After the pandemic and conflicts with exhibitors shut down Baselworld, Watches and Wonders 2023 in Geneva is the most important fair of the year for the watch industry.
With 43,000 visitors, Watches and Wonders 2023 showed that despite the recession and falling second-hand prices, the watch world continues to thrive. After an intense news flow during the 5-day fair, it is time for us to summarize the impressions and the most important news.
Rolex spring-cleans its portfolio
Rolex provided the most news at the fair, and it wasn’t just new launches. With a mix of retirements, refinements and cautious updates, it took several steps to modernize its portfolio.
Farewell to Milgauss and Cellini
Two of Rolex’s stalwarts – the magnetic Milgauss and the elegant Cellini – are closing down.
Launched in 1956, the Milgauss – ‘the scientist’s watch’ – was a completely innovative concept, with a movement specially designed to withstand powerful magnetic fields. However, competitors have caught up, with Omega launching movements for 15 times stronger magnetic fields, and Rolex was forced to make a decision to update or discontinue the model. Even if it seems questionable to build a watch model around magnetic resistance, we will miss the playful design.
Cellini was the umbrella term for Rolex’s ‘suit watches’ – the sleek, understated timepieces that stood in stark contrast to the sports models that have become the brand’s signature. But those who miss Cellini need not worry. Because at the same time as Rolex is discontinuing the Cellini, it is creating a completely new model, the Rolex 1908, which is in many ways an updated Cellini. With Art Deco tones and a fairly large 39mm case in gold or white gold, the Rolex 1908 will be a popular watch among Rolex fans and those looking for a cheaper (!) alternative to a Patek Philippe.
New releases and updates
A more anticipated launch was Rolex’s second titanium watch, the Rolex Yachtmaster 42mm. A concept watch in titanium had already been seen on the wrist of world-famous sailor Ben Ainslie before the show, so it wasn’t hard to guess that the model was coming. But unlike the monstrous 50mm Deep Sea Special, this is Rolex’s first normal-sized watch. How customers will react to a lightweight titanium watch remains to be seen – a Rolex should weigh a little on the wrist, right?
Several other Rolex models also received updates. The most notable was the Rolex Daytona, which received a careful update with a new caliber and a few minor design changes. For the first time, a Daytona will also be offered with a transparent back case – a news that caused some die-hard Rolex fans to kick back because Rolex prioritized form over function.
Color and playfulness
The biggest surprise of the fair was also signed by Rolex. The otherwise serious brand shocked everyone with its new special version of the Day-Date 36. Just the puzzle motif on the dial and the colored sapphire hour markers would have been surprising enough. But the fact that Rolex changed the day of the week to the seven words “Happy”, “Eternity”, “Gratitude”, “Peace”, “Faith”, “Love” and “Hope”, as well as the date marker to a series of emojis – nobody expected that.
The “Emoji Watch” was not the only colorful Rolex. The brand also released a Rolex Oyster Perpetual “Celebrational Dial” that took the colors from the five colorful single-color versions of the Oyster Perpetual it released in 2020 and put them on a single dial. “Ball sea” is an apt but perhaps unfair description of the result.
After the shock wore off, however, the response in the watch world seemed unexpectedly positive. Will Rolex’s newfound sense of color create new collectibles?
Patek Philippe’s Calatrava 6007G was another colorful addition – at least relative to Patek’s normally understated designs. However, the stripped-down trio of white gold and yellow, red or blue received a mixed reception from the brand’s fans.
The prize for the most daring color choice (and collaboration) goes to Oris, which has created a watch that is not only green like Kermit the frog, but also displays Kermit on the 1st of every month instead of the current date – Oris Propilot x Kermit.
Another theme was tribute watches – watch models inspired by historical models. Hardly a new trend, but this year we saw a couple of really successful variants.
Jaeger-LeCoultre continued to pay tribute to the Reverso through the Tribute, a series of watches that take their inspiration from the first Reverso launched in 1931. At Watches and Wonders, they launched both a Chronograph, with a sober classic front dial and a delightful skeletonized chronograph on the back, and a stunning two-sided Tourbillon, also partially skeletonized. The two-sided design and the ability to switch between the refined elegance of the front and the exposed, slightly steampunky movement of the back is something that really appeals.
Cartier also presented an updated version of the original Cartier Tank Normale from 1917, in its Privé series. Today, most people would associate the Tank Normale with ladies’ watches, but it has been worn by style icons such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. By increasing the size, Cartier seems to want to modernize the format and attract more buyers. Otherwise, the watch feels as if it has stopped in time 100 years ago – with a design that feels both historic and timeless at the same time.
IWC pulled a favorite from the archives with its IWC Ingenieur 40. The watch is modeled after the 1976 Ingenieur SL “Jumbo”. It doesn’t take many seconds to guess that Gérald Genta was involved in the design, with the characteristic screws also found on the Genta-designed Audemars-Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus.
Flip or flop? Half empty or half full? The overall impression of Watches and Wonders 2023 depends on where you stand and how you see the world. The revolutions were missing, but so were the worst flops – it was evolution, rather than revolution, that characterized 2023 if we may use such a tired cliché.
Whatever you think of the escalating price tags and endless special editions, watchmakers don’t seem to be feeling the pinch either. There’s a global market for watches with exquisite craftsmanship and design that is holding up very well – and we’re glad, because the world would be a duller and uglier place without them.