When you enter Palexpo, the enormous convention center that is home to Watches & Wonders, you have an immediate decision to make: right or left? A glance to the left and you see the Tudor, Rolex, and Patek Philippe booths. These brands, in a lot of ways, anchor the entire show, and dominate much of the conversation for the duration of the fair. If you look to your right, you’ll be greeted by something entirely different. This year, it was a giant Ingenieur, spread across the top of the IWC booth at the end of the hall, and it was hard not to get the message that this watch, and this watch alone, was the brand’s sole focus for Watches & Wonders this year. Building your Watches & Wonders presence around a single watch was a trend that came into sharp focus at this year’s event.
Whether brands took a literal one watch approach (like Ulysee Nardin, who only showed the new Freak ONE this year) or put the lion’s share of their backing behind one release but dropped a few additional under the radar pieces (like IWC), it’s a strategy that makes for a stark contrast with what feels like a more traditional practice of overwhelming everyone in the meeting with tray, after tray, after tray of new watches to try on, photograph, write about, and otherwise consider. The single watch strategy communicates a sense of confidence, that a brand has hit on something so good that they don’t need to muddy their message. In the case of Ulysse Nardin, it made for one of my favorite meetings of the week, as it allowed a watchmaker to take us through precisely what made this watch special. It makes for a meeting with a more relaxed pace, and enables me, as someone tasked with writing about these things, to gain a deeper-than-a-press-release understanding of the watch, which is tough to achieve in a 30 minute session regardless of how many watches are presented.
While a cleaner and more streamlined presentation is a nice side-effect of a single watch strategy, it stands to reason that the purpose behind it, at least for some brands, is to capitalize on a watch market that has changed dramatically since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which put an end to the traditional trade show structure. Watch brands were moving slowly to social media in 2020, but travel bans and social distancing kicked things up a notch, and we saw much of the industry adopt a more internet friendly stance when they were really pushed into it. As a result, many brands figured out that they simply don’t need these large scale shows to generate interest in and sell watches, and have seamlessly moved to dropping new releases completely independent of a trade show calendar. Being freed from the parameters and norms of a trade show means that a brand can tailor an even more specific experience for their guests and members of the media at Watches & Wonders.
It’s notable, I think, which brands decided to narrow their focus for the show, and which took a more traditional route. I’ve already mentioned Ulysse Nardin, but other brands presenting a condensed lineup include Oris (they had multiple pieces to show us, but their entire booth was built around a Kermit theme), IWC, and Zenith (the Pilot line was the dominant force in their booth). A. Lange & Sohne also presented a single watch, the Odysseus Chronograph. Lange is an outlier here – the other brands with a single watch strategy (or something close to it) feel like they are a bit more adept with social media and perhaps skew to a younger clientele. In other words, all likely have a comfort factor with announcing new releases on an independent timetable outside the bounds of a show.
The brands that take the opposite approach, and present close to an entire year’s worth of new releases at once in dizzying meetings that have their own unique charm and appeal, tend to represent what I think of as the Old Guard. Rolex, Patek, Tudor, and especially Cartier have presentations that amount to a Shock and Awe campaign. Rolex, this year, had updates in just about every corner of their catalog, as did Tudor. But nothing comes close to the onslaught of new watches presented by Cartier.
In describing my experience at Cartier this year, I’ve used words like “overwhelming,” but I want to make sure I clarify here that I mean this in the best way possible. Plainly speaking, it’s a lot of fun. Let me set the scene: there are 12 or so members of the watch press seated around a table, with Cartier supplied notebooks at each chair. A TV screen is running at the front of the room, and a member of the Cartier team explains that she’ll take us through a presentation of the year’s novelties. Another member of the team stands at the ready with an armful of watch trays and a seemingly simple job: keep up with the presentation. This guy’s task is to present trays filled with beautiful Cartier watches concurrently with what’s happening on screen, always ensuring every attendee gets to see each watch. The trays come at you fast and furious. We must have seen upwards of 60 watches in our meeting, from tiny Bangnoirs to the highest of high jewelry creations. I don’t think anyone had time to write anything down in those notebooks.
Part of the charm of Cartier is their incredible variety, so it seems preposterous and unlikely that they would ever consider a play like Oris or Ulysee Nardin, and come into Watches & Wonders with a single point of concentration. Still, even in a meeting where you’re exposed to dozens of incredibly beautiful watches in an impossibly short amount of time, a focus and strategy emerges. The standout release that most of the media has focused on is the reintroduction of the Tank Normale as part of the Collection Privé. They are beautiful, exceedingly well proportioned watches on immaculate bracelets, and because of their limited availability, I imagine every single one was likely spoken for before the show even began. My personal favorite, and one of those watches I can’t stop thinking about as we approach two weeks removed from the show, is the platinum Santos Dumont XL, with burgundy Roman numerals. I might not have seen a watch that looked better, to my eye, on my own wrist than this one.
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One way to think about Watches & Wonders is as a series of micro-experiences. Every meeting is unique, and brands put a lot of thought into making your experience with them memorable. Whether it’s via a deep dive into a single watch, or being mesmerized for an hour by the breadth and depth of one brand’s vision of watchmaking, the brands that create these experiences do so at a very high level, and leave you with a greater appreciation for their own small corner of the watch world. In a new post-Basel environment where a single trade show doesn’t have the same vice grip on the entire industry as it once did, there are new opportunities for brands to think creatively about how they allocate their resources, and I think we’re likely to see more brands take a more focused approach to Watches & Wonders, saving certain releases for other points in the year, introducing them in non-traditional ways.
On one level, that’s exciting – I’m all for brands thinking outside the box and presenting their watches in new and interesting ways. But I hope to always have experiences at Watches & Wonders similar to that of Cartier and Tudor. As a watch lover first and foremost, there’s something exciting about having a critical mass of watches in front of you, and getting a sense for what kind of story a brand is telling over the course of the entire year in a brief hands-on session. Watches & Wonders is inherently overwhelming, and it feels natural that brands should match that energy.