MEN timepieces still dominate the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), where new luxury watches - mostly Swiss - are launched, though this year's pre-releases led many to expect the ladies to steal the mega show.
New models for women were given the spotlight with hints of more to come months before SIHH 2016 kicked off in the second half of January at its usual venue in Geneva. But when the new timepieces were fully revealed at the week-long event, it was clear who really were the main stars.
Men watches hogged the limelight even at stands of brands known more for jewellery and ladies timepieces. Van Cleef & Arpel, which wowed the watch world two years ago when it launched the astronomy model for men, the Midnight Planetarium, has followed up with another that's generated just as much buzz.
While the Midnight Planetarium lets you tell the time by placing a microcosm of the solar system on your wrist, the new Midnight Nuit Lumineuse is a retrograde hour watch in which the dial displays outlets of constellations with six stars of diamonds lit within by a power generating system used for the first time in watch-making.
At the booth of watch and jewellery house Cartier, the flagship model of its new collections is the masculine Drive de Cartier. It boasts a new case that's a cross between a pillow and tonneau.
Cartier says the case is exclusively for men watches, while that of the Cle unveiled just last year, which has a case in the shape of the key crown of vintage timepieces, is used for both men and women timepieces.
Piaget, still another brand known for jewellery time-keepers, also highlighted a men's watch when it presented its 2016 novelties - the Emperador Coussin XL 700P. This much talked about hybrid quartz-mechanical timepiece, which marks the 40th anniversary of Piaget's first quartz movement, may just pave the way for the revival of quartz mechanisms in fine watch-making. More luxury brands are starting to use them again to make entry-level products more affordable.
Yet the 700P requires no battery to operate. Instead, a Swiss-made electronic generator is fitted to regulate a self-winding mechanical movement.
Still, the ladies were not neglected. Piaget revived a 1970s vintage - the Limelight Gala Milanese - which features a new Milanese meshed bracelet that's more flexible and seamlessly integrated with the case.
Roger Dubuis, which declared 2016 to be its "Year of the Velvet Diva", released five new models under the brand's Velvet women line. It included the Velvet Ribbon, a watch dazzling with 631 diamonds totalling around 53 carats.
Not to be outshone, Audemars Piguet introduced the Diamond Fury, a quartz-driven timepiece crafted with 4,635 diamonds.
For Jaeger-LeCoultre, 2016 is all about the brand's iconic Reverso which is celebrating its 85th anniversary. But while it contains both men and women models, the brand says this bestselling line is more popular with the fairer sex.
Jaeger-LeCoulture has redesigned the case for greater comfort on the wrist - and it introduced three collections to mark the anniversary, including the Reverso One. This is a series of dainty ladies watches which is deemed to be most interesting and attractive.
Jaeger-LeCoultre also launched the Atelier Reverso, which offers the option to personalise the Duo or Duetto models with custom combinations of straps, dials and case-back engravings. And it has engaged shoe-designer Christian Louboutin to design the straps.
If ladies timepieces still played second fiddle at SIHH 2016, they were at least getting more attention - thanks to the rise of their selling power in a soft market. Tellingly, IWC, which prides itself for making watches "engineered for men", added a watch with a small 36mm case for women in its new pilot collections - the brand's focus this year.
The Pilot's Watch Automatic 36 Ref 3240, the smallest of IWC's current production, comes in five models with three different dials and houses a self-regulated movement in an anti-magnetic soft iron cage. Prices start at an accessible S$6,250.
It's no surprise that, given the weak demand, "affordable luxury" remained a key theme in this year's watch show which saw the number of exhibitors jumped to 24, from 15 in SIHH 2015.
Baume & Mercier, which has made accessible pricing its main selling point, unveiled two new motorsports models for men - the Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 and Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 Competition - in a limited edition of 1,963 pieces. Each of these sells for an estimated 4,000-4,500 euros (S$6,280-7,065).
Cartier's new Drive collection starts at an attractive US$6,250.
Montblanc continued with the low-price, high-value strategy when it offered a new collection in its 4810 line to mark the brand's 110th anniversary as a pen manufacturer. A standout piece, which was seen on Montblanc's CEO Jerome Lambert throughout the week, is the 4810 Orbis Terrarum.
This world-time complication is a tweaked version of the Heritage Spirit Orbis Terrarum World Time released in SIHH 2015. The latest model has a new colour scheme and a case with a slightly different shape. It's priced at 5,850 euros. A pocket-watch limited edition model goes for 8,500 euros.
In the 4810 Exo Tourbillon Slim, another limited edition, Montblanc has produced one of the most - if not the most - affordable tourbillon watch in the world of high-end timepieces. This patented complication is fitted with a stop-seconds mechanism which sets the time precisely to the second.
Price? 35,100 euros in red gold and 44,200 in white gold.
Even Gruebel Forsey, the name that speaks of highly complicated tourbillon with sky-high prices to match, is bringing the prices of its new launches more down to earth. Its new timepiece Signature 1 will retail for 155,000 Swiss francs (S$223,200), less than half the price of the next most affordable GF watch.
It helps that Signature 1 is a simple time-only creation, the first Greubel Forsey creation in which a talented watchmaker of the brand other than its founders takes the lead in conceiving and making it.
The watch is also made of steel - a first for Greubel Forsey - though there will be pricier versions in white gold, red gold and platinum.
Still, the Signature 1 is probably one of the most expensive time-only watches for sale.
