Watches round-up: Van Cleef & Arpels unveils automaton clock
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Gilding the lily
At SIHH, Richemont’s watch showcase in Geneva which opens on Monday, Van Cleef & Arpels will unveil a remarkable automaton clock that has been eight years in the making. The Fée Ondine (above) is a collaboration between 20 different workshops in France and Switzerland and takes the form of a bejewelled fairy kneeling on a lily pad made from gem-set gold, topped with lilies of silver, gold, diamonds and sapphires. When the mechanism is activated, the lily pad ripples and the fairy awakes, fluttering its wings and lifting its arms, as one of the lilies bursts into bloom. A diamond and sapphire butterfly then rises into the air, accompanied by chimes. The eight-day clock mechanism is contained in the cylindrical base, and the passing hours are marked by a creeping, ruby-set ladybird that automatically returns to its starting point when it reaches 12 o’clock. No value has been placed on the one-off creation, which is not officially for sale — although there are few items in the fairytale world of extreme luxury goods that do not have a price.
Aldo Magada passes his Zenith, Biver takes over
It was not a happy new year for watch industry veteran Aldo Magada, following news on January 4 that he would step down as chief executive of Zenith “by mutual agreement”. His departure was announced in a brief letter from Jean-Claude Biver , head of watches at LVMH (which acquired Zenith in 1999). Mr Biver is now Zenith’s interim chief executive, a position he also assumed at TAG Heuer in December 2014. His aim with Zenith, he says, is to give it greater “lustre” and to improve its synergy with TAG and a third LVMH-owned watch brand, Hublot. Mr Magada — who has worked in senior roles with Swatch, Gucci Time, TechnoMarine and Breitling since entering the watch business in 1984 — took over at Zenith in July 2014 after its previous boss, Jean-Frédéric Dufour, became chief executive of Rolex.
British, in parts
Horologist Robert Loomes will this month deliver the first of a series of 24 wristwatches made entirely from components designed and engineered in Britain, something that many believed could not be done. “We were told the skills no longer existed, but the country is packed with engineers capable of making all the parts we needed,” says Mr Loomes, whose Stamford watches are named after the Lincolnshire town in which they are assembled. Around 20 different UK companies made the various parts, including the screws that hold the £28,500 watches together. Mr Loomes says the watch has confirmed his belief that “if the 20th century was about globalisation, the 21st is about extreme localisation. People want to see where things come from and understand how they are made and who made them.”
On January 1, the rule for calling something “Swiss made” was tightened, now requiring 60 per cent of the value of a watch to derive from Switzerland. But high-end, low-volume watchmaker H Moser believes the rule is inadequate — and will express its disappointment by removing the words “Swiss made” from all future products. “With over 95 per cent of our components produced in Switzerland we far exceed the requirements of the Swiss Made standard, yet the same label seen on our dials is used by brands who barely comply but benefit from its flexibility,” says Edouard Meylan, chief executive of the Schaffhausen-based company. The first H Moser watch to demonstrate the protest features a smoke-red dial and will be unveiled during SIHH.
Brexit means profit
Figures compiled by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) show the post-Brexit slump in the pound helped the UK to become the world’s third-largest market for Swiss watches in November, with sales up 6.5 per cent over the same period in 2015. This is compared with falls in other large markets such as the US (18 per cent), Italy (12 per cent) and Germany (8.7 per cent). Although most UK prices have now been adjusted upwards, the weakness of sterling made many watches as much as 25 per cent cheaper to buy in the UK than in other western markets, leading the FHS to dub the UK the world’s “most dynamic” market. The Watch Gallery, a retailer, expects to have seen a 32 per cent increase in sales between November and January, and to have sold 19 per cent more watches in December than the year before.
Mickey Mouse deal
Ingersoll, which was relaunched last year by UK watch group Zeon, has announced a new line of Mickey Mouse watches inspired by the original licensing deal between the American-born brand and Walt Disney. The first $3 watch — featuring Mickey on the dial with his arms serving as the hour and minute hands — was unveiled at the 1933 Chicago Fair and sold in vast numbers. Ingersoll produced variations on the theme until the 1970s, after which several makers, including Gerald Genta, Seiko and Bulova, offered Mickey-inspired models. The new line-up from Ingersoll includes nine special designs being made in editions of 500 and costing up to £460 for automatic versions.
A 1943 Patek Philippe Reference 1518 became the most expensive wristwatch ever to cross the auction block when it sold in November for SFr11m ($10.8m) at Phillips in Geneva. The perpetual calendar chronograph was one of four known examples of the model to be cased in stainless steel and had been conservatively estimated to realise SFr3m, but bidding quickly pushed it past the previous record of SFr7.3m for a unique Patek Philippe made especially for the 2015 Only Watch charity sale. Despite achieving such a high sum, the Reference 1518 still fell short of the outright auction record for any timepiece, which is held by the Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch sold for SFr23.2m at Sotheby’s in 2014.
Some like it hot
A platinum and diamond Blancpain cocktail watch originally owned by Marilyn Monroe fetched $225,000, double its estimate, when it was sold by Los Angeles auction house Juliens. It was part of a three-day auction of Monroe memorabilia in November, the largest sale of its type ever held. The watch, which was bought back by Blancpain for its archive collection, was sold by the estate of the Hollywood acting coach Lee Strasberg to whom Monroe bequeathed many of her belongings. It was one of only a few pieces of jewellery that the star of Some Like It Hot owned.
Bremont bins Basel
British watch brand Bremont has opted out of this year’s Baselworld watch show in favour of staging a standalone event for international retailers, press and VIP customers in the UK. Giles English, who co-founded the firm with his brother Nick in 2002, believes there will be more value in bringing guests from around the world to visit its manufacturing facility in Henley-on-Thames and its Mayfair boutique than in continuing at Baselworld. “Our hand was slightly forced in as much the Palace [Baselworld’s satellite exhibition space] is being closed and we didn’t know where we would be relocated,” says Mr English. “But we also want to get people on our home turf so they can enjoy a more interactive experience.” Bremont has rented a five-storey town house in Fitzroy Square where it will display new products, conduct retailer training sessions and stage events with its “adventurer” ambassadors. The townhouse will be open February 27-March 3.
Following several months without a permanent head of its Hong Kong watch department, Sotheby’s has appointed Jessie Kang to the role. Ms Kang comes from a retail background, having worked in the watch business for 16 years with brands such as Raymond Weil, TAG Heuer, Chronoswiss and IWC in greater China and across the Asia-Pacific region. With the addition of specialists Cherie Wong and Vicki Leung, Sotheby’s Asian watch team is said once more to be at full strength and will hold its first sale of 2017 in April.
Private jet sales executive Don Cochrane is preparing to relaunch the historic British watchmaker Vertex, which was set up in 1916 by Claude Lyons, his great-grandfather. Vertex was one of 12 firms known collectively as “the Dirty Dozen” which supplied timepieces to the military during the second world war. It became one of Europe’s leading manufacturers before closing in the 1970s. The £2,500 watch is based on a typical wartime design but, in an unusual take on marketing, Mr Cochrane initially plans to offer 60 selected people the chance to buy a Vertex, each of whom may then introduce five other customers. “It’s my attempt at building an anti-commercial watch brand,” says Mr Cochrane.
Trump (not that one)
UK watch auctioneer Fellows has formed a partnership with London-based Winning Moves to create a horology-themed edition of the popular Top Trumps card game. The pack features 30 different watches made by brands ranging from Audemars Piguet to Zenith. Each is graded in categories such as auction price, jewel count, case size and “icon status”.