This paean to classicism, which allows brands to market timepieces that are simpler and therefore accessible to a wider audience, accompanies the use of more “functional” materials, such as steel. No shame there. Since Audemars Piguet’s 1972 launch of the Royal Oak, steel has earned its bona fides as a noble metal, perfectly adapted to the standards demanded by haute horology maisons. At Geneva’s 2016 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), steel was a powerful presence, even among brands that usually present their newest collections exclusively in gold. The new Drive de Cartier appeared in a steel version, with hours, minutes, small seconds and date driven by the 1904-PS MC caliber, and the Clé de Cartier came out in steel for the first time.
The material seems poised to conquer new territories. Greubel Forsey, for example, released its first steel watch in 2016: the Signature 1, the first step in the company’s strategy of showcasing one of its talented watchmakers and proposing more “accessible” pieces. In a completely different sector of the market, Corum is following a parallel path with the Bubble collection, which is now making a comeback, mainly in steel versions, after having faded from the scene.
Needless to say, brands that have long recognized the wonders of steel have wryly noted the sudden passion for this material among brands that had long considered it “trivial.” Longines is one of these early adopters. This watch brand, which is among the very few horologers to see sales of over a billion Swiss francs, confirms its positioning with, among others, an automatic-winding RailRoad, inspired by a 1960 model with a 40mm steel case and an engraved caseback. Similar game is afoot at TAG Heuer, whose Carrera Heuer-01, the house’s signature chronograph, is equipped with a new in-house movement, housed in a modular case with 12 steel-based components that allow for multiple combinations of colors and materials.
Useful complications are a good match for this utilitarian-seeming material. Once a watch ventures beyond time and date read-off, a world of functions opens up, among them those whose immediate practicality wins over a wide audience, such as extra time zones or annual calendars (which require just one correction per year). In 2015, the annual calendar had already celebrated its grand comeback to mechanical horology, notably at Jaeger-LeCoultre (Master Calendar) and IWC (Portuguese Annual Calendar). Simpler and thus less fragile than a perpetual calendar, it still allows for highly original dial choreography, particularly since it is often paired with a chronograph, as with Ulysse Nardin in 2016 (Marine Chronograph Annual Calendar), or with a second time zone, for instance the Blancpain Villeret Annual Calendar GMT, whose steel version made its debut at Baselworld.
But let us render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s: it was Patek Philippe who conferred nobility upon the annual calendar in 1996, with a patented movement housed in the Ref. 5035, considered to be the first of its kind. Over the years, this complication would become a brand icon; for the model’s 20th anniversary in 2016, it released the 22nd iteration of the timepiece, Ref. 5396, in a Calatrava case and with a date/month/day configuration around a 24-hour auxiliary dial with moonphase that recalls Patek Philippe perpetual calendars from the 1940s and 1950s.
When Patek Philippe’s patent on the annual calendar expired in 2006, more and more watch brands began to release their own versions of the complication, and a decade later, it has become a touchstone. SIHH 2016 offered ample evidence of the phenomenon, with pieces such as the Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie Annual Calendar Chronograph, the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Annual Calendar Edition “Le Petit Prince,” and the Baume & Mercier Clifton Chronograph Complete Calendar. Omega went in a different aesthetic direction with its Globemaster, adding an annual calendar to the watch’s first iteration. The resulting piece boasts an enlarged 41mm case and the same “pie pan” dial form, whose 12 facets bear the names of the months, indicated by a blued hand.
Another popular additional function, this one for travelers: the time zone display, such as the Grande Seconde Dual Time from Jaquet Droz, or the even more cosmopolitan Ref. 5930G from Patek Philippe (the brand’s major new 2016 release), which accompanies the world-time function with a chronograph. For usefulness and practicality, IWC comes out on top for its Pilot’s Watch Timezoner Chronograph, which combines a ring of city names (as a world-time watch does) with a rotating bezel that transmits the rotational movement to the inside of the watch. The result, in the brand’s own words, is “a world time watch that shows its owner a new time zone and the time of day together with the 24-hour display and the new date, all with a simple twist of the wrist.” If needed, the chronograph is on hand to measure the system’s efficacy…