Laurent Ferrier also offered a steel version of its traveller timepiece with a vintage-style "sector" dial and extra glow - thanks to the hour markers highlighted in either ivory or green Super-Luminova. But many buyers also wouldn't consider 54,000 Swiss francs inexpensive for the Galet Traveller Boreal.
Yet how far can luxury brands reduce prices without cheapening their image - and losing their appeal?
Vacheron Constantin, a name with a long heritage and heft in watchmaking, upgraded its sporty Overseas range with anti-magnetic Geneva Seal grade movements and a simple interchangeable bracelet system. And it has maintained its pricey watch policy - even for new steel models.
The price for the new basic steel Overseas Automatic is S$30,800; the steel Overseas Chronograph is S$44,500.
Similarly, A Lange & Sohne's "technically impressive" Datograph Perpetual Tourbillon in platinum - a flyback chronograph, perpetual calendar and tourbillon in one watch - has a price tag of 295,000 euros. Its equally impressive Richard Lange Jumping Seconds, also in platinum, sells for 78,000 euros.
Still, these high prices didn't come near to that of Richard Mille's RM50-02 AJC, which retails for a stratospheric one million Swiss francs.
The "AJC" in the watch's reference refers to "Airbus Corporate Jets" - and Richard Mille's tie-up with the Airbus company is reflected in the port-hole shaped dial tonneau case, which mirrors the shape of cabin windows on Airbus' large cabin jets. Richard Mille will produce only 30 pieces of the tourbillon split seconds chronograph timepiece.
The exclusivity justifies to some extent the hefty price tag - and the ultimate in exclusivity in luxury watches is that unique, only piece. There were, understandably, only a handful of them at SIHH 2016.
Among them is independent brand De Bethune's Dream Watch 5 Meteorite, a tourbillon watch in the shape of a spaceship cut out of a meteorite. It's priced at 450,000 Swiss francs.
Another is Cartier's Tourbillon Mysterieux Azure, a gem-set pendant double tourbillon timepiece. If you have to ask how much this piece is, it means you can't afford it.
The present problems of the watch industry, which in 2015 saw its exports fall for the first time since the 2009 recession, is blamed on the strong Swiss franc and weak Chinese market. Another culprit is the competition from smart watches, led by the Apple watch.
Makers of traditional mechanical watches have risen to the challenge by making smart watches of their own, or incorporating the modern technology of smart watches into the traditional timepieces. This was evident at SIHH 2015, but not at this year's fair.
Only one exhibitor, independent watchmaker H Moser & Cie, made reference to smart watches - and in a novel way.
Instead of creating a model with an electronic heart trying to look like a mechanical watch, it built a fully mechanical timepiece in what looks like a smart watch. This is the Swiss Alp Watch.
The limited edition of 50 pieces, at US$24,900 apiece, is said to have already sold out.
There was no lack of innovation on display at SIHH 2016. Apart from Van Cleef & Arpels' Midnight Nuit Lumineuse and Piaget's 700P mentioned above, there's also Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie, which gives the sound quality of minute repeaters a new clarity.
De Bethune unveiled the DB25 World Traveler and IWC the Pilot's Watch Timezoner Chronograph, both with innovative features that make them idiot-proof for travellers to operate.
Parmigiani revealed a highly efficient Senfine concept movement that extends the power reserve of a normal movement manifold, up to two months. Panerai makes ultra-light titanium even lighter in watches in its new Lo Scienzato Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Titano, a skeletonised complication timepiece. While the watch boasts a huge 47mm case, it weighs under 100 grammes.
Alongside these innovations, Panerai also released the Luminor 8 Days Set, a pair of timepieces modelled on the 1996 Slytech watches commissioned by Sylvester Stallone. The American actor is credited with helping to make Panerai world famous.
One of the two watches, the Luminor Daylight 8 Days Acciao, has a dial in white with deep blue markings and hands - a combination not seen in any other Panerai timepieces.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Parmigiani launched the Tonda Chrono, a chronograph equipped with a new hand-wound splitseconds movement. It's a limited edition of 25 pieces, each in white or rose gold with white or blue enamel dials to match the case.
Audemars Piguet revisited the roots of its Royal Oak collection and one of the interesting things it did was to rejuvenate the classical yellow gold models, including the RO Perpetual Calendar with a blue dial. It also added more colours - blue, green, yellow and orange - to the RO Offshore Diver Chronograph.
With half of the exhibitors Richemont-owned, SIHH is still largely a showcase for the luxury group's brands. But nine more independent watchmakers joined the fair this year, adding more colour to it with their avant-garde creations.
Among the offerings was Urwerk's UR-105 TRex, the product of innovative, high-end watchmaking and a sense of playfulness. Housed in a pebble-shaped case with a protective cover made of textured bronze, the watch indicates time by way of a single hour pointer that sweeps like the sun from east to west.
MB&F's HM6 SV (Sapphire Vision) is a UFO fitted with a gravity-defying tourbillon. HM6 SV can't fly but can tell the time and its engines, hidden from sight in its predecessor HM6 Space Pirate, is now exposed through the new sapphire cover. And they are a marvel to see.
Hautlence's Invictus is a sporty and elegant chronograph in an eye-catching red and black colour scheme, powered by a skeletonised movement. Ex-footballer Eric Cantona chipped in on the design of the watch.
This article was first published on February 13, 2016.
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