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Million dollar timepieces and some spectacular firsts amaze at Baselworld.

By William George Shuster

Jaw-dropping multi-million dollar watches. Notable advances in “ethical luxury.” Technical breakthroughs and world-firsts in watchmaking.

Such remarkable events are par for the course at Baselworld, the largest and most important show in the global watch industry, held annually in Basel, Switzerland. For eight days each spring, this small, quaint Swiss city on the Rhine River becomes the center of the modern watchmaking universe. This is the global stage where virtually every new timepiece — at every price level — clever horological innovations, and new watch trends debut.

The 1,500 exhibitors at this year’s exhibition — March 27 to April 3, 2014; next year’s is already set for March 19 to 26 — invited watch enthusiasts into avant-garde pavilions that resembled luxury boutiques inside the Messe Basel. Impressive, yes, but the show’s attention-getting stars were on display inside — clever designs, horological advances, and one-of-a-kind watch creations.

MILLION DOLLAR CREATIONS
Each year, it seems, luxury brands compete to offer the most expensive timepiece yet, and 2014 is no exception. This year’s standout is Graff Diamonds’ $55 million watch titled Hallucination. But this is no illusion. The rare timepiece is “the most valuable watch ever created,” claims the London-based jeweler and luxury watch brand. The ladies’ timepiece, with Swiss quartz movement, is enrobed in 110 carats of extremely rare fancy-colored diamonds. Graff’s designers, gemologists, and master craftsmen reportedly worked “thousands of hours” on the timepiece from its design inception to the careful and precise setting of hundreds of tiny stones. The concept came from Chairman Laurence Graff, who says he has wanted for years to create “a truly remarkable watch that illustrates our all-consuming passion for diamonds.”

Impressive, too, is Chanel’s exquisitely-designed ladies’ J12 Flying Tourbillon, with a rotating star set with 49 brilliant cut diamonds atop its tourbillon carriage. The star, says Chanel spokesperson Julia Van Herpen, was a “poetic motif … important in the universe of fashion designer and brand founder Gabrielle Chanel.” The collection’s four different hand-wound models are limited editions, in 18-karat white gold, ceramic, and diamonds. The all-diamond version at $1.2 million — with 500 diamond baguettes on the dial and bracelet — is the most expensive watch Chanel has ever created.

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Also notable is British luxury brand Dubey & Schandenbrand’s glittering Coeur Blanc — French for White Heart — which unites haute joaillerie with fine watchmaking. It wears a total of 709 diamond baguettes, all set by hand and weighing a total 22.5 carats, on its gray gold case, dial, and buckle. At its heart is the brand’s own in-house-created tourbillon — a mechanical watch feature which counteracts gravity’s effects on precision. Costing just under $1 million, it’s limited to only three worldwide.

BEAUTY AND CREATIVITY
Timepiece beauty isn’t limited to the use of fine gems, as other 2014 debuts demonstrate. Luxury watchmaker Armin Strom’s One Week Skeleton watch — in 18-karat rose, yellow, or white gold, with a seven-day power reserve — is one example. It proudly displays the brand’s first in-house-created skeleton (i.e., see-through) movement, which is beautifully hand-engraved and decorated — an intensive four-day process by its craftsmen for each watch.

Luxury watchmakers displayed a number of artistic enamel creations. Horses are one popular theme this year, thanks in part to China’s Year of the Horse. This theme can be seen in two different versions with cloisonné enamel dials — one being Patek Philippe’s Calatrava Horse timepiece and the other, Vulcain’s Cricket 50s Presidents’ Pegasus wristwatch. Notable, too, are Jaquet Droz’s new legant guilloche blue and gold paillonné enamel timepieces, with each dial carefully made by hand and fired in a kiln multiple times.

Creativity of another sort was demonstrated at Baselworld 2014 by various fine watch brands’ technical achievements. Some involved engineering expertise and originality, such as the Time Pyramid watch of Arnold and Son — inspired by the clock regulators made 200 years ago and by antique skeleton clocks. Its in-house-developed movement is skeletonized, pyramid-shaped, and seems to float between the watch’s sapphire crystals. The seconds dial is on the bottom, hours on the middle crystal dial, and minutes on the top ring. Two visible, wavy power reserve indicator arrows — on either side of the movement’s linear gear train — show, on graduated dots under the top crystal, the energy levels of the mainspring barrels, which provide the 90-hour power reserve.

BREAKTHROUGHS
Baselworld is also the forum for the announcement of breakthroughs. Bulova Corp., for example, previewed what it calls the first-ever 24-karat gold watch. Its case, bezel, and caseback are 999.9 24K gold, and unlike other gold watches, its parts are hydraulically forged and milled.

The timepiece, due out later this year, is “an engineering marvel, using the ultimate in current watchmaking design and skills,” says Bulova President Gregory Thumm, who gets credit for the Bulova breakthrough.

Another world-first belongs to Hublot, the luxury brand best known for its innovative Big Bang timepieces. The dial of its new Classic Fusion Tourbillon Firmament watch is made from osmium crystals. Osmium, part of the platinum family, is Earth’s rarest metal. Its use in watches is exclusive to Hublot. In crystallized form, osmium’s unique bluish sheen never fades.

Possibly the most significant advance unveiled at BaselWorld — or at least the one with the farthest-reaching effects — was announced by Chopard, the luxury watch and jewelry maker. Its new L.U.C Tourbillon QF Fairmined timepiece is the first-ever watch made completely (case, bezel, and caseback) of certified “fairmined” gold — mined in safe, environmentally-sound ways, with the small-scale gold miners who do the work getting fair pay and benefits for their labors. Many jewelry makers are involved with ethical sourcing of gems, but Chopard is the first luxury watchmaker to do so with precious metals.

While the watch portion of the show was originally conceived for those in the European trade — buyers, suppliers, and manufacturers — it has long since become an important trend barometer for the international watch industry, drawing worldwide attention.

This year’s edition, the largest yet, attracted 3,500 journalists from the world’s print, radio, television, internet and social media, and almost 150,000 attendees from around the globe, including business people, watch enthusiasts, celebrities and — rare for any watch trade show — the public.

“Baselworld is open to everyone,” said Sylvie Ritter, the show’s managing director, at this year’s fair.
“Nowhere else can a visitor gain a more complete insight into the world of watches than at Baselworld.”

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