High Watchmaking Puts Its Best on Display

The Best Watches of SIHH 2016

January 26, 2016 Buying Guides By
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Previous SIHH Coverage
Best Watches of SIHH 2016
Best Watches of SIHH 2015
Best Watches of SIHH 2014
Best Watches of SIHH 2013
Best Watches of SIHH 2012

Throughout the year, there are two big events that watch nerds pay attention to: BaselWorld and the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH). BaselWorld is by far the biggest, with thousands of brands trotting out their latest timekeeping creations; it’s open to the public, and journalists jostle for space with the curious public to peer in the booth vitrines. But SIHH is a different sort of show. It is invitation-only and much smaller — fewer than 30 brands exhibit here in a hushed, intimate space, more akin to boutique than a mega mall.

SIHH also differs in another respect: it is a show dedicated largely to so-called “high watchmaking,” the “haute” in “haute horlogerie.” Here are watches made in smaller numbers with more complicated movements. It is a celebration of details — hand finishing, thin cases, precious metals, all pored over by guests with loupes crammed in their eyes.

2016 was an SIHH marked by a more pared-back focus from most brands, perhaps reflecting industry trends and the overall uncertainty of the global economy. Companies shed superfluous references, lowered prices and reduced case sizes. Many returned to core company aesthetics and conservative styles. But despite this ominous bellwether, the results were, in many cases, the best in years. Here are eight of my favorites.

A. Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Jumping Seconds

A. Lange & Söhne is a victim of its own success. Every year at SIHH, the German brand is expected to top itself with yet another stupendous creation. Looming over the front of the Lange booth this year was a 20-foot-high replica of the star of the show: the Datograph Perpetual Calendar Tourbillon, an even more complicated version of the watchmaker’s iconic chronograph. But there was another watch that felt more balanced, subtle and quintessentially Lange: the Richard Lange Jumping Seconds.

To the uninitiated, a jumping seconds complication can look decidedly mundane, the sweep hand ticking from second to second like a quartz watch. But in fact, to make a mechanical watch keep time in this way requires the complex addition of a separate gear train to the movement that releases energy to the seconds hand one second at a time. It is a true “insider’s complication,” appreciated by those who know what they’re looking at. In addition, Lange fitted the watch with a zero reset function, which snaps the seconds hand to 12 when the crown is pulled out for precise time setting. All of this watchmaking prowess is packed in a 40mm platinum case with a regulator-style dial, adding up to not only Lange’s best watch this year but a strong contender for best of show.

IWC Pilot’s Watch Timezoner Chronograph

IWC rebooted its Pilot’s Watch collection this year with downsized cases, a return to classic design cues and better pricing. But it also added a brand-new complication watch, the Pilot’s Watch Timezoner Chronograph, to the mix. The Timezoner is, as its name suggests, a travel watch. But unlike most travel watches, which make use of a world time complication or 24-hour hand, the Timezoner takes a more innovative, and incredibly simple, approach. The rotating bezel of the watch, which is marked with major cities in 24 world time zones, is actually linked to the watch movement itself. Pushing the spring-loaded bezel while turning adjusts the hour hand to reflect the current time offset for the city positioned at the top of the bezel. A separate red hour hand indicates whether it is a.m. or p.m. Meanwhile, the watch is also a chronograph, functioning independently to track elapsed time up to 12 hours. It is a pilot’s watch that a pilot might actually find useful.

Panerai Luminor 1950 3 Days Acciaio (PAM00663)

Officine Panerai draws much of its design inspiration from the archive of historical timepieces the company once made for Italian diving commandos. The familiar “sandwich” dial with looping numerals, cushion-shaped case and levered crown guard are all instantly recognizable cues that originated in World War II-era watches. With the new Luminor 1950 3 Days Acciaio, Panerai not only mimics the design of its forebears but also emulates the effects time has had on those old watches. Its faded brown dial resembles the “tropicalization” of dials ravaged by ultraviolet sunlight and the slow burn of the radioactive luminescent paint that was used before its deleterious properties were known. The end result has the same vibe, without the nasty side effects.

