A decade of innovation and decadence

Can’t believe the first decade of the millennium is over! 10 years of horological flamboyance and decadence. A decade of the most extraordinary craftsmanship and innovation but also of easy money, lack of creation, imagination and outright copying the same designs.

Without being an exhaustive study on what happened during the past 10 years here’s a quick look at what I think were the highlights of the decade and of course your points and additions are most welcome.

Just a few years ago the internet was almost considered as an insult in the high end luxury market. It was seen as cheap and useful only for grey marketers and replica sellers. However, all these brands forgot the main object of the net: information. Today not only have brands embraced the internet and have gone from purely static online versions of their paper catalogues to creative and interactive web sites. Discussion forums such as Time Zone and The Purists are no longer looked upon as a “nuisance” but as true media by brands, others such as VC have gone as far as actually creating their own discussion fora.


The tourbillon like the minute repeater was always considered as the private domain of the elite makers capable of creating such complex mechanisms and reserved for the happy few, but in comes Progress Watch (now STT) with an entry priced tourbillon and all of a sudden the tourbillon was no longer made by Vacheron, Patek or Audemars but by mid level brands. The Chinese tourbillon movement even further democratised this complication opening it up to purely fashion brands and the market ended up by having €3000 tourbillons from Saint Honoré to €400 000 ones from Greubel Forsey! To avoid being compared to the lesser range brands others got into making double and triple axis tourbillons if not pitting 2,3 or even four tourbillons into the same watch! Is the tourbillon dead? Are collectors still willing to pay immense sums for this complication? Only time will tell but somehow feel it will take the same path as the split seconds chronograph: difficult and complex to master but not longer regarded as a horological feat.


Until very recently a watch looked…well like a watch, there were some attempts (rather unfortunate aesthetically speaking IMHO) by Gerald Genta under his own name in the 90s and Vianney Halter introduced the Jules Vernesque Antiqua in 1998 but its only with the Millenium that the explosion of “designed” watches took place. Avant garde and funky designs were no longer the playground of fashion brands but real horology could now be found in the most surprising forms. Richard Mille brought a real industrial look (and believe me back in 2001 his watches looked like no other), followed by Parmigiani’s Buggati (2002 or 2003 I don’t remember) and Harry Winston’s Opus 3 in 2003. This model broke open the creative dams and opened the eyes of a larger public to smaller more creative brands such as Vianney Halter, Urwerk, MB&F and even Greubel Forsey but also a myriad of other brands dipping into the gimmick if not the grotesque.

Size Matters
I remember when I bought a 44mm Panerai back in 1998. Almost all my friends (even the WIS) made fun of me often asking me if it was a “blind man’s watch”. The thing was HUGE but needless to say that today 44mm has almost become a standard and the 36mm watch which was a man’s size in 2000 is now considered lady’s size. Brands have been coming out with bigger and bigger watches and even when you thought it would never get bigger someone would prove you wrong. VC was one of the very first in 2004 by producing a large (40mm) dress watch: the Patrimony Contemporaine. I insulted the watch back then (go check the VC forum on The Purists where I was the moderator then) finding it ridiculously sized for a dress watch…and bought one 3 years later.


It seems that ever since 2005 and VC’s presentation of the Tour de l’Ile which was at the time considered the world’s most complicated watch with its 16 complications (as compiled by Antiquorum) a race to the most complicated wrist watches begun with brands rivalling in ingenuity trying to squeeze in yet another complication, and at this rate the deployant clasp will be added to the list of complications as to add an extra zero to the price tag. It’s just getting ridiculous at this stage, something like creating a pizza with the most ingredients…its not tasty just indigestible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for complications and multiple complications, I just don’t appreciate the stacking of complications which reduce the watch to a list of features.

Vacheron Constantin’s 250th anniversary
First time a watch brand survives this long and always part of the great manufactures. I think the next to hit the quarter millennium mark is Breguet…in 2025!


