The marketplace is an extraordinary thing. Watchmakers could quite conceivably go the same way as blacksmiths with the advent of the mobile phone. With two thirds of the world's population carrying a mobile phone (up from zero two decades ago) and penetration quickly heading for ubiquity, the only genuinely functional aspect of the wristwatch - telling the time - has effectively already been replaced.
Yet the personal chronometer is still alive and well and in ruddy good health.
After the global financial crisis of 2009, no-one would have been surprised if the world world watch market had continued its downward trend into the same death spiral that has seen dozens of other more recent and technologically adept marketplaces succumb to the advances of digital technology.
Instead, it has rebounded magnificently and is expected to reach US$46.65 billion this year. That means the value of all the watches sold in the world this year is roughly three times greater than the value of all the tablet computers (i.e. Apple iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tab, et al.) sold and just short of the amount of money the Business Software Alliance claims is lost through software piracy globally each year.
Not only is the watch far from dead, it still commands a massive global marketplace and the largest share by total dollar value of the watch market is the luxury watch segment.
The watch is now almost exclusively a fashion accessory, a not-always-subtle pointer to one's financial wellbeing that is ideal for the nouveau riche to display their new found wealth. Hence the growing wealth of the BRIC countries is driving the luxury watch market to new levels.
Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie de GenèveTwo days ago, the luxury watch industry held its annual equivalent to the Oscars - the Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie de Genève (Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix) - which recognizes the most outstanding watches from the previous year in a dozen categories.
With this premier event on the international watchmaking calendar now in its eleventh year, even being recognized in the preselection prior to the nomination of the final three in each category is an incredible honor in this world of mechanical mastery. In the months preceding the awards ceremony, the watches nominated by the jury were exhibited in Zurich, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Geneva.
Though a dozen winners were awarded by the jury on Saturday night, there is one very special award for the best timepiece of the year - the "Aiguille d'Or". This year, the award went to the DB28 model by De Bethune.
All the prize-winning and nominated watches will now go on show at the Salon International de l'Horlogerie de Prestige Belles Montres, which will be held at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris from November 24 to 27.
This year's Laureates of the Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie de Genève are:
"Aiguille d'Or" Grand Prix: De Bethune DB28
Most watch connoisseurs would recognize the origins of the DB28 in an instant as some of De Bethune's classic designs and signature features are clearly evident - the spherical moon, blued steel, silicon/platinum balance wheel, triple pare-chute shock-absorbing system and the company's "floating lugs" which adjust to the size of the wearer's wrist and its movements.
The DB28 is exceptionally light, with its case made entirely of titanium. The moon's phases are displayed by means of a platinum and blued steel sphere revolving on its axis and are accurate to one day every 122 years.
The DB28 is powered by Calibre DB 2009 mechanical hand‐wound movement which is equipped with an ultralight 0.18 gram silicon/titanium tourbillon. This tourbillon is the lightest on the market (classic counterparts often weigh four times as much) and comprises 50 parts, of which the lightest weighs less than 0.0001 grams and the "heaviest" 0.0276 grams!
De Bethune thus undertook to rethink the tourbillon around this new wristwatch dynamic. The laws of physics are implacable: in order to compensate for the disorganised violence of wrist movements, the carriage must be as light as possible with as high a frequency as possible and a maximum rotation speed for a minimum mass and inertia.
Thanks to new technologies, De Bethune has therefore created a 0.18 g silicon-titanium tourbillon in a carriage spinning once every thirty seconds at its axis, and a balance oscillating at a frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour.
Best Ladies' Watch Prize: Boucheron Crazy Jungle Hathi
The Indian influence of Boucheron dates back more than a century, from when Louis Boucheron first visited in 1909. In 1928, the Maharajah of Patiala commissioned Boucheron to create a jewellery collection and the style is still evident to this day.
The winning womens watch in this year's Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie de Genève, the US$80,000 Boucheron Crazy Jungle Hathi, reflects the Indian influence, with the name a derivative of the Hindi word for elephant and the dial featuring a Murano aventurine glass mosaic set with 40 diamonds, plus sapphires, tsavorites, amethysts and onyx.
The subject is quite obviously an elephant, the casing and bezel are of white gold with an automatic Manufacture GP4000 caliber, and the blanket on the elephant's back contains Boucheron's "Crazy Seconds" module, which is a spinning array of lights.
Best Men's Watch Prize: Hermès Arceau Le Temps Suspendu
Hermès' Arceau Le Temps suspendu is a new take on the 33-year-old Arceau design and an interesting concept, in that the owner can "suspend time" by pressing on the pusher, at which point the sweep of the seconds, minutes and hours are suspended and the date indicator disappears.
At another press of the pusher, the watch resumes at the exact time, down to the second, having continued to monitor time in the background. The remarkable thing about this functionality is not so much the usefulness, but the fact the whole illusion is achieved mechanically with an ingenious system of cams, pinions and segments.
The capability is made possible by an additional module that enables the watch to alternate automatically between real and suspended time, coordinated by two synchronized column wheels, one for the hours, the other for the minutes and date. Thanks to its 360 degree hour and minute retrograde mechanism, the time stops and moves into the "Time Suspended" zone at 12 o'clock, while the date hand disappears completely.
Best Design Watch Prize: Urwerk UR-110
Twin turbines, "Oil Change" indicator ... URWERK's description of its latest creation sounds like it should be driven, not worn on the wrist. The UR-110 continues the Swiss timepiece innovator's trend of producing off-beat displays - the time is shown by three rotating "torpedoes" mounted on planetary gears that pass down a vertical line, marked 0 to 60 minutes, on the side of the face.
