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Basel'96: Watches Take Back The Spotlight

By Michael Thompson, senior New York editor

This story appears in the June 1996 issue of JCK Magazine.

With the Swiss franc less threatening, designers return to classic looks while engineers take off with a full assault on the battery.

During a full week of unabated sunshine, a rare phenomenon in April in Basel, Switzerland, the annual World Watch, Clock and Jewellery Show left no doubt that the world's watchmakers are not allowing economic uncertainties to stand in the way of technical innovation, artistic creativity and an upbeat vision of their industry. (The mood was more downbeat in the jewelry sector of the fair; see report starting on page 160.)

That was welcome news for the industry. A strong Swiss franc contributed to a 3.6% drop in the value of watch exports from Switzerland last year - the first decline in a decade - but the franc now has stabilized in favor of U.S. buyers. As for business this year and beyond, retailers and watch exhibitors at the fair, held April 18-25, had sunny forecasts. "Retailers I'm seeing here from the United States are talking about product, not exchange rates," said Fred Reffsin, president of Heuer Time & Electronics Corp., the U.S. division of TAG Heuer watches.

And while some weaker markets in Europe and Asia contributed to the overall decrease in 1995, Swiss exports to the U.S. rose 4.3% and are expected to continue rising because of strong demand here. Given the vast array of new products developed and debuted by 249 Swiss exhibitors at Basel '96, U.S. retailers should have little problem satisfying that demand. More Swiss brands than ever are represented in the North American market this year, and several others will be before year's-end (see related story on pp. 212-213 of this issue). For the record, the Swiss composed 45% of the 607 watch and clock exhibitors at the show. The rest came primarily from Hong Kong, Germany, France, Italy, Taiwan and Japan.

The looks, the innovations: U.S. consumers have accepted traditional European design - rounded links, crafted bezels and continuous case-to-bracelet construction - as their own. But many U.S. retailers have considered the very latest in European design (wide color choice, chronographs and automatics) as niche-only items. That is likely to change this year because the models introduced in Basel are toned down and U.S. consumers are more open to design options.

In short, exhibitors presented a generally conservative look focusing on traditional round dials and the still-hot stainless steel or steel-and-gold case and bracelet. Unusual case shapes andbright colors, seen regularly last year, were overshadowed by classic, somewhat subdued tones this year. Steel stole the show at many booths, reflecting continued demand in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Most dials were traditional black, silver or white. But there were nonconformists, such as copper to salmon pink shades in sport and dress watches from such companies as Raymond Weil, TAG Heuer, Ebel, Rolex and Gucci. Seiko's new introductions included brilliant mustard or blue dials on chronographs.

Bracelet links were more elaborate, thanks to metalsmithing techniques that allow greater design flexibility. Matte and glossy finishes on the same bracelet were common at Basel, as were mesh bracelets of steel, gold or both. Even white gold made a resurgence, offering the look of steel with the luxury of gold.

Polished yellow gold was seen less frequently in men's bracelets. However, women's models picked up the flash with widespread use of yellow gold and diamonds. In fact, diamonds frequently splashed from the bezel to the bracelet for continuous sparkle in women's watches.

Platinum was reserved primarily for high-end, limited-edition and anniversary watches. Titanium appeared in a wider variety of price ranges.

The fear of chronographs among U.S. distributors has abated. TAG Heuer, Sector, Seiko, Oris, Maurice Lacroix, Nice, IWC, Ebel and Chopard all displayed them in Basel. A style note: more than a few chronographs featured flattened, rather than traditional rounded, subdial control buttons.

Assault on batteries: As designers returned to classic looks, engineers took off with a full assault on the battery.

At center stage among the new technological announcements was SMH Swiss, which introduced through its Tissot division an ETA-brand automatic movement that operates a quartz timepiece with no battery. The movement is found in the Tissot PR 100 Autoquartz, which offers six days of energy conservation if not worn, features an energy indicator via the seconds hand and includes a date indicator. The technology - which emphasizes quartz accuracy, easy maintenance and an environmentally positive message (no disposable batteries) - will compete with the Kinetic battery-free watch that Seiko introduced two years ago.

Not inclined to sit back and rest, Seiko expanded its Kinetic line with four men's dress models that are one-third slimmer than the standard Kinetic. The new watches are possible because of a thinner capacitor, the part of the watch where electricity is stored. The components are embedded in a base only 1.3mm thick and use a ball-bearing unit that is much smaller than normal. The total thickness of the watch is 2.7mm. These models are not yet scheduled for U.S. release.

