Concept Watches: Look, Don’t Touch

New York Times, March 19, 2015

 

GENEVA — When visitors to this city’s convention center entered the plush confines of the Audemars Piguet booth at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the high-end watch fair that took place here in late January, an unorthodox presentation awaited them.

“We were not able to use a piano because we have no room for that, so we use a xylophone,” said Claudio Cavaliere, an ambassador for the Swiss watchmaker, as he led passers-by through an impromptu lesson on sound mechanics.

Mr. Cavaliere picked up a mallet and played a few chords on the instrument. As he did so, a screen behind him rendered the notes in colorful graphics, transforming the cocoon-like room into a makeshift sound lab.

The performance marked the culmination of a wristwatch project that spanned eight years, spawned three patent applications, produced two prototypes — and was engineered by a scientist plucked from a technical university in Lausanne who had until then specialized in hearing aid technology.

The brand touted the resulting timepiece, a minute repeater dubbed the Royal Oak Concept Acoustic Research wristwatch, as a breakthrough in acoustics engineering because its chiming mechanism produces a crisp, pleasing sound that is loud enough to be enjoyed by more than just its wearer.

There’s one hitch: The RD1, as the watch is nicknamed, is not for sale. For now, it remains a concept.

Taking a page from the automotive industry’s playbook, the Swiss watch trade has developed a tradition of creating far-out timepieces to showcase cutting-edge examples of its craft. By withholding them from market, watch-makers are able to test not only their timekeeping mechanisms, but also potential buyers’ reactions.

“Just like watches, cars have a huge degree of showmanship,” said Aaron Sigmond, the senior contributing lifestyle editor for Autoweek, and the author of the forthcoming book “Drive Time: Watches Inspired by Automobiles, Motorcycles and Racing.”

“Concept cars and watches serve a multitude of purposes,” Mr. Sigmond continued. “It keeps the trade — including your competitors — and your own team very engaged, and clearly keeps consumers very engaged. It lets you show what the future could potentially hold.”

At Audemars Piguet, the acoustic research timepiece was borne of a desire to create a next-generation minute repeater, considered by many to be the ultimate in complications. At the outset of the project, said the chief marketing officer, Tim Sayler, the idea was to make the watch salable, but as time went by, the company decided a commercial version would have to wait.

“We wanted to present it as soon as possible,” Mr. Sayler said. “It was a race for bringing innovation. To showcase and bring something to life, it accelerates things and gives you the possibility to take more risks and experiment, because not everything you put in a concept watch you need to put in a production watch.”

And that’s the point: Concept watches allow watchmakers to manifest their dreams, without worrying about the practical concerns that restrain models destined for industrialization.

Take the ID concept program at Cartier. Shorthand for “Ideas & Innovation,” the initiative has produced two celebrated timepieces — the ID One in 2010 and the ID Two in 2012 — that were intended to serve as examples of what mechanical watchmakers can do when they’re unencumbered by the mundane demands of a budget.

Conceived as a watch that required no lubrication and could function, adjustment-free, for eternity, the ID One employed space-age materials, including a balance wheel manufactured in carbon crystal; a hairspring fashioned from Zerodur, a high-tech ceramic borrowed from the aerospace industry; and a case made from an exotic blend of niobium and titanium, the former known for its use in high-tech weaponry.

The ID Two occupied a team of 20 on a quest to produce a high-efficiency watch whose construction helps to avoid a loss of energy by the oscillator, which regulates the speed of the movement, when it encounters air resistance. The result, according to Cartier, is a watch with a 32-day power reserve that consumes 37 percent less energy than its traditional counterpart.

While Cartier has adopted some of the technology pioneered in its ID pieces for production models — such as the 2012 Astrotourbillon, which incorporated a balance wheel made from the same carbon crystal used in ID One — there are no indications that its existing concept models (or the ID Three that is reportedly in the works) will ever be available for sale.

TAG Heuer approached its own concept program differently. In 2004, the brand unveiled the Monaco V4 concept watch, whose chief distinction was a transmission system powered by belts no thicker than a human hair. The model, whose first commercial version was unveiled in 2008, went on to serve as a platform for a production series that welcomes the addition of the Monaco V4 Phantom at the Baselworld watch and jewelry fair in Switzerland this week.

Guy Sémon, a former French Navy pilot and physicist hired to lead the brand’s research and development team before the V4 debut, said the challenges of the project were what lured him to watchmaking. “At first, it was not a watch; it was physics,” he said.

Today, as TAG Heuer’s new general manager, Mr. Sémon explained that “the strategy of the company is to connect haute horlogerie with commercial collections.”

“The time of concepts is probably finished in watchmaking, because if you present a concept very far, you create frustration for the clients,” Mr. Sémon continued. There is also the matter of resources. The amount required to produce a working concept watch is estimated to top $1 million, leading many brands to question whether the effort is worth the return on investment.

Bremont in England, for example, learned that lesson when it partnered with Jaguar to create six bespoke chronometers to complement six new Lightweight E-type cars built to complete a 1963 production run of 18 vehicles, only 12 of which were ever made. The watches made their public debut alongside the new cars at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August.

“We will at Basel be doing some variations on that watch,” said Giles English, a co-founder of Bremont. “You go through a lot of effort in creating those pieces, you’ve done a lot of R&D, the concept works, you get a good response — then, actually, you’d be silly not to produce it.”

“If you don’t get it into production, that’s probably because it doesn’t work,” Mr. English added.

The Swiss watch business is rife with examples of ambitious timepieces that were introduced with much fanfare but never made it into production. When the watchmaker Richard Mille presented the Tourbillon RM 039 Aviation E6-B Flyback Chronograph watch in 2012, for example, the piece was not intended to be a concept model. Owing to its complexity, however, the brand has yet to make the watch commercially available.

Instead, the RM 039 spawned a less complicated version, the RM 39-01 Aviation Chronograph, which was announced in 2013 and is now available for purchase. Essentially, it is “the concept watch that launched the nontourbillon version,” said Laura Hughes, a Richard Mille spokesperson.

All of which underscores the real challenge of Swiss watchmaking: developing cutting-edge technology that is both repeatable and affordable.

“Conflating something done in a small series into larger production units — that is the challenge,” said Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard.

He recalled the five years of work that went into the L.U.C 8HF, produced by Chopard Technologies in the Swiss village of Fleurier in 2012. The limited edition watch, which retails for $19,800, is powered by a movement featuring the first high-frequency escapement to be chronometer-certified by the COSC, a Swiss regulating body.

“The concept was well received, it works well, but it is still costly to produce,” Mr. Scheufele said. “Those who bought one of those pieces, I can only congratulate them; it could have been much more expensive.”