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Watches & Wonders: Street Smarts

The evolution of Watches and Wonders in Geneva continues; where 2022's fair was ostensibly a digital masterclass, 2023's event took to the streets.
Watches

Last year’s Watches and Wonders summit was watched by nearly 300 million people across the globe, a necessary two-step as the world stayed largely at home, afraid of travel and unable to make it to the Swiss epicentre of watch culture. Expertly streamed as only the Geneva tech stars can, it allowed legions of fans and ordinary people to tune in and watch specialists, traders, marketers and engineers discuss key brands, trends and talking points. A huge success by any measure. This year, as well as the digital and convention centre components, organisers decided to mark the global reopening by expanding the launches, discussions and celebrations onto the streets of the city itself: Geneva’s famous convention centre remained at the core, but surprises awaited visitors in town.

Chief among those was the festival atmosphere along the Rue du Rhône and at the old water pumping station in the middle of the Rhône River, the Pont de la Machine. The Pont is the home of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie and the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, a superbly thought-through choice for the Watches and Wonders’ outreach programme. Concerts, street entertainment – it was a veritable carnival, all aimed at celebrating the concept of time.

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Back at the convention centre that broadest of themes was underlined by the work of art photographer Karine Bauzin, who’s exhibition What time is it? looked at the relationship of time and people, how it is perceived across the globe. She asked individuals in 20 different countries that simple question and her 10-year-in-the-making interpretation of their answers was on display in the Salon.

It was just one question preoccupying visitors and exhibitors both. The metaverse, NFTs, blockchain and circularity were on many minds, as was the ever growing collectibles trend. And availability; off the back of news that Rolex was opening three new workshops to try and keep up with demand, everyone was talking about growing waiting lists for key new and popular watches.

Democratisation seemed to be a key concern. In a bid to make the summit more than just a trade fair, organisers opened the convention centre Salon to the public for two days and included talks on topical, everyday issues such as what makes a watch valuable and how to start a vintage watch collection.

Five key trends emerged. Much discussed was the explosion of women’s fashion watches and the evolution of connected watches. Other themes were the increased role of digitisation in sales and marketing, the tricky issue of sustainability and the rise and rise of the microbands, such as Kerbadanz and U-Boat.

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Indeed, independence turned out to be a key leitmotif. Small, indie companies are increasing their market share because they can reach their audiences directly through cheap digital channels. That digital revolution – social commerce essentially – means that houses big and small are increasingly using influencers on social media to sell their ideas, ethos and brands – and that was very much in evidence at Watches and Wonders. Panels discussing the benefits – and pitfalls – of such a strategy were popular.

And of course the vast array of launches. Rolex led the buzz with their wildly popular coloured dials, TAG Heuer marked the 60th anniversary of Carrera, Patek Philippe and Cartier won praise for their careful progression (the waiting list for new and popular watches needs careful management), Tudor’s Pelagos 39 caused a stir, Omega, Cartier, Panerai, IWC, Hublot and Chopard delivered surprises, delight and innovation. Breitling also gladdening hearts with displayed versions of their recently launched Ford Thunderbird Top Time range of car-inspired watches. Léon Breitling’s company also showed the new heritage inspired Premier B01, referencing the company’s iconic timepiece of the 1940s. The Thunderbird joins other icons, the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette, and Shelby Cobra chronographs.

The 2023 show highlighted the growing popularity of watch culture, with new audiences joining afficionados and collectors to better understand the beautiful and sometimes complex world of horology. As a successor to Baselworld and SIHH it looks set to grow ever stronger, which ironically is a curate’s egg; many of the top manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand and the democratisation of the industry is only exacerbating the problem. Still, the success bodes well for the future, genuine craft celebrated in an increasingly throw-away world.

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by Peter Frost

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