Jun / Jul 2012
Basel Bedazzle

Writer: Ken Kessler

Baselworld is the watch industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, an exciting mix of legendary names and brash new arrivals. Dressed to impress, some more eye-catchingly than others, here’s our look at the most extraordinary watches on display this year.


By its very definition, a trend should be something transient, with its own sell-by date. Not in the watch industry, which takes hold of trends and makes them permanent sub-genres. As much as the annual watch industry extravaganza that is Baselworld is a shrine to the new, it’s also a wonderful showcase for continuity and so this year’s event was a case of “more of the same”, but with some novel twists.

Notable emerging trends included a move towards serious, complicated watches for discerning women and a backlash against the triple threat of excessive bling and comically large watches with too many complicated features. Not that the show was free of 44mm, diamond-encrusted tourbillons and minute repeaters. Rather, there was a noticeable wave of ultra-tasteful, ultra-conservative watches with clean styling and diameters of 38-40mm, which display the time and the date and nothing else. Still, Baselworld wouldn’t be complete without a few truly outrageous pieces.

Take Christophe Claret’s X-TREM-1, for example. It was one of the most talked-about models with its hollow metal balls, driven by magnetism, that indicate the time by travelling up and down in tubes fitted to the case sides. But that’s only a part of the recipe: it also boasts a 30-degree inclined flying tourbillon at the 6 o’clock position. Quite massive at 40.80 x 56.80 x 15mm, X-TREM-1 has two barrels for a 50-hour reserve – one each for the time indication and the movement itself. Only eight models in white gold, rose gold and platinum will be produced.

A newcomer to the specialist watch sector was The Chinese Timekeeper. Their collection of cleanly styled, robust watches is inspired by Chinese culture. With fat, round cases and chunky lugs, movements are modified in-house and Chinese-made. The watches vary in dial selection. Some have Chinese zodiac signs denoting each hour, others have chunks of green jade at hour markers while more conventional designs employ standard Arabic numerals. Cases were gold, stainless steel, or black or blue DLC-coated steel. Beginning at 1,900 USD (and reaching 9,000 USD for higher-end pieces), these unusual designs were quite affordable.

Crisp and Modern. The adjectives might have been invented for Swiss-American concept watch manufacturer Ikepod. Its 44mm Horizon with golfball-esque geometrically pitted dial also comes in a Minimalist-meets-Pop Art version designed by New York graffiti artist KAWS, which transforms hour markers into ovoid teeth and aligns hour hands in an “X” shape. Though obviously not made to wear, the company’s Hourglass not only gave the archetypal sand-based timepiece new life but did so with contemporary style. The blue sand version was a sensation.

Sensation is what Romain Jerome does best. Previous statement watches incorporated moon dust and lava from Iceland’s Eyafjallajyokull’s, which wrought such chaos to air travel in 2010. This year, the Swiss designer turned his attention to the sea, producing a timepiece to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which contains material salvaged from the wreckage.

There were a number of interesting pilot watches, which charm even those with no aspirations to fly. Zenith’s spectacular offering, the manually-wound Pilot Montre d’Aéronef Type 20 hearkened back to the early days of aviation, when pilots needed 57mm for legibility. A special edition of only 250 pieces, it may already have sold out.

Finnish newcomer De Motu took the genre in a different direction. The pilot instrument makers service SAAB Drakens and BAe Hawks for the Finnish Air Force and were involved in the World Aerobatic Championships. To lend their DMG-11 extra aero-cred, they brought along a test pilot, Sami Kontio, who manned the display in full fighter garb. De Motu’s watches use an in-house hybrid electro-mechanical DM101 movement and measure 48mm across and uniquely, indicate G-force in addition to the date and time.

Of the thousands of watches launched at Baselworld, HYT’s H1 was probably the most radical. The brainchild of Vincent Perriard – the mind behind the equally ground-breaking Concord C1 QuantumGravity a few years ago – the H1 combines mechanical action and a fluid measurement to tell the time. A small mechanical dial, inset in the upper half of the watch, represents minutes, while hours are indicated by a liquid-filled tube that runs around the rim. Containing both a clear and a fluorescent green liquid, two bellows are used to push the liquid around the dial, and the green fluid indicates the hour at the point where it meets the clear fluid. Costing between 58,000 USD – 64,000 USD, the H1’s fluid mechanism is guaranteed for five years and servicing includes fluid top-ups, if necessary.

Still, the watch that had purists gasping was De Bethune’s Titan Hawk. Though functions are of the basic hours-minutes-date kind, the Titan Hawk is quite a statement. Using the company's Calibre S233 mechanical self-winding movement with the main plate and polished steel parts all handcrafted, it incorporates breakthroughs like self-regulating twin barrels, designed to eliminate friction and efficiently transmit a maximum of energy and an exceptionally light silicon/white gold balance wheel with a flat terminal curve, which enables the balance wheel to reduce mechanical friction and deliver an ideal inertia/mass ratio. Did I say it’s handsome, too?

On the massive Swatch Group stand – always the centrepiece of the main floor at Basel – Blancpain continued its commitment to über-macho sport watches with the totally butch L-Evolution Chronograph. This latest addition to the collection features a flyback split-seconds chronograph mechanism and a large date, carbon fibre case elements and cutting-edge technology. It reinforces Blancpain’s strong commitment in GT racing, particularly its association with Lamborghini. Omega, currently basking in the glow of its role as the timekeeper of the 2012 Olympics to be held in London, introduced the extreme Spacemaster Z-33. Inspired by the iconic ‘Pilot Line’ case shape of the 1970s, and equipped with a brand new multifunction quartz movement, this hefty chunk of titanium shows date, UTC and two time zones (in 12 or 24 hour display), an alarm and a perpetual calendar. Full chronograph capability and a countdown timer complement self-programmable professional pilot functions to log up to ten flights.

Other notable pieces at Basel included Breguet’s Reine de Naples, with its gold hair bracelet and moonphase and Rolex’s Sky-Dweller with quick-change time-zone, Bremont’s tribute to HMS Victory with retrograde hands, Harry Winston’s Opus 12, with indices that change colour.

Bold, inventive and exciting, these were new watches that made mincemeat of current fears that the mobile phone might kill off the watch. I mean just ask yourself this simple question, could checking the time on a tiny LCD screen really ever be anywhere near as much fun?

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