Independent watchmakers have a lot in common with today’s top designers.
They’re fearless risk takers, pushing boundaries with new shapes, innovative technologies, and high-tech materials. Preserving that independence allows for true individuality, giving watchmakers the ability to carve out unique identities and, in turn, enabling their products to stand out from the crowd. While many of these watchmaking marvels can stand alone by virtue of their complications and technical prowess, they are nonetheless meant to be worn. Sure, the watch you choose might be the rarest, the most complex, the most unusual. But if it doesn’t pair with your favorite outfit—game over.
Here, we’ve taken some recent standouts spotted at the Carré des Horlogers, the independent wing at the SIHH 2018 watch fair, and paired them up with groundbreaking trends from the spring/summer 2018 menswear collections. Result? The edgiest style inspiration you’ll need this year.
How could it not? After all, Bell & Ross has been turning out fine timepieces inspired by flight decks and cockpit gadgetry for decades. The magic doesn’t lie in the concept—watch companies have long looked to the skies for inspiration—but rather in the execution. Whether it’s the square-jawed BR Instruments collection, the stealth-fighter BR-X Experimental series, or the retro-chic feel of the BR Vintage line, Bell & Ross offers a singular focus on aeronautical themes.
If the brand were a person, it would speak entirely in NATO phonetics and wear aviator shades in the shower.
The Racing Bird BRV2-94 doesn’t stray from that mission. But it does ratchet up the authenticity factor. This new chronograph is styled after the BR-Bird (pictured above), a concept aircraft designed by Bruno Belamich, the cofounder and creative director at Bell & Ross. His single-seat novelty plane recalls those competing in the National Championship Air Races, employing a 12-cylinder propeller engine and wearing blue, white, and orange livery.
The watch’s color scheme follows suit: white dial, blue bezel, and strap, high-contrast orange detailing, with pops of gray to evoke a checkered flag. Aviation buffs will appreciate the typeface, borrowed from traditional on-board counters. Also that the date window shows three digits, another overt reference to classic flight instrumentation.
The BRV2-94 is powered by a self-winding mechanical movement, offering a 42-hour power reserve and set inside a 40 mm steel case. The pièce de résistance, the BR-Bird’s silhouette, appears on both the caseback and dial. It’s a subtle reminder that, while plenty of Bell & Ross watches start with an airplane, these special editions hang in rarified air. To wit, production will be limited to a run of 999 pieces.
(Note: That number includes a streamlined, three-hand version, the Racing Bird BRV1-92, which is fractionally smaller and priced from $2,300.)
Before the Racing Bird’s debut in Geneva, Mr. Belamich gave Watch Journal an exclusive peek behind the scenes.
On the idea behind the BR-Bird and Racing Bird watches…
“Speed is a key source of inspiration. We also have a passion for technology. These factors constantly push us to excel, to develop highly complex mechanisms. By extension, we are interested in all extreme machines. Our concept vehicles [the B-Rocket motorcycle, Aéro-GT supercar, and BR-Bird aircraft] become a source of inspiration. Our universe is a world of enthusiasts. Our stories tell men about their universe, their machines, their uniforms and accessories, watches in particular. Time is a transversal element, common to all the universes of the extreme. These two new Racing Bird pieces are symbols of our passion for aviation and creativity.”
On the importance of being based in Paris…
“Paris has always been the heart of high-end luxury goods. We are honored to be crafting high-quality luxury goods in this beautiful city. It’s part of our DNA, and influences many of our design choices. But we are not in the fashion or trend business. We develop watches that serve a purpose: Delivering the clearest and most reliable time to professionals working under extreme conditions.”
On the essential elements of an aeronautical watch…
“We have four basic principles: Legibility, functionality, reliability, precision. We are inspired by the world of pilots and aeronautical instrumentation, the ultimate reference point for legibility and reliability. We regularly support elite units by designing watches that perform specific functions so we are able to see how they perform. Some examples include working with the bomb disposal experts of the French Civil Security, the Intervention Unit of the French National Police, and the French Naval Aviation and French Air Force. Our founding idea is that time is essential for professionals working under extreme conditions.”
On a Bell & Ross smartwatch styled after modern touchscreen fighter jet cockpits…
“We believe that smartwatches are a completely different experience than a traditional timepiece. Swiss watches have emotion. It is a craft to make a watch. Over time, [an analog] watch keeps its value—often it even increases in value because of the beauty of that craft. Tech devices become obsolete because their design is constantly being reinvented, the technology upgraded. In the future, it’s possible that Bell & Ross would incorporate some sort of technology. But our brand will always be Swiss-made. We will never create a disposable watch.”
