If, like me, you think a watch is a watch, the only differentiator being its face, strap and the number of diamonds on the bezel, you’re in danger of being laughed off the planet. There was a time when I thought — not unlike millions of others — that the era of the watch was well and truly over. You could hardly move without the time of day being beamed to you — on your mobile phone, the car dashboard, your laptop, heck, even on security cameras and toll booths. What is the point of a watch now?
Not only has the watch survived, it remains an essential part of a well-groomed person’s wardrobe — a piece of jewellery if you will — the absence of which is likely to draw unfair comments in tony society, the same way as if you went to a celebrity event in high-street fashion instead of regulation couture. True, watches may no longer be necessary for telling the time, but wearing one is as indispensable as a smart pair of shoes or a designer jacket. No wonder then, that magazines and newspapers are awash with advertising for watches and brands compete fiercely for this segment of the luxury market.
And now, on October 31, 72 watches with names from the houses of Harry Winston, Breguet, Chanel, Chopard, Hublot, Blancpain, Omega, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Van Cleef & Arpels, among others, will compete for top honours in the horology world under different categories of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. Each of these watches has been specially created to vie for the top place at this prestigious event — the Oscars of the watch world, if you will — and intense speculation about technological advancement, aesthetic appeal and luxury potential have gone into the making of this selection.
For the first time this year, these competing watches were unveiled in India as part of a promotional tour that saw Indian guests at the Swiss ambassador’s residence take a peek at brands that have still to mark their entry into India — Delaneau, Urwerk, Grönefeld Parallax and Frederic Jouvenot. If you’re attracted to watch stores at duty-free shops at international airports, you’ll know the feeling this small mechanical device ignites — a rush of adrenaline that results from design, precision and a hoary history and lineage.
What was exciting about these watches was that they are billed to be among the most desirable in the world, whether or not they walk off with the awards. And what it emphasises is the growing importance of luxury watches in a country where consumption is still at a take-off stage. While luxury watches do have a presence in India, their popularity has not percolated down to the popular masstige level and is still restricted to the top of the pyramid. It is perhaps in anticipation of these acche din that Yashovardhan Saboo, chairman of Ethos, the 45-store strong watch company, initiated the event in India with its Swiss promoters. “The Indian watch market is evolving and developing fast. As our growth accelerates, we expect a large uptide in the market for fine watches too,” says Saboo.
The 72 finalists will soon know which way the jury has swung. Jury President Aurel Bacs, advisor to private collectors and museums on high-end watches, was auctioneer at Christie’s' watch department for over 20 years and is responsible for some of its more enviable records over a period that saw sales move from $8 million to $130 million. Some of that knowledge will come in handy, because, as Saboo said of the represented watches displayed in New Delhi, “These watches are not symbols of luxury, they are symbols of excellence and creativity of the art of horology, just like fine paintings, sculptures or architecture.”
What makes Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève important is its genesis. Established as recently as 2011 to promote Swiss watchmaking and its values, it is represented by the republic and canton of Geneva, the city of Geneva and the Geneva Laboratory of Horology and Microengineering (Timelab). Like Swiss cheeses and Swiss chocolates, Swiss watches occupy our mindspace — and it isn’t just brands and prices that set them apart, but also a tradition for excellence and innovation. Perhaps the real reason we sport watches on our wrists, whether we tell the time or not.
—The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator