SIHH 2019 Day 1
Like spending the summer on the beach, winter in Geneva just seems right.
SIHH began with a Sunday night press dinner held by Cartier. As traditions go, it’s a good one. it’s easy for all of us to be enveloped by the controlled chaos that is SIHH, but the first day of the 2019 edition held at Chez Calvin gave the North American press an opportunity to catch their breath one last time before throwing open the Palexpo doors.
There was champagne. There was wine. Thanks to Roberta Naas, martinis flowed in equal measure to the conversations which, oddly enough, never seemed to revolve around the show itself or what we’re expecting and hoping to see from the exhibiting brands. It’s as if we all know we’ll have our fill soon enough of proper industry talk once we’re knee deep in press conferences, one-on-one appointments, and the sort of gossip that goes part and parcel with a notoriously clannish and incestuous business such as this.
So talk and drink we did, and at the end of the evening it was off to the fabled Imperial Suite at the Hotel President Wilson to stoke the party’s dying embers and keep it going. Never mind that Monday was creeping up on us on little cat feet, waiting to pounce, we were having a good time.
But pounce it did. And once more, I was guilty of having one scotch too many.
Regardless of how hungover and tired one may be though, you heed the call when the alarm goes off and gird your loins for the battles to come. In my case, the alarm rang loud and clear at 7 am and, after a quick breakfast with the team, it was off to the Palexpo to take our first appointment.
After clearing security and checking our coats, it was off to IWC for a one-on-one appointment to view the new Spitfire collection. Per usual, IWC went full on beast mode with a booth featuring the actual Silver Spitfire, scheduled to fly around the world starting in August of this year. Once upon a time I might have marveled at the logistics required to bring a fully functional vintage WWII fighter plane from England to Switzerland and then build an entire experience around it, but for IWC this is par for the course. Each year the bar is set higher, matched the next year, then set higher still.
So, watches! In 2018, IWC celebrated its 150th Anniversary. Rather than focus on revamping a single lineup, they released the Jubilee Collection, which included pieces from across their entire portfolio. Had they returned to form, this year would’ve marked the Year of the Aquatimer, last updated in 2014. Instead, they broke with tradition and decided to focus efforts on their venerable Pilots Collection, last updated in 2016. We were fortunate enough to be talked through the various pieces by IWC North America’s newly minted Director of Marketing Sarah Zaouk. Even though I had the privilege of seeing the lineup back in early December, somehow it never feels real until the watches get their close up under the bright lights of the Palexpo.
As Atom Moore practiced his photographic dark arts, Sarah talked us through the various pieces, many of which demonstrate unequivocally that IWC is listening to their collectors. To wit, the new Spitfire Automatic and Spitfire Chronograph clock in at 39mm and 41mm respectively, which represents a new sweet spot in size, while under the hood they both rock in-house movements. Either can be in stainless steel with black dials or bronze with green dials. The limited edition Spitfire Timezoner “The Longest Flight” is a proper stunner. What’s more, it will be worn on the wrists of Matt Jones and Steve Boultbee-Brooks, the two pilots who will fly the Silver Spitfire on its historic flight. (It’s also currently on the wrists of the two italian bartenders at the booth, but that’s neither here nor there.)
The Top Gun collection also got a refresh with the big story being the use of Ceratanium on the new Double Chronograph. This is the first time that this difficult to manufacture material will be used on a series production timepiece. It took all of six years for IWC to master.
So, why Ceratanium? For starters, unlike with ceramic-cased watches which still rely on steel and titanium for their pushers, crowns, casebacks and buckles, now the ENTIRE watch can be the same color (in this instance, as black as my soul). More importantly, though, as a melding of ceramic and titanium it is both highly scratch-resistant, yet it remains ductile enough that it won’t crack or shatter if its subjected to a particularly hard knock. Consider it the best of both worlds.
As cool as the new Top Gun Double Chronograph is, it’s the Top Gun Chronograph “Mojave Desert” that stole my heart. With its sand-colored ceramic case, brown dial and beige lume, the watch might seem dangerously close to being nothing more than a gimmick, but in person and on the wrist it’s nothing short of stunning. As with the new Spitfire Chronograph, it sports the new cal. 69-series in-house movement (though at 44.5mm, it might be too large for daintier wrists). You can expect to see one in my collection sometime around April/June when it hits the market.