Due to the rise of the internet, independent watchmakers have had the spotlight shine on them. Philippe Dufour was probably the first to use the net to open up to a whole new type of collectors who probably would never have had the idea of commissioning an independent artisan to make a watch. The last decade saw the massive arrival of independent and often one man shows gain critical and commercial success. Before 2000 George Daniels was the only independent to be really known by the WIS crowd, today rare are those who have never heard of FP Journe, Philippe Dufour, Roger Smith, Felix Baumgartner, Vianney Halter or Kari Voutilaninen who surprised the watch world by winning the Geneva Horological Grand Prix prize in the best men’s watch category in 2007 with his Observatoire!

Use of new materials

For centuries, gold, platinum and steel were used for watch cases and the type of metal used was an indication of the “preciousness” and category of the watch. This decade was the one where new and unusual materials started being used: titanium, tantalum, zalium not to mention Zenithium, Hublonium and other ums. High end watches are no longer exclusively made of gold or platinum, the whole scale of “values” has been shuffled. Not to mention the use of silicon in certain components.

Status Symbol

I think that one of the main and most interesting evolutions can be seen here. Some will argue that the watch was always a status symbol. True but not only. Even though only a certain elite could afford them, the watch has always had a specific purpose: to give time! Even after its rebirth in the late 80s the mechanical wristwatch still kept the same purpose but with the bigger wilder and sometimes illegible pieces and the fact that time can be had anywhere, the watch has become almost entirely a status symbol. I was speaking with Osvaldo Patrizzi in the early 2000s and I asked him what he thought the reason behind such fascination for mechanical watches came from and his reply was simple “it’s a status symbol, you can’t show every one your Picassos and you park your Ferrari outside, your watch follows you everywhere”. Us WIS will not agree with this but then again we represent a minority of the watch buying public.

High End Horology

Putting brands in categories was simple 10 years ago; 1st tier, 2nd tier and medium and low range brands, each stayed in its category with products and prices specific to that category.

For at lest 200 years there were 3 great houses all the way on top of the watchmaking Everest: Vacheron, Patek and Audemars. With the rebirth of Lange and Breguet two prestigious names who had gone through hard times were back…and with a vengeance. Then came new brands such as FP Journe, Richard Mille or De Bethune with real innovative calibres making an entrance in the high horology category. But it seems that in the past years almost all brands tried going upscale and high horology was the new El Dorado crowded a section where history and legitimacy are everything few will survive.

Casual Chic

We had sports watches and dress watches not any of this in between stuff, just like shoes and clothes the frontiers between casual and dress intermingled thus the term casual chic.

Bubble and Crisis

The fact that the watch became a status symbol, a new found passion for high horology and the emergence of new markets such as China and Russia brands started selling almost all their ridiculously priced production (gimmicks included). The bubble was there but it seemed that the industry either wanted to consider that it was a normal situation or turned a blind eye. In either case few were prepared for the blast that would hit the world in 2008. Unfortunate layoffs and bankruptcies later, all I can hope is that the watch industry comes back to its senses and offer us not only a message and an image but a watch!
Insightful analysis...
01/11/2010 - 18:02
and brilliantly written of course .   Perhaps the WIS will gain more respect as a reliable customer when times are tough...reliable to those brands that maintain their integrity.
Food for thought!
01/11/2010 - 22:41
Well collated copy resulting in a feast for the eye and served-up to perfection. Thanks, Alex Regards, Tony
I think you hit all the important elements.. maybe one more...
01/11/2010 - 22:57
... women being a) catered for better and b) taking more of an interest, in both mens and womens watches? I have catered pretty well for my wife in the last 10 years- including in the watch department, and she also takes an interest in wearing more of my watches... and I like it that she sometimes straps a 40mm watch, that is clearly not supposed to appeal to her, to her wrist... it is funky and cool to see it Have women become directly more interested in watches, or have watches simply overflowed into their lives in an indirect fashion (literally) via advertising and the men around them taking more of an interest? Is the status symbolism of watches amongst men being used by women to get them noticed too (by men, or their women friends)? Diamonds no longer cutting it on their own? A-ha... watches with diamonds on them! Perfect. But no change there then, except perhaps the dimensions. What goes round, comes around.