H. Moser & Cie Endeavour Perpetual Calendar Concept

New to SIHH this year, H. Moser is a tiny brand based across the Rhein River from IWC in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Just prior to SIHH, Moser made news by releasing its Swiss Alp watch, which, thanks to a similarity in design, took cheeky aim at the mighty Apple Watch. While the Swiss Alp Watch was all the buzz around the Moser booth at SIHH, it was another of their timepieces that caught my eye — the Endeavour Perpetual Calendar Concept. As its name suggests, this watch will indicate the month and day in perpetuity without needing correction for short months or Leap Years. While this alone isn’t unusual (perpetuals are becoming as common as chronographs these days), the way it displays the information is.

The Endeavour makes use of the fact that there are 12 months in the year and 12 hours on a watch dial to simply point to the number of the corresponding month — 1 for January, 2 for February, and so on, with a third stubby little hand. In addition, its date window instantly switches, even at the end of shorter months. All of this information is shown on a beautiful gray fumé dial that lacks a logo, name, or even a sweep seconds hand. A simple up/down power reserve hand tracks the impressive seven-day autonomy of the watch, and a beautiful kudu strap keeps its look decidedly unstuffy.

Greubel Forsey Signature 1

Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey paired up 10 years ago to pursue their dream of building uncompromising watches in very small numbers. The results have been spectacular and whimsical — angled double tourbillons, three-dimensional spinning globes and microscopic sculptures — but often inaccessible in terms of design and eye-watering price. With the Signature 1 comes a refreshing change of pace. Designed by a single watchmaker in Greubel Forsey’s workshops, the watch is notable for its simplicity. This is a simple handwound time-only piece with an open-worked dial that gives an uncluttered view into the movement with its massive, slow-beating balance wheel. The 41.4mm case sits nicely on the wrist, and the lack of GF’s usual angled tourbillon means it will slide under a shirtsleeve as well. And while it’s not affordable, at under $200,000, it is the least expensive watch the brand has sold.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked

Audemars Piguet is the rare brand that can straddle pop culture and nerd appeal. Its Royal Oak Offshore collection is beloved among action stars thanks to its chunky styling and nightclub cred, while its high watchmaking draws horology geeks in droves (making for quite the mixed crowd at its boutiques). The Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked continues to play to both sides of the aisle. While the rose gold Royal Oak case is the quintessential luxe sports watch vehicle, a double balance wheel is deep nerd territory. Stacking two balance wheels on top of each other greatly enhances chronometric stability, offsetting each other to provide optimum amplitude for precise timekeeping (told you it was nerdy). Yet even if you don’t grasp the horological implications of this groundbreaking movement, you can at least admire it through the exquisite openworked dial, which gives view into the city under glass.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Ultra-Thin

The Vacheron Overseas has largely lived in the shadows of two other luxury sports watches that emerged in the 1970s, the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. But while those two titans have become almost overexposed, the Overseas has long maintained a sort of subtle appeal. This year, Vacheron refreshed the Overseas, fitting all of the watches in the family with different movements and refining the aesthetics. The chronograph and date references are the most accessible, but the Ultra-Thin models are real purists’ watches.

The Overseas Ultra-Thin lacks even a sweep seconds hand on its sunburst gray dial, keeping the movement to 2.45mm thick. The hallmark angular lines are still present, with a crenellated bezel and a white gold case that flows seamlessly into the bracelet. That bracelet has been updated with a quick-release mechanism that allows you to swap it for a rubber or leather one without tools, lending a new versatility to a watch that already did a lot of things well.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Tribute Duoface

Watch brands love their anniversaries. 2016 marks the 85th of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s iconic Reverso, which was originally developed for British polo players in 1931. To celebrate this milestone, JLC updated the Reverso, streamlining the lineup into small, medium and large case sizes and fitting them with some clever complications without sullying the original design brief.

While the point of the original reversible watch was the protect it from the rigors of polo matches, the format also lends itself to a dual time watch; the Tribute Duoface is about as elegant a travel watch as you’re likely to find. Maintaining near-perfect proportions, the Duoface puts a simple blue-on-white dial on one side and a more ornate hobnailed one on the other, the latter with a day/night indicator. The blue alligator strap matches the dial accents perfectly and slips as easily under a starched dress shirt as it does a grass-stained polo jersey sleeve.

Previous SIHH Coverage
Best Watches of SIHH 2016
Best Watches of SIHH 2015
Best Watches of SIHH 2014
Best Watches of SIHH 2013
Best Watches of SIHH 2012

Jason Heaton

Only wears mechanical watches, drives an adequately patina’d Alfa Romeo Spider right up until the snow flies, and always keeps an open bottle of single malt close at hand.

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