After our allotted time was up we made a beeline to the bar for coffee (yes, too early for a drink even for me), where we ran into IWC’s imposing Creative Director, Christian Knoop. We got to talk about the new collection and their psycho, over-the-top booth. And seriously, the guy is at least 8’ tall and I think he’s still growing.
From IWC, it was a short hop to Vacheron Constantin for their group press conference, where we were treated to an in-depth presentation that covered everything from their new blue-dialed Overseas, Patrimony and FIFTYSIX, to their bespoke Les Cabinotiers “Mechaniques Sauvages” masterpieces. Blue is the new black at Vacheron this year. For me at least, it was a revelation. Believe it or not, blue is a notoriously difficult color to get right, but Vacheron was determined to nail it, and nail it they did, In particular the FIFTYSIX Complete Calendar in “Petrol Blue” forced me to reconsider my previously underwhelming opinion of the piece. Indeed, I can now say that it’s one of my favorite pieces from the show thus far. Still, it’s just a dial color that we’re talking about here, whereas they may have won SIHH 2019 with their halo watch…
There’s no beating around the bush here; the new Traditionelle Twin Beat Perpetual Calendar is a home run in almost every respect. From the aesthetics which artfully blend contemporary and traditional design cues to the revolutionary movement featuring two balance wheels that can run independently from one another via a button on the side of the case, it’s a clear indication as any Vacheron remains one of the Holy Trinity of watchmaking.
Now, there’s an obvious question to be asked here: why bother with two balance springs if they’re not running in tandem? Easy. When you’re wearing the watch it has a generous 4-day power reserve, which is certainly welcome in a manual-wind perpetual calendar. However, should you decide not to wear the watch for a longer period of time rather than coming back to a timepiece that needs to be readjusted before it can be worn, simply place it in “standby” mode which switches it from the 5hz balance wheel to a 1.2hz balance wheel. This has the effect of increasing the power reserve to an unprecedented 65 days. Amazing! I want one, but since I don’t have the $200K required to add it to my stable, I’ll simply have to admire it from afar.
The group press conference took place in a room made up to resemble an outdoor cabana. Once seated, we were presented with their new Altiplano, Limelight Gala and Possession collections, the latter two of which are exclusively for ladies. We also got hands-on with the new green dialed Polo S, which affected me in a similar fashion as the Petrol Blue FIFTYSIX. Yes, it’s a different dial, but damn if it doesn’t transform the watch. My other favorite? The gold meteor-dial Altiplano, which galvanizes the rock to achieve its unique coloring. It’s stunning and (thanks to its svelte c.1203P movement) remains razor thin.
Back to the Beginning
After Piaget I grabbed a quick bite with my old friend and industry insider, Ben Chouchane, and then circled back to IWC for their group press presentation. Since I had already gotten hands-on with the watches I sat back and made faces at Jack Forster and hummed the theme song from Top Gun with Suzanne Wong.
I also tried on the Top Gun Mojave Desert again. I’m totally getting this watch!
Now we come to the Main Event, the Elephant in the Room: the Audemars Piguet CODE 11:59. In all my years in this business as both a collector and a professional I can’t recall a single collection that has so polarized the community. Given the sheer amount of hype surrounding its introduction, it was always unlikely that it could live up to the lofty ambitions implied. But the resounding “meh” that greeted its unveiling was positively deafening. In particular, the social media pundits went to town in new and interesting ways. If I’m being perfectly honest here, I was less than impressed myself. Still, seeing is believing, so rather than join the rabble in the gallery and pillory the poor things, I resolved to hold judgement until I could get hands on.
AP’s group press conference was emceed by Head of Complications Michael Friedman, who’s as cool a cat as you could hope to meet in this business. He’s an encyclopedia of all things Audemars and, as such, was the perfect man for the job. In spite of the scripted presentation, he was able to riff here and by the end he made a pretty decent case for CODE 11:59. Now I was ready to try one on.
