This week, Hong Kong plays host to Watches and Wonders, an exhibition organized by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH).
Described by the event organizer and FHH Managing Director Fabienne Lupo as "a total immersion experience," the exhibition is less a trade fair and more a platform for education and culture.
Held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, the third annual Watches and Wonders features 12 fine watch maisons, 10 of which are owned by Swiss luxury group, Richemont.
Last year, the event recorded 16,000 invite-only guests over four days, despite pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests deterring mainland Chinese tourists from visiting Hong Kong and disrupting traffic.
Without concerns of protests this year, Lupo expects more will visit, though the watch industry now faces new challenges -- staying financially sound amid China's slowing economy, anti-corruption legislation in China, and increasing interest in smartwatches.
"Uncertain" times ahead
The Asia market remains an important one for luxury watch makers, with many having long hedged their bets on the Chinese consumer. But, according to Deloitte's Swiss Watch Industry Study, only 27% of Swiss watch executives who responded to its annual survey, expect growth in China and Hong Kong over the next twelve months, with 34% expecting demand for Swiss watches to decline.
"It's why you will see everyone in the industry here -- the presence of all the brands' CEOs, the designers, even the watchmakers -- we want to show support during this uncertain period," Lupo explains.
As part of its educational element, the fair offered classes on watchmaking. Credit: courtesy watches and wonders
Beauty through bullet-proof glass
At the event, there's an aura of somberness -- well-turned out visitors wearing mostly black and white, speaking in hushed tones, sipping conservatively on champagne, and scrutinizing the timepieces on offer through thick plates of glass.
Exhibiting maisons organize personalized tours of their booths in small groups. Credit: courtesy watches and wonders
New features, like the addition of scannable QR codes that connect to audio tours, dot the exhibition space as a digital and Asia-facing means -- to learn more about individual watches and brands' histories. Lectures, such as "Chinese people's aesthetic approach to watches" and watchmaking workshops, are on offer.
Branded booths range from loud to the uber-chic
Our first stop is Swiss watch manufacturer, Roger Dubuis. And at 10am, it's a jarring wake-up call. At only 20-years-old, Dubuis is among the youngest brands in among the industry's old heritage maisons. As if to hammer this point home, the company has dramatically decked out its exhibition space -- which is transformed to feel like the mechanical insides of one of its skeleton watches.
Further enhancing the futuristic theme -- visitors can take a virtual reality trip through one of its watches, by strapping on an Oculus Rift headset.
Jean-Marc Pontroue, CEO of Roger Dubuis, says the exhibition's theatrics embody the brand's values. "We love fantasy. We love to enrich the brand with storytelling, with an emotional environment."
"We're targeting the young generation that don't necessarily want a classic watch, or the watch of their fathers," Pontroue continues. "But rather, the youth who like to wear niche brands."
What's it like to be inside a skeleton watch? Swiss manufacturer Roger Dubuis chose a bolder design for their exhibition space. Credit: courtesy roger dubuis
Pontroue admits that sales have been affected in Hong Kong and Macau this year, due to lower tourism numbers, but has remained stable in mainland China. In fact, the brand is expanding its presence in Beijing -- with a second store that opened this summer and another one planned for next year.
A polar opposite to the Gotham-esque Roger Dubuis, is German watch manufacturer A. Lange & Sohne -- which has chosen to present a more subdued set-up.
"We didn't want to overshadow the watch," explains Katharina Mack, Head of Marketing at A. Lange & Sohne. "It's about substance. It's not the staging that is emotional, it's the watch that is emotional."
12 luxury watch brands exhibit at the private, invite-only event. Credit: courtesy watches and wonders
A. Lange & Sohne is celebrating its 200th anniversary -- and while the warm colors of the exhibit, along with the matte watch faces, are rather understated, the feeling conveyed is that of rich tradition.
That -- and literal history. There's a bust of its founder protruding from the wall, a chunk of the Berlin Wall itself, and an enlarged timeline celebrating its watch evolution.
"People are curious to see how a German brand, not a Swiss brand, is working," says Mack. "It's a very technical look and feel, it's maybe not that romantic."
For romance, there is of course, Van Cleef and Arpels, the French maker of all things delicate and very, very pretty. Its watches are marketed as "poetic complications."
At Watches and Wonders, the French jewelry, watch and perfume company is debuting its Extraordinary Dials collection, three limited editions of 22 timepieces.
A partnership with a feather artist has produced the exquisite watch faces of a cardinal, hummingbird, and kingfisher.
Van Cleef and Arpels debuted Extraordinary Dials, bird-inspired timepieces that feature miniature feather art, at Watches and Wonders 2015. Credit: courtesy van cleef & arpels
"We really differ from brands that are more technical and masculine," says CEO Nicolas Bos. "Our message is more about the design and craftsmanship. The Asian market has been very responsive to our feminine designs, but we don't differentiate the collection according to geography, we're never opportunistic."
On suggestions of rockier times ahead for the watch industry, Van Cleef and Arpels CEO Nicolas Bos responds, "Yes, we have some years that are more positive than others, but that's pretty much what we feel in mature markets."
"It feels like the customer and market and operation in Hong Kong and in mainland China, at least in the major cities, are going to look more like operations in New York, London, Geneva or Tokyo."
"There's probably not that specificity of tremendous and huge volume that the industry had for awhile. It's going to disappear and stabilize. Then, I think there are opportunities for growth, I have no doubt about that."
New technologies and one-of-a-kind pieces
The event is a chance to create buzz around newer product lines and developments within the industry.
Visitors to Vacheron Constantin's booth, for instance, can view the "world's most complicated watch" in a closed section, where no cameras are allowed.
Richard Mille's RM 69 Erotic Tourbillon had some visitors blushing, with suggestive messages found on its watch face. Credit: courtesy richard mille
Richard Mille had watch buffs in titters with its RM 69 Erotic Tourbillon. The watch, of which only 30 were made, features a series of provocative messages on the watch face, which rotate to show one message after the other. Messages include "I want to caress you madly" and "I long to explore your lips." These were the more kid-friendly combinations of the 169 messages rotating messages available.
At Cartier, the Cle de Cartier collection -- which debuted earlier in the year at Salon International de Horlogerie -- is showcased front and center. The "cle", or French word for key, is in reference to a special crown designed for the watch -- a new system to rewind, that Cartier recently patented.
But something flashier catches our eye, and that's the one-of-a-kind Inca Watch, part of its High Jewelry collection.
"We have our own aesthetic vocabulary," Cartier director of image and style, Pierre Rainero says. "The Roman numerals, the dials, the crown, and above all, harmonious proportions."
"Everything is looked after, everything is a work of art. In Asia -- there's a tradition in craftsmanship, a taste for precious materials and beauty, and that's all the values that Cartier is about. That's why Cartier is successful in Asia, remaining Cartier as it is."