Not much of a lifespan for a university, a European town, or a Sierra redwood. Five minutes and a few dollars spent on eBay can put you in possession of a coin or a book that was already ancient in 1868, the year Florentine Aristo Jones traveled from Boston to Schaffhausen to found the International Watch Company. If you deal in matters cosmological or geological, a century and a half barely merits mention. It is an eyeblink.
In matters horological, however—in this new era of watchmaking where opportunistic investors wrap whole-cloth start-ups in tissue-thin histories of dubious or borrowed provenance, where long-dead marques and models are hydraulically fracked from the past to adorn commodity movements and generic designs—IWC’s claim to 150 years of continuous production feels truly rare, deliciously enviable. All the more so for its aristocratic approach to that history—how the company has always refused to be handcuffed by its own weighty tradition.
Consider, for instance, that iconic trio of 1970s Gerald Genta sports-watch designs. Audemars Piguet has tirelessly extended the Royal Oak to a multitude of variants, while Patek Philippe has carefully conserved the core Nautilus concept across four decades. IWC, on the other hand, simply abandoned its Genta-designed Ingenieur this year, like a child tossing away an unwanted toy. And why not? The firm had an older design, from 1955, that it felt deserved a reboot into the new “Ingy.” Such behavior is the hallmark of pur sang, whether in Frankish nobility or watchmaking royalty.
Yet there has always been an iconoclastic streak in IWC’s history, starting from the moment of its birth. F.A. Jones was no Swiss burgher; he was New Hampshire born and bred, and his eyes were firmly fixed on the American market. Thus, “International Watch Company,” to emphasize the advantages of a Swiss product over the domestic competition. It did not entirely pan out, and Mr. Jones was to leave the firm after seven years. By 1884, IWC was Swiss in both management and ownership, headed by Johannes Rauschenbach-Schenk. He was fascinated by the recently unveiled Pallweber system.
When Douglas Adams wrote in TheHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” he likely didn’t know about Josef Pallweber’s innovation, which predated Hamilton’s Pulsar P1 of 1972 by nearly 90 years but was, strictly speaking, a true digital timepiece. IWC would go on to produce approximately 20,000 Pallweber-system pocket watches, which used jumping-minute and jumping-hour complications, along with numbered discs to power hour and minute displays, much like the date indicator on a contemporary mechanical watch.
The decision to terminate production of the Pallwebers put the digital watch into a Rip-Van-Winkle-like slumber until the beginning of the Space Age. Still, IWC continued to innovate as the tide turned from pocket watch to wristwatch after World War I. The Special Pilot’s Watch, Reference IW436, arrived in 1936 to serve the needs of a new class of adventurer. Antimagnetic and proofed against the freezing temperatures encountered by open-cockpit aviators, the IW436 established aesthetic and functional directions for pilots’ watches that continue to this day.
One of the brand’s few stubborn loyalties—to its own hand-wound movements—prevented IWC from taking advantage of John Harwood’s “Perpetual” patent for self-winding mechanical watches. But in 1950, technical director Albert Pellaton designed and patented a unique bidirectional winding movement that would first appear in 1955’s Ingenieur. It used a soft-iron case to deflect magnetic fields, and can be considered an early example of what is now called a “tool watch.”
The quartz era brought a variety of conventional and “mecha-quartz” hybrid movements in watches that might seem eccentric to modern eyes, but should start enjoying a well-deserved renaissance of regard. Similarly, a partnership with Porsche Design resulted in a series of highly regarded sport watches, including the wonderfully campy “Compass” collaboration. Here, the dial and movement could be flipped up to reveal—you guessed it—a liquid-filled compass. The entire watch was made from aluminum, so as to prevent interference with the directional needle.
A more significant product was the Titan chronograph, the first wristwatch to use a full-titanium case. IWC expended substantial effort addressing the challenges of machining, offering an unprecedented combination of lightness, durability, and corrosion resistance. The follow-up effort, 1982’s Ocean, could be used at depths of up to 2,000 meters and was available in a completely antimagnetic version for military divers whose jobs could take them close to magnetic mines.
Renewed interest in Swiss mechanical watches soon found IWC well-positioned, a notion which perhaps did not occur immediately to the nouveau riche, but which nonetheless offered impeccable historical credentials, producing a variety of sports and luxury pieces. A diverse series of cobranding efforts, with entries ranging from the Fondation Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to the Mercedes-AMG Formula One team, has kept IWC firmly in the public eye; radical designs of the Da Vinci and Ingenieur lines have demonstrated a commitment to keeping its core models fresh.
