Last year, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), one of the largest watch trade shows in the world, my jaw dropped as I entered Richard Mille’s booth. Giant candy canes and marshmallow lollipops in rainbow colors hung from the ceiling, suspended between walls coated in pink swirls. That was the backdrop for the debut of Mille’s equally outrageous candy-themed collection. It was met with plenty of disdain in the staid watch world, but that booth was the talk of the event and appeared on everyone’s Instagram feed.
The watches sold out in two days—all of them priced above six figures.
Richard Mille upended the usual timelessness of Swiss traditions, and it—and others—continue to cross lines never even considered in past years.
Most watchmakers spend their R&D budgets on reinventing timekeeping complications that often date to the 1800s, even the 1700s. Save for the invention of quartz watches in the 1970s, the wristwatch wasn’t truly reinvented until the Apple Watch appeared in 2015, but its older brother, the iPhone, had put a more accurate method of timekeeping in everyone’s pocket years earlier.
But recently, a change beyond mere digitization is afoot. Now even old-school Swiss watchmakers can no longer remain impervious to the digital world and globalization. As a result, the watch business is starting to echo fashion, embracing social media, releasing a relentless stream of limited-edition product “drops” and following an ethos of more is more. Most companies have been reluctant to adopt such changes, but a few have been out in front, arms open.
Richard Mille won’t be showing at this year’s SIHH (now called Watches & Wonders Geneva), because the brand no longer needs the old trade-show format to reach its audience: It has Instagram, the internet and now a world tour. Like other forward-thinking brands—such as Audemars Piguet, Breitling and Bremont, which have also chosen to drop out of the show—Mille will be taking its timepieces and its money on the road to reach important clients.
The idea is nothing new. It’s a concept the fashion world birthed years ago when seasonal runway events began to feel tired. Brands such as Fendi and Chanel took pre-fall, resort and Métiers d’Art collections to far-flung locations like the Great Wall of China and the Schloss Leopoldskron hotel in Salzburg, Austria (where Coco Chanel found the inspiration for her iconic tweed jacket). This new kind of showmanship delivers a better narrative while simultaneously wowing journalists, influencers and retailers.
Other watch brands have chosen to keep their product traditional but ignite hype with limited-edition drops throughout the year with little warning, following the boom created by sneakers and streetwear. And it works. When Omega offered a 2,012-piece, limited-edition Speedmaster online on “Speedy Tuesday” (a hashtag created by Fratello Watches founder Robert-Jan Broer to celebrate the brand’s hero model), it sold out within hours. Doxa, a dive-watch brand adored by collectors, launched its Sub 300 Black Lung online, and all 300 pieces went in a day. Psychology 101: Everyone wants the thing no one else can have.
I can’t help but wonder: At what cost? Brands have to constantly release a new product in small quantities to feed the hype beast, and while that’s feasible for a sneaker company churning out leather and rubber in Chinese factories, it’s quite another thing for a watchmaker that assembles microscopic components with tools the size of eyebrow tweezers in remote workshops in Switzerland. One head watchmaker, who works at a company owned by a luxury conglomerate hell-bent on turning a profit in the vein of its fashion brands, told me recently that he’s burned out. Because of its very nature, watchmaking can’t keep pace with the demands and shopping behavior of the modern consumer. When it tries to, quality suffers, or it will if this keeps up.
That the business of making watches is finally coming into the 21st century is a good thing, but it takes time to create time. You cannot fast-forward a mechanical product that requires handmade artistry and engineering to make it tick. Your timepiece is meant to last beyond your lifetime, and it will if you are buying one from a company dedicated to taking all the hours, days, months and even years needed to create it.