marketing point of view.

But a partial transparency can also be used in a clever way, as Zenith’s new Defy Extreme shows: the subdials are partly opaque, to increase their readability.

  • From a customer point of view: a wider choice to choose from, but in most cases, there is no practical benefit except of beauty – which is as always is in the eye of its beholder

Size diversification – size matters (?)

One trend we observed with gusto and joy was a real change of paradigm: from gender differentiation (e.g., ‘real’ watches for men and jewellery pieces for women) s towards size differentiation – examples were IWC (Pilot’s Chronograph in 43 and 41mm, Big Pilot in 46 and 43mm), NOMOS (Club Campus in 36 and 38mm), Rolex (Explorer in 36mm), Tudor (Black Bay in 32, 36 and 41mm), or finally Vacheron Constantin (Historiques American 1921 in 36.5 and 40mm).

The consequence here cannot be more obvious: they are true unisex – pick what suits you, not what’s meant for you! This makes them perfect ‘His & Hers’, and of course also caters more easily to smaller wrists, e.g., Asian ones

A fantastic edge case came from JLC: the Reverso Hybris Mechanica Calibre 185 is a technical marvel with 4 dials, but comes in a comparatively small case of 51.2 x 31 mm at a thickness of only 15.15 mm – JLC’s CEO Catherine Rénier made a few (men & women) speechless when she shows on camera how nicely it sat on her wrist!

  • From a customer point of view: it´s overdue that we, the customers, are allowed to decide what we really like. No one likes to be pigeonholed, ‘wrongly’ perhaps even, because of someone else’s paradigms. Still today most collections/selections please certain limited stereotypes only. Different people have different contexts and therefore they should be allowed to ‘be eclectic’. It´s an encouraging start for sure and we will keep an eye on how this translates into advertisements, showcases at the retailer and so on.

(2) Sustainability

Watches & Wonders 2021 - Sustainability transparency certification recycling fairmined gold responsible jewellery zenith icons certified preowned

The topic of sustainability has been discussed a thousand time if not more. It’s a constantly evolving topic of great importance, and therefore we were not surprised to note a few aspects that stood out:

Traceability of Production

Transparency in parts of the production chains has been mentioned a few times, from leathers over precious metals to gemstones. The justification is obvious, and it is something also the smart device or the (e-) car industry has to face – keywords: blood diamonds, ethical mining or animal welfare.

The question for us always is whether any initiatives taken (e.g. fairmined gold, responsible jewellery, …) are effective and targeted efforts or whether they are instigated to please (potential) customers or to get the attention of more prospects. Clearly, it is supposed that particularly younger clients care deeply about those topics.

On the flip side, compromises need to be made to balance comprehensiveness, trustworthiness, and business secrets (in a very secretive industry, that is!). Also, there is a lack of common standards, thus firms may pick and choose whatever suits them to disclose whatever they decide they want to.

  • From a customer point of view: it´s a nice one and for some maybe even a great development. Still, right now it´s not clear if those activities are like a “fig leaf” to hide something or if it´s a serious start to something better – better for everyone. Only time will tell…

Giving a new lease of life to second-hand watches

One big announcement from Zenith was their ‘Icons’ initiative to source, refurbish and sell (in their boutiques and with full warranty) selected vintage pieces from the past. Zenith is not the only and by far not the first watch brand to take action on the vintage collector’s market.

On the first view this is a positive thing: the chances are great you get an authentic watch, complete and restored using only original factory parts. Brand send out a message: we care about our history; we preserve your investments, and we respect our tradition.

However, there are a few caveats: first, there are practical limitations: at times uncountable variants (see also below!), in certain cases a lack of spare parts and/or of documentation or compromised repairability (integrated metal bracelets, anyone?). Brands address a lot those issues by controlling the process, e.g., in that they decide which watches are ‘collectible’ and thus are considered in their respective programmes.

On the flip side, especially for independent expert watch restorers, there is and remains the issue of availability of spare parts, either due to ‘political’ (making them available) or ‘technical’ (exotic material/technology parts?) constraints.

Another fascinating discussion ensued around blockchain technology and how it can  foster trust and ensure authenticity through offering unadulterated accounts of a watch’s history.

  • From a customer point of view: it sounds great, on the first view. Those activities are easy to sell on a marketing level, but they are followed by rising expectations on the customer side. To us it seems almost impossible to deliver for most brands if we think about their whole range of production and their history. It may work for a couple of watches – flagship pieces and that kind – but even this is challenging. Even service for regular production pieces leads quite often to frustration – for several reasons. Spare parts availability, time to customer and we didn´t even mention the costs …

Bottom line: Sustainability – for real or just a cover-up?

With all this considered, and throwing in also lots of recycled materials, ethically sourced metals, animal material free straps or environmental initiatives (with Panerai presenting their Submersible eLAB-ID as a pacemaker, with an open-source component to drive more brands into this) the question for the real impact still remains: is ‘sustainability’ really at the core of the brand or is it a mere cover up

“Corporate Sustainability is like teenage sex.

Everybody talks about it.

Nobody does it very much.

And when they do they don’t do it very well.”

(Joel Makower)

Let’s take a step back and adopt a view from the top: Sustainability has so many aspects – and more environmental friendly processes and materials are offset by  short term ‘trendy’ product cycles e.g., fashionable colours, ad hoc collaborations, or numerous limited editions.

This has profound implications to the life cycle of an individual product: at the extremes, there are fashion pieces and there are icons – but the middle ground? A quality mechanical watch bears the proverbial promise of ‘inheritance quality’, yet short term design trends, opportunistic product developments or a short-term view on the ‘bottom line’ (or: shareholder value) and the like will (intellectually) diminish the value of each piece and limit its lifetime prematurely – another aspect of planned obsolescence? What should consumers conclude if brands themselves consider their product disposable? Anyone remember a few years ago when several brands recalled and destroyed numerous of perfectly functional high-end watches just because they have outlived their (fashion) life?

  • From a customer point of view: it´s a nice one and for some maybe even a great development. Still, right now it´s not clear if those activities are like a “fig leaf” to hide something or if it´s a serious start to something better – better for everyone. Only time will tell, and pretty sure supportive customers are needed – at least in the long run.

(3) Credible concepts

Watches & Wonders 2021 - Credible Concepts Ferdinand Berthoud Cartier Tank Mus Rolex Explorer Bicolur A. Langer & Söhne Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar Patek Philippe Ref. 5236P InLine

We always dig for concepts, at any level of the market, that really offer something surprisingly well implemented, be it design, technology or execution (of course, in an ideal world of this at the same time). A few of those were:

  1. Cartier Tank Must – real sustainability through an accomplished integration of solar technology (SolarBeat) into a classical dress watch – shows what a brand like Cartier can do (if they want) – smart move, keep them coming!
  2. Ferdinand Berthoud – a very consistent presentation so far, and shifting limitation from watches to movements is just a logical initiative given the ambition and structure of the brand – refreshing and promising comes to our mind
  3. Patek Philippe – even if they participated only at the periphery, they stole the show with aplomb – dropping their big news with nonchalance and a great sense for drama – love it or hate it, there is a reason why PP is PP
  4. A. Lange & Söhne – considered collection updates that demonstrate refinement ‘in the extra mile’ – this is what counts for dedicated ALS collectors, and we’re glad they continue with what sometimes doesn’t make the headlines
  5. Rolex – considered collection updates that demonstrate how subtle refinements can really change the way watches are worn (see above) – Rolex in a nutshell, and the rare ‘bomb’ (here: bicolour Explorer) drops with ease!


With all that being said, our main question remains: Where is the industry’s vision of for their future?

We’ve seen some promising initiatives – nothing more, nothing less! But what about the ‘big picture’, For this, taking a step back and think intensively is needed – but is there a chance for that? Not until shareholder pressure is lifted… To us it feels (too often) that a major goal is to survive the next quarter since the time reporting and controllers took over the creative departments – for good or bad. Maybe it´s just a lack of communication and there is more to tell behind – hopefully. Entrepreneurs in the industry, please be more active and take the lead.

Watches & Wonders 2021 - Conclusio

Back from meta-level: we saw some incredible time pieces and given the context we could easily imagine falling for those. Still, we don´t think it´s enough to keep the industry running (with great success) in the long run – from what we saw.

There’s a lot to be done, and we for sure hope the industry recalls their core, and draws their lessons from them!

the eclecticum


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