Baselworld, Switzerland’s largest watch and jewelry trade show, has seen its number of exhibitors decline over the years and this year was smaller than ever after Swatch Group (as well as some other brands like Corum) announced it would no longer exhibit at the show. Swatch Group owns 18 watch and jewelry brands so its absence made a significant impact. Overall, however, the waning attendance of the show was topped off with lackluster debuts that, mostly, did not move the needle in terms of innovative product and design. Many of the new releases included small updates in materials or movements on existing models. Production in the Swiss watch industry moves slowly, so that may say more about what was going on economically in 2017 or the beginning of 2018 than it does about anything else. It may also mean that brands are saving new releases for later on in the year.
That being said, there were still a few stars of the show that deserve highlighting. We’ll be going into more depth about these pieces later, but for now these are the watches of Baselworld 2019 that you should be keeping your eye on or scrambling to get on your wrist. And you can expect every one of these to be tough to get, limited or not.
The first version of Greubel Forsey’s masterful GMT timepiece was launched in 2011 and was known for its incredible finishing that included graining, beveling, black polishing, lapping, and frosting—showing off Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey’s mastery of 200-year-old English and French techniques for which the brand has become known. It was also notable for its 3D globe that indicated the earth’s rotation in real time. The watchmaking duo unveiled a new version last year called the GMT Earth (one of Robb Report‘s Best of the Best 2018 timepieces), which was equipped with a mechanism similar to the original GMT movement but came with a new redesign and a window on the side of the case that showed another view of the 3D globe.
This year Greubel Forsey took its GMT to the next level with a quadruple tourbillon. Since the launch of their Double Tourbillon 30° with their debut watch in 2004, the company has made it a bit of a mission to constantly re-imagine the tourbillon (the Quadruple Tourbillon followed in 2005 and the Tourbillon 23 seconds in 2006). This year they merged the ingenuity of their GMT watch with their mastery of the tourbillon in the new GMT Quadruple Tourbillon. It’s a clever homage to the invention created by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801 to remedy the effects of earth’s gravity on a timepiece—here the tourbillons gravitate around the earth.
This is the first Calatrava in steel ($33,454), not in a limited series, in 70 years. That in and of itself will be reason for collectors to want to get their hands on this watch (and it’s one they might actually be able to unlike other Patek Philippe introductions). But a deeper look at this 40 mm by 10.79 mm watch reveals it’s housing a new self-winding base caliber, a semi-integrated weekly calendar caliber 26-330 movement—based on the self-winding caliber 324, which took years of development. It tells the day of the week, the date at a three o’clock aperture, and the month, and comes with a 53-week indicator. (That number accounts for years with an extra week, which happens every five to six years, with the next occurrence happening in 2020.) The icing on this cake is that its unusual numerals were actually based on the handwriting of one of its designers. It adds something to this watch’s retro appeal, in a nod to two things threatened with extinction: the art of handwriting and the art of timekeeping.
Chopard LUC Flying T
This is Chopard’s first calibre with a flying tourbillon and they made sure to do it justice with a hand-guilloché dial with a snailed design around the chapter ring and a center circle with a honeycomb motif first used by the watchmaker in 2017 on the L.U.C XPS 1860 Officer edition. It’s also a nod to the first logo used by Louis-Ulysse Chopard—a beehive. The chronometer-certified movement also features a stop seconds function and comes with with an official Poinçon de Genève certification for quality and finishing.
But there’s more to extract from this timepiece beyond the dial and its new high complication—both come housed in a 40 mm x 7.2 mm case made from 18-karat fairmined rose gold. Chopard is one of the few watchmakers committed to ethically mined gold and the L.U.C Flying T Twin is crafted from a single block of it. Chopard’s gold ensures that both the environment where it is sourced and the miners who work to deliver it are treated fairly. The company also reinvests money back into local community projects. It is a commitment that Chopard has pledged since July of last year and it has certainly set them a step above the rest.
Zenith El Primero Revival A386
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the El Primero, Zenith launched a special collector’s box of three watches representing the past, the present, and the future of its famous movement. The past was represented by a stainless steel recreation of the original timepiece that housed the movement at its birth, the present was a Chronomaster 2 El Primero, and the future was a Defy El Primero 21 Chronograph—the latest version of the model released in 2017, which took the original El Primero’s 36,000 mph frequency and multiplied it by 10 making it the first mechanical watch able to measure times up to 1/100th of a second. The box set, limited to 50, was an immediate collector’s darling and has already sold out. So for Baselworld, Zenith came back with new iterations of its most popular model—the original, of course—in white gold, rose gold, and yellow gold. At 38 mm by 12.6 mm it wears as retro as it looks.
The El Primero has a ton of history, so for now, we’ll do a quick-ish summary. After seven years of development, Zenith’s (known as Zenith-Movado at the time) El Primero was launched 50 years ago on January 10th, 1969 marking the first time a high-frequency (36,000 vibrations per hour) automatic chronograph hit the market. Until then, Seiko and the Chronomatic Group, which was comprised of brands Hamilton-Buren, Breitling, Heuer, and Dubois Dépraz had all been competing and racing to develop the first automatic chronograph. That same year, the quartz crisis took hold. Seiko unveiled the world’s first quartz watch on December 25, 1969. Two years later in 1971, Zenith was sold to Zenith Radio Corporation, the Chicago-based manufacturer of radios and television. Production of the El Primero waned as quartz took over the world and was eventually ended by 1974. With extraordinary foresight Zenith watchmaker, Charles Vermot, realizing its importance, safeguarded the tools necessary to make the movement.