Son of solar: More than a few companies expanded the use of solar energy to power their watches. This battery-free technology has entered a new generation with greatly lengthened operational periods per charge. Leaders in this technology - Citizen, Seiko, Junghans and a few others - feature watches that will operate for up to six months on a single charge and can be recharged within minutes using indoor light or sunlight. The watches are thinner than ever and feature faces indistinguishable from non-solar watches. The technology is being used in fashion and sports applications and on single-face watches and chronographs.

Watch executives said solar sales are strong. Citizen, for example, said the Eco-Drive solar watches introduced last year are expected to account for one-fifth of total watch sales in Japan this year and half of all Citizen sales in Europe in two to three years. The firm will introduce the models in the U.S. this year under the name Solartech 180 as part of its Promaster sports watch line.

Before the Basel Fair, Seiko announced plans to introduce its solar-powered watches to the U.S. this fall through its Pulsar division (see JCK April, p. 202). The company showed several of these models during the fair.

Junghans, a German electronics company, recently joined with Wittnauer International in the U.S. to market radio-controlled watches. Among Junghans' introductions at Basel was Mega Solar Tec, whose date, summer/winter time adjustments and daily time are controlled via radio frequency. The watch has "perpetual" timing, which is actually viable for six months. When the watch stops, it restarts and adjusts the time automatically within the first few minutes of exposure to light. The company also introduced Junghans Solar TEC, a solar-powered watch that requires less solar surface area and stores energy for up to two months of total darkness. Models made with high-tech ceramic materials, palladium plating and charge-level indicators debuted.

Coming to America: Three young Swiss companies spotlighted their technology as they readied first-time distribution in the U.S.

On different sides of the price spectrum, Perrelet and Joss Watches showed how Swiss craftsmanship can meet the demands of different markets. The Perrelet brand was established in 1993 and will be distributed in the U.S. this year by Nikon (see JCK April, p. 164). Two collections feature automatic watches that use the world's first double rotor turning around a common axis on opposing sides of the movement.

Joss Watches (profiled on page 212 of this issue) is a year-old company making headlines in Switzerland for low-cost case and assembly production methods. Joss has created a 100% Swiss-made watch that will sell in the U.S. for under $300.

Rollei, known for decades as a premier German camera manufacturer, debuted its first watch lines at Basel. Purchased two years ago by Samsung, the South Korea-based electronics giant, Rollei used its optic expertise on the crystals of a new line of 100% Swiss-made watches, designed by a team of watchmakers at Nouvelle Piquerez S.A. in Bassequort, Switzerland. The sapphire crystals are double convex, much like camera lenses, and spotlight the watch faces with subtle magnification. Rollei introduced itself in South Korea last year; in Japan, Germany and Italy earlier this year; and in the U.S. at the JCK International Jewelry Show this month in Las Vegas.

Company highlights: Introductions from primary suppliers to U.S. stores ran the gamut from enhanced sport lines to rarities that only a few retailers will sell.

TAG Heuer showed its redesigned 2000 Series featuring 12-sided bezels and new bracelets and strap colors. The line now includes a chronograph and will get an automatic this fall. In its popular 6000 series, TAG Heuer added new dials (in black, silver and salmon) and dial numerals. A chronograph is due early next year. TAG Heuer celebrated its long association with auto racing by reissuing its 1964 Heuer Carrera Chronograph in stainless steel or 18k gold. Like the original, the case is covered with a convex Plexiglas watch glass.

Movado teased all of Basel with billboards showing just a glimpse of the new Vizio line. Years in the making, the line spotlights brushed and polished steel links and cases, classic black or white faces and a hidden, folding clasp. It's made in four sizes and four dial versions.

Seiko debuted watches designed in conjunction with world-renowned industrial engineer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who has designed autos, cameras, furniture and watches. Giugiaro has worked with Seiko in the past, and this year created the Seiko Macchina Sportiva line of six chronographs. Four styles will be available in the U.S.

Sector Sport Watches, true to its No Limits credo, debuted rugged chronographs that include an alarm, a dual-event timer, diver chronograph made with titanium, water resistance to 3,300 feet and bright orange face for deep-sea visibility.

Oris subjected its best-selling Big Crown pilot's watch to the Swiss testing needed for chronometer status - and earned it. The company also introduced a limited-edition mechanical alarm in 18k rose gold, men's and women's tonneau models, the Pointer with oversized hour hand and a skeleton steel case watch.

Bertolucci introduced its first diver watch, the Maris, a large certified chronometer in steel and 18k gold. It also showed several models in its High Jewellery Watch line, which are ready for U.S. distribution this year.

A wide range of debuts from Maurice Lacroix accentuated the company's new global marketing and advertising concept, featuring colorful, natural and cultural scenes linked with specific matching products. Steel and steel/18k gold dress and sport models with black, white and gray dials are prominent. An automatic chronograph in 18k gold also debuted.

Chopard celebrated 20 years of its Happy Diamonds collections with an anniversary watch limited to 1,996 pieces. The watch is made with seven moving diamonds in 18k gold and engraved with the Happy Diamonds logo.

Gevril's new 15 Degree dual time zone watch earned the company another patented process, its third in the year since its launch. To read the time in the second time zone, the user moves a second hour hand (stored under the primary hand) to the appropriate hour differential. The watch then automatically indicates whether the new zone is daytime or nighttime with a black or silver dot on the dial.

Hermes, with an increasing presence at high-end retailers in the U.S., debuted Harnais, which sets a watch case in a leather strap like a cabochon stone. The company's new Loquet watch is based on its best-selling "clic-clac" enameled bracelet.

Among Gucci's many introductions is the stainless steel Model 3600 featuring a polished steel G as its bezel surrounding a black face and steel hands. The Gucci G also appears on the women's Model 1700, which allows the wearer to change bracelets and insert the G logo to create a colorful bracelet to wear with other bracelets and/or the watch. The bracelet is made of carbonite and comes in a variety of bright colors. Also new is the 7400 automatic limited edition, made in steel with a textured face in pink copper or silver.

Raymond Weil's new Parsifal introductions include a stainless steel chronograph with a silver or black/silver dial, a new sport model made with 18k gold and steel, and the Evolution model with a pink clous de Paris dial (a textured dial).

Cyma's wide-ranging introductions include a diver watch and new designs in its Oceana, Signature, Tapestry and Charisma collections. Eighteen karat gold and jewelry dials were more prominent in all collections, and steel was used for the first time in Oceana.

Unique in the high-end: IWC's Portugeiser, the 1993 reintroduction of a 1940 design, expanded its family with a slightly smaller automatic version and the Rattrapante in steel and platinum. It also has produced a rectangular perpetual calendar Novocento, this year made as an automatic.

Vacheron Constantin presented a salute to John James Audubon with a 100-piece series featuring handcrafted champleve enamel reproductions of his illustrations. Several glittering new watches in the company's Les Absolues jewelry watch line were unveiled, as was Jalousie, a line of rectangular watches featuring an original system of engraved shutter blades placed over the dial and opened and shut via a small sidepiece set with a sapphire cabochon.

Breguet showed its skills through the sapphire caseback of an openwork pocket watch with perpetual calendar. It also introduced a new platinum version of its patented perpetual calendar and equation-of-time watch, displayed its elegant Marine jewelry watches and premiered for Europe the Chronograph Type XX watch seen in the U.S. earlier this year.

Jaeger LeCoultre showed its Reverso Chronograph. On the front is a solid silver dial with hour, minute, date and chronograph stop/start indicators. On the reverse is a 60-second counter and retrograde minute counter over a 30-minute-period indicator. The company also introduced Master Geographique, a stainless steel, dual time-zone indicator that indicates day-night and date and includes a disk to find time in 24 time zones.

Audemars Piguet created a women's version of its best-selling Royal Oak, called Royal Oak Offshore. The hexagonal case is smaller than its male mate, but is complete with a fully automatic movement, blue dial and date indicator. The company's new Millenary is a "horizontal oval" shape with a day/date indicator and a separate seconds dial.

Patek Philippe updated its Calatrava for women with four concentric rings of an engine-turned hobnail pattern on the bezel. Its Tableau watch for women is square with a double frame bezel. The ultraslim automatic perpetual calendar was redesigned with the classic double hobnail pattern. The company's new patented automatic annual calendar watch runs on an annual cycle starting March 1 and adjusts for months of 30 and 31 days.

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