Jakarta. Each year in January, Switzerland’s “City of Peace” sees an influx of horologists, watch aficionados and journalists crowd its hotels to attend the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, a leading luxury watch fair showcasing the newest timepieces scheduled for release in the upcoming months.
And for five days at the start of each year, the streets of Geneva are lined with posters bearing images of flashy timepieces to accompany the internationally renowned names of their manufacturers: Cartier, Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille, IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre... The list goes on to include more than a dozen prominent players in the luxury watch industry, most of which are regular participants of SIHH and can rightfully boast of offering high-quality products with even higher price tags.
Like clockwork (no pun intended), SIHH returned for its 26th edition on Jan. 18-22. But this year, scattered among the impressive banners of 15 watchmaking giants were those representing a handful of names that are perhaps less commercially recognizable: HYT, Hautlence, MB&F, Christophe Claret, Urwerk – not the usual brands you'll see at your local luxury watch boutique.
These are the “smaller” independent brands that are not quite as mainstream. They keep their annual production capacity to as low as 200 timepieces and operate outside the business parameters of luxury conglomerates Richemont (Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Roger Dubuis), Swatch Group (Omega, Harry Winston, Longines) and LVMH (Hublot, Tag Heuer, Zenith).
This year, for the first time since its establishment in 1991, SIHH organizers allowed entrance to nine maisons from this category to introduce their newest products alongside the big boys, making it the latest in a string of horological events to recognize the growing influence of independent watchmakers.
Among them was Swiss-based Hautlence, which made an impact on the industry only a year after its establishment in 2004 with the launch of the HL collection.
“The entire Hautlence team is so grateful for having been selected among all other creative independent brands to participate in the SIHH. Being invited to join […] is such an important milestone and will bring the brand global visibility,” Hautlence chief executive and co-founder Guillame Tetu said in a statement released prior to the fair.
Speaking to international reporters at the Salon, he added, “We are very proud to be here and be with [journalists] because it's a real chance to present [our watches] to you. I know that our brand is very popular in the Southeast Asian market.”
Hautlence is indeed making inroads in the region, securing retail space at Cortina Watch boutiques in Singapore and Malaysia in 2014 and 2015 respectively. But it achieved an even larger milestone last April by opening its first “Hautlounge” – the first and only store in the world to exclusively offer Hautlence watches – at Pacific Place mall in Jakarta.
“Jakarta is booming market for all the industry of independents. If you look at Richard Mille, it's so popular now in Jakarta. We know there are a lot of customers who want something really unique and different,” Tetu said.
Independent maison Maitres du Temps made the same leap in 2012 with the opening of its Malaysia boutique at Starhill Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. More are in the pipelines for Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, according to founder Steven Holtzman.
“Little by little, in the next 10 years we'll have five or 10 of our own stores... We can't go into China and open up 20 stores; we don't make that many watches,” he said during a recent press tour of the Malaysia boutique.
“The goal is to keep a relationship between supply and demand that's correct... One of the nice barometers for demand is the auctions. If you do well in the auctions, organically do well, then that means your watches are worth a certain level secondhand. And we've done very well with the actions.”
Like Hautlence and Maitres du Temps, many independents are steadily achieving similar “global visibility” thanks largely to other international exhibits of the same caliber as SIHH, who have for years included them in their show's annual lineup. The more notable of these are watch and jewelry shows BaselWord, staged in Basel, Switzerland, and Kuala Lumpur's A Journey Through Time, with the latter consistently acknowledging their exceptional works in its yearly award show.
British watchmaker Peter Speake-Marin, for example, has garnered multiple prizes at AJTT for timepieces created and released by his eponymous Swiss-based brand. Just last November in the curated event's ninth edition, Speake-Marin clinched the Judges' Choice Award for the third consecutive year with the Magister Double Tourbillon.
“There's a change in the buying tendencies of people who buy [luxury] watches,” said Speake-Marin told reporters at Kronos watch boutique, also located in Starhill Gallery, which acts as the main exhibition space for AJTT.
“If you want to buy independent brands, it's a whole new world. We don't make volumes. When people are looking for something genuinely exclusive, genuinely alive, they come to the independents.”
Emphasizing his confidence in the resilience of independent watchmakers, he added: “We are always going to be here. We are not going to go.”
Speake-Marin will in March showcase its wares at the Oscars of watchmaking, BaselWorld, alongside other AJTT favorites, including Maitres du Temps, two-time winner of the Starhill Gallery Favorite Men's Watch Award; Mühle-Glashütte, who clinched the Active Lifestyle Watch prize in 2013; Moritz Grossmann, 2015 winner of the Starhill Gallery Watch with Complications in Movements Award; and HYT, whose H1 Dracula secured the 2014 Favorite Men's Watch prize.
In addition to operating without the promotional backing of a far-reaching conglomerate, what makes their rise even more impressive is that many of these companies are relatively young compared to established heavyweights, like IWC (1868) and Jaeger LeCoultre (1833). With the exception of a handful of family-run companies that date back for decades if not centuries (Mühle-Glashütte, H. Moser & Cie, Lang & Heyne), a majority of the independents currently making an impact first came onto the scene in the 2000s.
Industry rock star MB&F, for example, was established in 2005 and released its first Horological Machine two years later. “Hydro-mechanical horologist” HYT, meanwhile, launched its first timepiece, the innovative H1, in 2012. And after 25 years in the business, Maitres du Temp's Holtzman branched out on his own in 2005 to release the maison's first masterpiece, Chapter One, with the help of master watchmakers Speake-Marin and Roger Dubuis in 2008.
“Already in the past five to 10 years, some of the small independent brands [have] gained in fame. We see that the maturing of collectors and interest for high-end independents go hand in hand,” explained Frank Geelen, founder and chief editor of online luxury watch magazine Monochrome Watches.
“The internet and availability of information online has played a huge role in this. More and more collectors are reading about high-end timepieces online and since our articles will remain available to read at a moment of your convenience, it can only grow.”
And with SIHH finally jumping on the horological bandwagon to now include independents in its Carré des Horlogers (Watchmakers' Square), these brands will have the same opportunity to gain more media exposure, and subsequently, wider commercial recognition.
“What is likely to be one of the first things that could change, is that small independents – often with highly interesting, creative, different timepieces – are seen by journalists of mainstream media, and will ultimately be seen by readers of mainstream media,” Geelen added.
“Until now, much of what the independents did was for watch geeks like us, at Monochrome Watches, to cover. However, I can imagine that this [their participation at SIHH] will bring them new clients.”
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