Dominance by Design

Walking into Baselworld 2019, you couldn’t help but notice a new world order emerging.

Declining attendance and shifting economics meant several of the Swiss heritage manufactures were absent. What remained at Basel — historically the world’s largest annual watch and jewelry show — were the untouchables. Those rarified brands not only surviving but thriving and continuing to expand.

Gucci was right in the thick of it. For this year’s show, the storied Italian fashion house doubled down, constructing an enormous glass greenhouse in the center of Basel’s main promenade. Inside, an arrangement of plants and flowers surrounded its latest timepiece collection, the Grip.

This new watch is the product of great momentum. In January 2015, Alessandro Michele became responsible for all Gucci’s collections and global brand image; a kaleidoscopic flurry of acclaimed runway shows and ad campaigns followed. The designer’s gutsy, referential maximalism shook up the fashion universe, casting Gucci as the new lodestar. Translating Michele’s remarkable vision into ultra-desirable watches has taken time. Now, though, it’s all coming into clear focus.

So the stage was set for the brand’s breakout display in Basel. Inside, the president and CEO of Gucci Timepieces, Piero Braga, laid down the contradictory laws of the land: a sumptuously furnished conservatory, decorated with inimitable Gucci style, but built exclusively to show off a single watch inspired by old-school skate culture.

 “[Unlike] all the other watch brands that are hiding, we wanted to have everything transparent, and out in the open. We are here to be seen,” Braga says. “We wanted to dedicate a different environment to the project of the season, and we did it the Gucci way. We wanted to make a statement. And we wanted to make this our main focus, which is the Grip.  

For Braga, success isn’t adding another product category to Gucci’s accessories range. Instead, he wants to create timepieces that have something unique to say. Against the backdrop of Baselworld, a moving monument to the fast-changing realities of the watch industry, he doesn’t mince words about the approach: “There is no need for further product introduction in a market which is already oversaturated. You must have a point of view, love it or not, but you need to be consistent.”

And when it comes to having “a point of view,” the deck is stacked in Braga’s favor. Few designers in history have cultivated a signature aesthetic as quickly and successfully as Michele. As a result, Braga says, modern-era Gucci Timepieces is defined by a distaste for the generic.  “We don’t want to do something classic with a Gucci name on it. Other brands are doing that much better than us… We want to have our say creatively, and like all the other Gucci product categories, need to stick to the original vision of our creative director [Mr. Michele].”

To that end, Gucci Timepieces has become an unqualified success. The Grip joins a growing lineup of clever, expressive designs — dive watches with embellished reptilian dials, all-over floral face-and-strap combinations, tonneau shapes featuring tri-color and insect motifs. Each of these pieces recall the recurring themes of Michele’s unmistakable work.

“What we did was shape the image of the line quickly, and align that to what Gucci collections represent,” says Braga. “So now I think that it’s clear to most of the industry experts, what Gucci stands for within the watch industry…I believe we succeed in this.”

This message is articulated not only through the watches, but also the visuals that accompany them. The brand hasn’t filtered its personality to fit into the conservative luxury timepiece space; instead, Gucci has gone in the opposite direction. The coloring of the products, the display materials, even the shopping bags — none of it looks like traditional watch company fare.

This helped Braga move on from Gucci’s previous timepiece aesthetic. But he knows the company “still has a long path” ahead. The next step, he says, is to narrow the scope and focus on what will become foundational pieces in the brand’s portfolio for years to come. This presents a unique set of challenges, as runway styles are notoriously changeable.

“In producing watches, the fashion angle doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to change our collection every year. We had to do that [initially], because when you have to replace 200 references of an entire range of a watches company, the first season you need to introduce new models,” says Braga. “Now we need to build pillars.”

Hence, the Grip. This new collection of rounded, cushion-shaped quartz watches aligns perfectly with the style of Gucci’s ready-to-wear collection. In engraved stainless steel or gold PVD, on a bracelet or a strap, the piece stands out thanks to three small windows with rotating dials beneath, revealing the hour, minute, and the date. The overall look, like many of Gucci’s core products, should be endlessly adaptable.

“We needed to establish a new aesthetic, and this project is totally aligned with this concept,” Braga says. “It has young inspiration. It’s a cool, playful way of representing the hour with this jumping style movement. It has a genderless appeal, which is another important thing for us. And you can interpret the watch in different ways, encouraging self-expression and uniqueness.”

Along with creating signature pieces like the Grip, there are several other major goals for Gucci Timepieces. One is to continue upgrading the movements, boosting the brand’s horological credibility, especially within a certain price bracket. Braga feels that an entry-price automatic in the Gucci style will be like nothing else in the market.

“I believe that there’s room to establish a certain aesthetic to automatic watches, especially at a certain price point,” he says. “For sure, the ambition of our brand is to be able to offer even more refined products to the clientele without forgetting that for timepieces our base is more democratic.”

Accordingly, Braga also wants to create watches that can accompany the fine jewelry collections. He wants the designs to incorporate more precious and semi-precious gemstones in the future. Ambitious? Sure. But at this point, it’s difficult to doubt Braga or the brand. The Grip is just the beginning. Looking out at Baselworld from inside the Gucci greenhouse, you couldn’t help but see so many new possibilities.

Photo Essay: Robots vs. Skeletons

In the impending age of automation and artificial intelligence, the Swiss carry out aesthetic experiments on a most human device:
the wristwatch.


Bell & Ross BR-X1 Black Titanium
$18,600; bellross.com


Ulysse Nardin Executive Skeleton Tourbillon
$20,900; ulysse-nardin.com


Hublot Classic Fusion Aerofusion Chronograph
$15,100; hublot.com


Piaget Altiplano Ultra-Thin Skeleton
$57,000; piaget.com


Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Double Tourbillon
$322,000; rogerdubuis.com


AG Heuer 45 mm Heuer 01 Chronograph with Skeleton Dial
$5,450; tagheuer.com


Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950 Squelette Steel Sapphire
$22,500; parmigiani.com


Vacheron Constantin Malte Tourbillon Openworked
$305,000; vacheron-constantin.com


About the photographer: Junichi Ito was born and raised in Tokyo. Based in New York since 2005, he has photographed major commercial campaigns for Armani, Barneys, Estée Lauder, Moët & Chandon, Nike, and Victoria’s Secret. He has also shot original editorial content for Allure, Fast Company, Real Simple, Vogue Japan, and Wallpaper. His Instagram is a must-follow.