Rebel watchmakers shake up Swiss tradition at Baselworld 2018
As a 101-year-old watch fair in a historic European city, it's little surprise that Baselworld is defined by a sense of heritage. But as the world's celebrated watchmakers show off their centuries-old legacies, a cohort of independent Swiss brands is using the fair to attract a new generation of customers.
Among this year's most unusual propositions, ArtyA is the brainchild of motorbike-riding horologist Yvan Arpa. Founded in 2010, the brand specializes in themed timepieces and unconventional materials, such as tobacco leaves, shredded euro notes and butterfly wings.
Even in the orthodox world of Swiss watchmaking, there is room for bold innovation, said Arpa, a former math professor and professional Muay Thai boxer.
"I wanted to marry art with high watchmaking -- a slice of art on your wrist," he said in a phone interview." (Our choice of materials) gives a very a different energy to the watches. They're like a painting and a sculpture at the same time.
"I don't have to give feedback to finance directors or shareholders, so there's no compromise," he added.
At Baselworld, ArtyA has unveiled a number of new lines, as well as additions to existing ranges. Among them is a new "Russian Roulette" edition to the Son of a Gun collection -- a set of watches containing metal from real bullets. While expressing his respect for "the secular tradition of Swiss watchmaking," Arpa admitted that his approach attracts the ire of heritage watch brands.
"Of course some of it disturbs them, and I do it on purpose," he said. "Many other brands were shocked that we'd use real bullets in watches. But what's important is that we also match the highest horological techniques."
Breaking with tradition
Elsewhere at Baselworld, glimpses of eccentricity can be found amid age-old institutions. MB&F has introduced The Fifth Element, a futuristic-looking "intergalactic horological weather station" consisting of a detachable clock, barometer, hygrometer and thermometer. L'Duchen has used its clock faces as blank canvases for elaborate artworks, while Corum's latest designs include a watch bearing a cigar-smoking clown.
Rebellion can be a subtle art, though. For Geneva-based Cyrus, founded in 2010, upending tradition comes by way by unusual shapes and curious mechanical complications. The brand is also known for the atypical arrangements of its watches' functions: its new Klepcys Vertical Tourbillon, for example, is effectively divided into two, with hours marked to the clock face's left and minutes to its right.
"The hour indication goes up to 12 and then jumps back to zero at the bottom," Walter Ribaga, Cyrus' managing director, said in a phone interview. "And on the other side, the minute indicator is also retrograde, so the combination makes this vertical tourbillon a very special piece.
Cyrus, like ArtyA, is aimed at younger consumers than other luxury watches. Bucking the trend of suave celebrity endorsements, it counts daredevil Freddy Nock among its brand ambassadors.
"We're looking to successful, wealthy young people who are aficionados of watches (aged) from 25 to 45 or 50," Ribaga said.
These young consumers will find Cyrus and ArtyA stationed in Baselworld's "Les Ateliers" area, which the fair bills as a showcase for "trailblazers, revolutionaries, the avant-garde and artists" and a fair highlight among visitors.
"When you ask who the attraction is, it's us," Ribaga said. "Not just Cyrus, but all of us (in Les Ateliers). The retailers come to Baselworld to buy Omega, or the other big brands, because they have leverage ... but once they're done with those booths, they come to us to look for novelties, creative solutions and new products."
Innovation for survival
For all the romance of being an upstart in a world that cherishes tradition, Switzerland's unconventional watchmakers make a deliberate market choice. In order compete with luxury brands (or at least to operate in the same price bracket), standing out is a matter of survival.
"If I'd tried to -- or wanted to -- do the same as the traditional watch brands, I would be 400 years too late," Arpa joked. "So I think it's important for independent watchmakers to try to find new ways of telling the time."
"It's very difficult to fight big brands using classical watches," Ribaga said, "because, of course, those brands are better known than ours. The only way to stand out is through innovation. And the small independent brands are the 'kitchen' where innovation is created."
Ribaga said eye-catching design is a "way to exist." But it can be an expensive one. The aforementioned vertical tourbillon, which is limited to 38 pieces per model, took one-and-a-half-years and approximately 1 million Swiss francs ($1.06 million) to develop.
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Yet, even in the realm of investment, acts of rebellion are underway. A number of small luxury watch companies are now using crowdfunding platforms to attract investment and pull down the watch industry's high barriers to entry. At this year's Baselword alone, you'll find Hexagonale, a French brand about to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise capital, and Klokers, which, at the time of writing, had amassed over 463,000 euros ($571,000) on the site for its new KLOK-08 series.
Whether through offbeat design or novel business models, the industry must innovate to stay relevant, Arpa said. These are, after all, turbulent times for the Swiss watch market, which saw exports drop in 2015 and 2016 (before a slight recovery last year) amid stuttering Asian demand and the arrival of smart rivals like the Apple Watch.
"We're an industry that could vanish if we don't try to reinvent ourselves," Arpa said, pointing to the decline of hat-making as a cautionary tale.
"Nobody needs a watch to tell the time anymore. You have the time on your phone, your computer, everywhere on the street and even on your fridge. So, for me, it's about having an object that is a slice of emotion on your wrist.
"We all loved when our mothers and fathers told us stories before bed. And watches should be the same -- they should tell you a story."