For 25 years, the international luxury fake watches show Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva was the province of a tight group of old-time luxury brands such as Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Van Cleef & Arpels (all part of Cie. Financière Richemont SA), along with Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille and Greubel Forsey, among others.
So some in the watch world were surprised last January when the annual exhibition decided to give upstart luxury watchmakers a seat at the table.
The show, known as SIHH, unveiled the Carre des Horlogers (the watchmakers’ square), a space dedicated to independent luxury brands-also called cult brands, niche brands or artisan brands, depending on your preferred nomenclature.
This week, the Carre is back, and SIHH has made another change that is raising eyebrows even further: For the first time the general public will be admitted to the show.
With the importance of SIHH to the high-end imitation watch world clear, some observers also are coming to believe that Carre may represent its future. They believe that the unusual designs and selling methods embraced by the newer luxury-watch brands could soon gain wider acceptance, especially as newer buyers enter the market.
Several things distinguish the occupants of the Carre from their more traditional counterparts.
Most of the traditional brands at SIHH were founded in the 18th or 19th century. For the Carre brands, 20 years is old. Long-established brands boast about their heritage. Newer brands brag about not having a heritage and being free to explore nontraditional designs, and even new forms of the nearly three-centuries-old basic mechanical watch movement.
Take the Horological Machine No. 7-or HM7-“Aquapod” from MB&F, a brand founded in 2005. The HM7, priced at $98,000 in titanium and $118,000 in red gold, upends traditional watch design in that it resembles both a jellyfish and a “Star Trek” docking bay. MB&F founder Max Busser, whose watches can reach giddy price heights of $230,000, says he considers his business to be a “creative lab” rather than a brand.
“We don’t create our pieces with any customer in mind,” he says. “We’re interested in exploring, in pushing boundaries and expressing ourselves. We want to do things no one has ever done before.”
Another tradition-defying watch comes from Urwerk, founded in 1997 by watchmaker Felix Baumgartner and designer Martin Frei. Its new UR-T8, like many of the company’s previous models, takes design cues from scarabs (or, more recognizably, the Millennium Falcon from the “Star Wars” series) and employs a unique rotating display called a satellite system rather than traditional hands. It sells for about $100,000.
What MB&F and Urwerk prove is that in the world of mechanical counterfeit watches, traditional design and luxury are no longer exclusive bedfellows.
There’s more to learn about luxury from the Carre. While most established brands produce thousands of watches a year and offer limited editions to ensure exclusivity, the Carre brands achieve the same ends by restricting output to 30 to about 300 watches annually.
Even French watchmaker Christophe Claret, who under confidential contracts creates originals for many watch brands, restricts timepieces bearing his own name to 120 a year. Mr. Claret established his workshop in 1989, though his eponymous brand didn’t emerge until 2010.
Grönefeld, founded in 2008 by the Dutch brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld, produces only 30 to 40 watches a year. A Grönefeld watch may appear tame compared with others in the Carre, but the brothers always devise innovative movements that appeal to watch aficionados.
The corollary to low production numbers is the ability to be close to customers. The Carre brands often shun traditional retail outlets, which means the owner of one of these watches can say: “This top swiss replica watches was made for me by someone I know.”
Fabienne Lupo, managing director of the foundation that organizes the SIHH, says it is important for the brands to actually meet their end customers and introduce them to their products. It is one of the reasons the show decided to open its doors to the public.
The question is, will traditional aaa replica watches brands need to steal some of the clothes of the new children on the block-low production numbers (which means more limited editions), closeness to customers, stunning designs and mechanical innovation-to attract new luxury buyers?