Enter the crown—in the early ’80s, Ebel and Rolex played a major role in reviving the El Primero. Ebel was first in 1981, when head honcho Pierre-Alain Blum wanted to offer an automatic chronograph in his catalogue. Rolex followed, equipping its Daytona models with the El Primero calibre. Vermot’s tools allowed Zenith to quickly restart production on the scale required for Rolex. Those El Primero Daytona rollies have since become coveted watches. Back when the Rolex El Primero Daytona Ref. 16520 was released it was about $3,300…it now retails for over $20,000.
The new trio of Zenith El Primero throwbacks retail for 19,900 CHF (approximately $19,900 at current exchange), but once they’re gone—and assuming Zenith doesn’t continue to update these in years to come—these timepieces, limited to 50 in each metal, will one day see an ROI that could be as impressive as a Ref. 16520.
Breitling Re-Edition 1959 Ref. 806
Another retro edition popped up at Baselworld in Breitling’s Ref. 806 1959 Re-Edition and you can thank Breitling collector Fred Mandelbaum for this one. The collector was part of the development and relaunch of this particular model. The watch, according to Mandelbaum’s Instagram @watchfred, is as true to the original as when it left the manufacture for sale 60 years ago—that includes it dimensions, design, and finishing. Breitling went so far as to match even the smallest details to the original like the number of beads around the bezel (94, to be exact to the 1959 model) and the unsigned winged logo, which was used only for the European market (an AOPA-signed logo was used on watches sold in the U.S.).
The only thing new here, other than SuperLuminova markings and a water resistance of 30 meters (almost 100 feet) is a new in-house manufacture movement, the caliber B09, which is based on its inherent-house manufacture caliber 01 and is a COSC-certified chronometer and Breitling says the movement will power many of its hand-wound historical re-editions to come. That means there will be more re-editions in the future but whether they will be as accurate to the original as this one remains to be seen.
At $8,600 this 40.9 mm x 12.43 mm watch is definitively the more affordable of the re-editions and only 1,959 pieces will be available.
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Carbon
This year Bulgari continued forging on with its quest for thinness and came out with the world’s thinnest automatic chronograph at 6.9 mm slim. It comes in a sandblasted titanium and is a follow up to last year’s groundbreaking October Finissmio collection debut (Robb Report‘s Best of the Best timepieces for 2018), but our personal favorite of the new Octo Finissimo watches keeps it clean and straight-up minimalist modern—the Octo Finissimo black ceramic three-hand. It comes in a skeleton version, which is mighty impressive but something about the modernity of this design calls for a clean and simple timepiece that can be worn at every hour of the day. Similar looking carbon fiber Octo Finissmos exist, but one is a minute repeater and the other, which debuted earlier this year, is an automatic tourbillon. The ceramic three-hand ($15,600) isn’t exactly revolutionary given its predecessors but if you’re looking to get your hands on this design without shelling out six figures for a tourbillon or minute repeater, it’s a very welcome new addition.
Grand Seiko Snowflake
This baby was one of the most talked about watches of Baselworld. And in case any watch newcomers are wondering what’s so great about Seiko (and we know there are some of you still out there)—welcome to the world of Grand Seiko. This is an entirely different wing of the brand, separate from the one that’s known for having launched the quartz crisis. Japanese watchmaker Grand Seiko is known for its high-end timepieces created in two exclusive watch studios in Japan using unique movements and finishing techniques that are quite unlike anything coming out of Switzerland. It is therefore under the radar to the general public, but for many collectors its understated elegance and commitment to perfectionism and precision, so inherent to Japanese culture, makes it a seriously coveted brand.
This year they outdid themselves with a snowflake dial, accented with 14-karat white gold markers and hands, inspired by the Shinshu region, home to Grand Seiko. The finish on the dial seems to melt or blend into the case which has been hand carved, in platinum 950 no less, to replicate the pattern on the dial. Flip it over and you will find the Calibre 9R02. The first thing you will notice is the barrel whose shape mimics the local bellflower, a symbol of Shiojiri where the Micro Artist Studio is located. The words “Micro Artist” are engraved on an 18-karat gold plaque set on the lower bridge, which can also be replaced with the client’s name. The 9R02, however, is notable in that it’s a new movement that improves upon its famous Spring Drive movement, first launched in 1999 and lauded for its accuracy, with two mainsprings set in parallel within a single barrel. It employs a Torque Return System that uses a percentage energy from the torque of the watch when it is fully wound to rewind the mainspring thereby increasing the power reserve to 84 hours.
It’s an exceptional 38.55 x 9.8 mm timepiece and with just 30 pieces worldwide at $76,000 a piece, with just three slotted for the U.S., it will take an exceptional collector to buy one.