But the main attraction is the mechanical-digital display for hours and minutes. Whereas the unusual jumping mechanisms of the 1884 original required frequent winding by the standards of the era, the new tribute rectifies that issue by decoupling the minute wheel for 59 of every 60 seconds, reducing drag and allowing for a 60-hour reserve. The unique manufacture movement requires 50 jewels and operates at an impressive 28,800 vph. As one would expect nowadays, the dial is a relatively large 45 mm. The caseback is sapphire, all the better to allow one marvel at the complications within.
In that spirit, IWC has chosen to mark its 150th anniversary by issuing no fewer than 27 commemorative editions, including tourbillons, perpetual calendars, and a new movement with ceramic internals. The spotlight will, however, undoubtedly shine brightest on an all-new effort that reaches back to that 1884 Pallweber design for inspiration. The IWC Tribute to Pallweber Edition “150 Years” (Ref. IW505002) is a very different take on the modern digital watch, using an 18-karat red-gold case, a white dial with a lacquered finish, white display discs, and a blued seconds hand.
Priced at $36,000 and limited to a total production of just 250 examples, the Pallweber tribute is not meant for general consumption. Nor does it presage a new era of mechanical-digital watches. (Although such a development would be a welcome change from the current focus on hypertrophic case-size and increasingly recherché combinations of complications.) No, it’s better to think of this latest piece as a statement, a celebration of what IWC has always done best, a testament to its singular position in the industry: that tireless champion of innovation, free to alternately disregard and venerate its history, both deeply rooted in tradition and fearlessly focused on the future.
Inside a modest workshop on the western outskirts of Buenos Aires, four men are hard at work.
They measure patterns and heat irons over an open flame, methodically whetting and polishing and hammering. The tables are covered in awls, spurs, wrought-iron pincers. Rolls of exquisite calfskin and horsehide are stacked waist-high. Rows and rows of hardwood shoe lasts line the shelves.
Welcome to Casa Fagliano, a bastion of traditional bootmaking. The workshop first opened in 1892, across the street from the Asociación Civil Hurlingham Club. The latter establishment grew into the nation’s equestrian sports epicenter, hosting Abierto de Hurlingham, one of the world’s most prestigious polo tournaments. Casa Fagliano found an eager clientele. English-style polo boots became a specialty.
Four generations later, the operation remains a family affair. Rodolfo, the 86-year-old patriarch, cuts leather and welts soles alongside his sons, Eduardo and Hector, and his grandson, Germán. To them, “mass-production” is a four-letter word; these guys make each boot by hand, one at a time. Order a bespoke pair with matching kneepads and wood trees, and you can expect to join a six-to-eight-month waiting list—albeit one that includes Prince Harry, Tommy Lee Jones, and the Sultan of Brunei.
Also Jaeger-LeCoultre. The Swiss watchmaker first collaborated with Casa Fagliano seven years ago, commissioning straps for a limited-edition Reverso Tribute to 1931. Now, the two firms have teamed up again, this time on a special version of the Reverso Tribute Duo, which features a Cordovan leather strap, designed and handmade in the Fagliano workshop. According to Geoffroy Lefebvre, deputy CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, the continued partnership is a matter of values and pedigree.
“Both our realms share a passion for the product, respect for expert craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail and the pursuit of perfection,” says Lefebvre. “The Reverso was originally created in 1931 for British Army officers in India who were anxious to protect the glass of their watches while playing polo…. Therefore the relationship between the inventor of the polo watch and the most prestigious polo boot manufacturer was natural.”
The two-tone Fagliano band complements the Duo’s pink-gold case, which, as ever, features two dials. The main face is sun-brushed satin gray; it swivels and tucks away to reveal a secondary dial, silvered with Clous de Paris guilloché detailing and a day-night indicator. Both sides have formal dauphine hands, gold-plated hour markers, and run off a manual, in-house movement, offering a 42-hour power reserve.
Just 100 examples of the Reverso Tribute Duo will be offered on a Casa Fagiliano Edition strap, an order that took the leather-workers an entire year to fill. But, unlike the previous Tribute to 1931, which was exclusive to American stores, this new watch will be available at Jaeger-LeCoultre boutiques worldwide—and, yes, that includes the Buenos Aires store.