Heavy metal

Heavy metal

There was enough gold on display to light up the dark halls of Baselworld 2014 last week - almost blinding the record 150,000 visitors at the world's biggest watch and jewellery show. So it was pretty smart of Patek Philippe to steal the show with an alternative display of steel timepieces at this annual fair, where about 80 per cent of global sales are sealed.

The two steel watches launched - Annual Calendar Chronograph and Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph - backed by the Patek Philippe pedigree, were among the key exhibits that stood out in a sea of gold and platinum timepieces at the week-long exhibition, held since 1917 in the Swiss city of Basel.

All of the 1,500 exhibitors from over 40 countries - dominated by the Swiss, of course - had plenty of new watches in precious metals to show off this year. Rolex's star piece was an updated version of its red and blue GMT-Master II which first appeared in 1955 in steel.

The new version of the travel timepiece, fitted with the ceramic bezel Rolex has put on all its sports watches since 2005, is in white gold.

Chopard made much of the fact that its new L.U.C. Tourbillon Fairmined is created entirely from "Fairmined" gold. Small miners produce this gold in ways friendly to the environment - and miners are paid fairly. Yet apart from the positive spin given to it, Fairmined gold is no different from conventional gold.

Platinum also made a big showing at Baselworld 2014. Omega, which rarely launches new models in this noble metal, has a platinum version of not one but two novelties in its extensive offerings this year - the Seamaster 300 Master Co-Axial and the Seamaster Planet Ocean Orange.

The Seamaster 300 is among the first to be powered by Omega's breakthrough anti-magnetic movement, which is to be fitted in all Omega watches by 2019.

Breguet, which shares with Omega the same parent - the giant Swiss Swatch group - took its invention, the gravity-defying tourbillon, to a higher level with the Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat Automatique 5377. This is the world's slimmest automatic tourbillon - 7.0mm thick - and, fittingly, has a platinum case because it's Breguet's 2014 pride and joy.

Bulgari, in an aggressive push for its Octo line, claims the title for thinnest hand-wound tourbillon with the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, a flying tourbillon that's only 5.0mm thick - and in platinum.

Other notables in platinum at Baselworld 2014 include independent watchmaker De Bethune's futuristic Dream Watch; Glashutte Original's Senator Chronograph Panorama Date; and Ulysse Nardin's Jazz Minute Repeater.

Showcased at Baselworld 2014 were also many timepieces in materials other than gold or platinum. Omega's limited edition Speedmaster Professional "Moonwatch", marking the 45th anniversary of the 1969 moon-landing, is a titanium version of the watch which the astronauts wore on that historic occasion.

TAG Heuer celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Monaco V4 - a watch powered by the world's first belt-driven movement - with the Monaco V4 Tourbillon, an avant garde timepiece that is the world's first tourbillon to be driven by micro belts. Its case is made from space-grade black titanium.

At Blancpain, another Swatch brand, chief executive Marc Hayek (also CEO of Breguet and Jaquet Droz) liked to show visitors the black ceramic variation of the new Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Chronographe, a flyback chronograph that succeeds last year's Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe which remembers the 60th anniversary of the brand's iconic diving watch.

But while titanium and ceramic are increasingly used in watchmaking, they are, unlike gold and platinum, still high-tech materials that can turn out to be more interesting. Rolex has done what it claims to be the impossible by creating a blue and red ceramic bezel for the GMT Master II. Omega has similarly produced an orange ceramic bezel for the Seamaster Planet Ocean Orange.

Steel is more common than gold and platinum in watches, but that's true only for watch brands at lower price points. Longines' new commemorative Conquest Heritage 1954-2014 in steel is priced at just $2,390. You don't find an equivalent at that price among brands like Omega, Patek or Rolex.

The two new steel Pateks are priced around $70,000 each. And they will be in demand despite the stiff prices.

"Steel and complications are a rare combination in Patek Philippe's collection, so this is raising a lot of interest," Patek's president Thierry Stern explains.

The Annual Calendar Chronograph will be also Patek's first annual calendar chronograph with a steel bracelet, while the Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph is the most complicated timepiece in the iconic Nautilus line - and you can't get that in gold or platinum.

This article was published on April 12 in The Business Times.

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