Sound complicated? It's actually quite a simple to read layout and because the time can be read by looking at only the right side, you can discretely sneak a peak at your titanium masterpiece without upsetting those tiresome dinner guests.
Best Jewellery and Artistic Crafts Watch Prize: Van Cleef & Arpels Lady Arpels Polar Landscape
The Lady Arpels Polar Landscape Seal decor timepiece depicts seals drying themselves in the sun. Each watch is a work of numerous craftsmen, from machinists to engravers to enamelers to stone cutters. The water is translucent enamel, the skies are turquoise enamel, the waves and clouds are mother-of-pearl, the seals are made of diamonds and the dial is enameled, engraved gold. Each watch costs US$106,300
Best Complicated Watch Prize: Zenith Academy Christophe Colomb Equation of Time
At CHF 220,000.00 (US$240,000), you might rightfully ask what makes this watch so special, even before it had taken the prize for the most complicated watch of the year.
The reason this watch is SO complex is that the 24 hour day is a convenient average because the Earth's elliptical orbit and the inclination of its axis actually vary the length of the day by up to a quarter hour depending on the day of the year. This watch calculates all that and tells you how many minutes you should add or subtract from the time to get the real time. This will probably never be of any practical usage, and almost certainly not anywhere you'll actually be wearing a quarter of a million dollars on your wrist, but heh, you will feel good knowing that the mechanical computer on your wrist is as fine as any going around, and that only 74 other people on the planet will have one.
Best Sports Watch Prize: TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Chronograph
In a world where the capabilities of a watch in terms of genuine usefulness beyond telling the time and are really only of conversational value, the TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Chronograph would have been a certainty with the bookmakers for the Best Sports Watch Award.
The Mikrotimer Flying 1000 Chronograph's claim to fame is that it is the first and only mechanical chronograph to measure and display time to one thousandth of a second. Its oscillating system vibrates at 3,600,000 beats per hour, 125 times faster then most existing chronographs.
Remarkably, it has taken almost a full century for the capture of fractions of a second to progress an order of magnitude.
In 1916, Charles-Auguste Heuer launched the Mikrograph Genesis stopwatch, giving mankind the ability to measure 100ths of seconds for the first time, and not surprisingly, revolutionizing sports timekeeping into the bargain. Apart from taking a major historical milestone, the watch became the official stopwatch for the Olympic Games.
Hence the TAG Heuer Mikrotimer Flying 1000 was a shoe-in for the top sports watch, having historical significance and precedent on its side. The fact that it's now more accurate than its owners are capable of using it is of little consequence.
"Petite Aiguille" Prize (for models under CHF 5'000): Montblanc, Star Worldtime GMT Automatic
The winner of the Petit Aiguille Award, and quite possibly the most relevant watch of all the winners in that it was judged the best watch under CHF 5000, is the Montblanc Star Worldtime GMT Automatic.
Apart from being more affordable than most of the watches in this array of watchmaking mastery, it's capabilities are also quite possibly the most relevant to a world quickly overcoming the tyranny of distance - put simply, the Montblanc Star Worldtime GMT Automatic puts two different time zones on its dial and at the same time, indicates the time in all time zones.
It does so by purely mechanical means.
lt is hence a cosmopolitan instrument primarily for businesspeople or bankers who travel the world or who wish to keep a watchful eye on the world's stock exchanges, or when colleagues overseas might be available for a quick chat.
As can be expected from a winning watch in any category, user-friendliness is one of the key attributes of the watch. When the crown is in its neutral (unscrewed) position, turning it clockwise manually winds the automatic movement and turning it counter-clockwise resets the outer ring which indicates the world's 24 time zones.
When the crown has been withdrawn to its first extracted position, turning it clockwise resets the date and turning it counter-clockwise triggers the GMT hand (with the red tip) to advance in hourly increments.
Finally, when the crown has been further withdrawn to its second extracted position, turning it clockwise adjusts the 12-hour and the minute-hand in the usual manner.
The 12-hour hand is permanently coupled to the movement and shows the time in the wearer's present location. The smaller GMT hand culminating in a red tip is accompanied by a contrastingly colored 24 hour-scale indicating whether people are momentarily at work or asleep in the distant time zone. The outer ring simultaneously indicates the corresponding time on all the global time zones when correctly adjusted with the current time and location of the GMT hand.
At CHF 4,100 (US$4470), it's the bargain of the bunch in terms of functionality and affordability.
Special Jury Prize: Patek Philippe Museum
The Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva was awarded a special Jury Prize for good reason. Patek Philippe was founded in 1839 and during its 172 year history, has assembled a collection of watches that have left their mark on the history of horology, plus an astonishing assortment of musical automata and portrait miniatures from the 16th through to the 19th century. There's also a library dedicated entirely to horology and related subjects plus examples of nearly all of the most remarkable pocket watches and wristwatches made by the company.
Audiovisual multilingual presentations of selected masterpieces animate the exhibit and if you are ever in Geneva, the Patek Philippe museum is a time-tunnel to the beginnings of horology.
Public Prize: Audemars Piguet, Millenary 4101Grand Prix de l'Horlogerie de Genève web site or World Tempus web site. This year Audemars Piguet's Millenary 4101 took the public prize.
The nominated watches
If you're looking for a special gift for Christmas for a (very) loved one, many of the watches above are very exclusive and very, very expensive and may not be available at relatively short notice, if at all. The list of nominated watches though, should see you being able to acquire something that is to your (their) taste.