Before I could get up from my seat, none other than Francois-Henry Bennhamias himself bounded into the room and took us through his journey of creation which began over 6 years ago. His passion for the project was evident in every word and gesture, and he even acknowledged the scathing reception that the collection had received online. Nonetheless, he maintained that the CODE 11:59 represented the future of AP and he was nothing other than positive. He also ran an impromptu quiz, which resulted in Joe Thompson winning a bottle of champagne. I should’ve won the champagne, but I digress. After he left, I finally got my change to slap one of these controversial watches on my wrist and…
…I didn’t hate it.
I didn’t love it either, but I survived intact, which leads me to believe that the CODE 11:59 isn’t as pure an embodiment of evil as one might be led to believe. The casework is nothing short of revelatory, with a level of hand finishing that is ordinarily reserved for movements. The lugs are absolutely stunning, as is the novel octagonal “case within a case.” And then there’s the subtly curved sapphire crystal. Alas, the dial simply can’t live up to the promise of the case, though truth be told it does work better on the Super Sonnerie and tourbillon variants. Even so, there’s nothing “cheap” about how the watches appear in person.
Ultimately, the CODE 11:59 is neither the second coming of the Royal Oak, nor is it the dumpster fire that social media would have you believe. Unfortunately, when we’re talking about AP, the middle ground is not where it belongs. The CODE 11:59 is inoffensive, which, alas, isn’t enough if it want to wear the logo.
On a brighter note, the collection does herald the release of AP’s first proper series-production in-house integrated chronograph. As one would expect, it’s a column-wheel design, and a flyback to boot. Sooner or latter it’ll trickle down to the Royal Oak, so we’ve got that to look forward to. And speaking of the Royal Oak, the limited production white gold copper-dialed Jumbo is positively stunning, and the 15500 addresses a lot of the criticisms I had of the 15400 that preceded it.
From AP we threaded our way through the throng to Ulysse Nardin’s booth where the big story was the new Freak X. In break with tradition, the Freak X does away with bezel time adjustment system in favor of a traditional crown. The trademark “baguette” rotating carousel movement, however, remains, though in a far simpler execution, The end result is a more compact, more accessible watch that comes in at a far lower price point than before. However, with a starting price of $24,000 it’s still a long ways from cheap.
It was at this point that UN’s President for the Americas Francois-Xavier Hotier popped in to say hello and walk us through the brand’s new Classico Manufacture series based on the erotic artwork of Milo Manera. The series of watches traces the sapphic adventures of a woman named Nadia and a mermaid named Ulyssa as they go on a journey of discovery and sexual enlightenment under the waves (no, I’m not making this up). After surviving last year’s sex dungeon that housed a gaggle of erotic automatons, I was pretty sure that nothing else from this manufacture could make me blush. I was wrong. (Sort of. To be honest, it takes a lot to make me blush). I can’t say that I was familiar with Manera’s work prior to this moment, but from even a cursory glance it’s clear that he knows how to… um, draw.
Now, clearly he isn’t doing these himself, right? Right. In fact, the dials are reproduced from original artwork by master miniature painters who painstakingly recreate the images by hand with paint brushes barely as thick as a single human hair.
It was at this point that James Lamdin and I checked out, while Kathleen and Atom went back to AP to get some more lens time with the CODE 11:59. Even though I had resolved to start writing as soon as I got to my hotel room, I promptly passed out for an hour the second I got in. Thank God once more for my alarm, because I was fast asleep and drooling up a storm.
Dinner was an intimate affair with Vacheron Constantin at Il Lago. Seated around the table were James Stacey of the ‘Dink, Logan of Watchtime, Kristin of Elite Traveller, and the inimitable and incorrigible Halim of Watch Collecting Lifestyle. Our hosts from the maison, Catanna and Michelle, did their best to steer the conversation away from guinea pigs, but it was in vain. You see, Logan has two of the critters, Melvin and Jimothy, while my family has one, Mr. Nibbles, and he’s a complete jerk. Really, he sucks.
After dinner, we all hit up the Imperial Suite at the President Wilson for a nightcap. Then it was off to bed. Or, in my case, off to recount this tale until the wee hours of the morning, then attempt to make the three hours of sleep that remained available to me count somehow.
See you tomorrow!