Where to begin? No walk of life has been exempt from the impact of the coronavirus, and while it may seem, as you flick through the following pages, that the world of luxury watches remains as well-stocked with finely polished playthings as ever, it has not been a smooth ride.
In fact, as I discuss in my predictions for the future opposite (normally a somewhat irreverent affair), the worst may be yet to come as the pandemic continues into 2021. The makers of expensive watches have proven resilient – in line with their clientele – but times remain tough for those tasked with selling them, especially in the UK. As Business Traveller readers will appreciate, airport retail is well down, as are the volumes of visitors to London’s premium shopping districts who keep watch boutiques and department stores busy.
The pandemic has hastened the watch world’s engagement with e-commerce – a welcome development for anyone not located within close reach of Bond Street. It seems likely that the way we buy watches could be quite different in the future, with try-before-you-buy schemes and same-day delivery already on offer from some online stores.
Some may look at a celebration of expensive watches as inappropriate in such times, but I’d argue that continuing to take an interest in life’s luxuries doesn’t preclude us from caring about the bigger picture. Everyone needs their passions and, if watches are yours, hopefully they can provide a welcome distraction.
On the product front, it has been a mixed year; several of the biggest players quickly decided to keep their powder dry or postpone their major launches, so we have seen little from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Omega or Tudor. It has also been a very quiet year from Switzerland’s many high-end niche brands; one hopes they will all live to fight another day.
The bulk of what we have seen has been as expected – watches are designed and brought to market over a period of three to five years, so the extent of any knee-jerk reactions will simply have been to put certain models on ice until things return to normal. Certainly, I was not short of candidates for our round-up of the year’s best watches – the following pages are, as ever, a medley of mechanical ingenuity and aesthetic panache.
PREDICTIONS FOR 2021
ROUGH SEAS AHEAD
The disruptive effect of a global pandemic on watchmaking will manifest itself fully, as delays in supply chains that span Asia, Europe and the Americas have an impact on manufacturing. Mainstream watch companies rely on a relatively small network of suppliers for components – anything from sapphire crystals to dials or strap buckles – and exist in an ecosystem where lead times and production capacities leave little margin for error. If any of these companies should go under, it will make life tricky for dozens of brands, and the retailers that rely on them.
ENVIRONMENTALISM TO THE FORE
Watchmaking’s association with sustainability used to begin and end with photogenic charitable initiatives aimed at saving marine life; laudable in their own right but irrelevant to the core issues of production and manufacturing. There are signs of a shift in mentality, with brands such as IWC leading the way on sustainable business practices, and projects from Breitling and Panerai to increase their use of reclaimed material (Panerai is working on a project to create the world’s first 100 per cent recycled watch, but it is likely to launch only as a limited proof-of-concept). I think 2021 will be the year that Switzerland really wakes up to sustainability, but, as ever, the pace of change will not be fast enough.
ENTREPRENEURS WILL RISE
Crisis usually breeds creativity and I expect the coronavirus to be no different. Whether it concerns the way we buy and sell watches – new, pre-owned or vintage – the materials they are made from, or the way we congregate to share our affection for this anachronistic obsession, 2021 will probably see some bright sparks bringing new ideas to the world of watches. Not before time.
A BUMPER YEAR
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THE YEAR IN REVIEW
We round up the finest watches released in 2020 – and look ahead to 2021, which may prove to be as unpredictable a year as the one that has just passed…
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