Fact: almost all modern watches are water-resistant. To some this information may come as a startling revelation, but the truth is, even the dressiest Cartier is likely to withstand up to at least 100 feet—a depth most of us will probably not be sinking to this summer. This means you can wear practically any decent modern watch to the beach and be quite certain that it won't get fouled up if you get splashed. (Just be sure the crown is not in the pulled-out position and that you rinse the band with freshwater when you get home.) That's the final word...except, of course, it isn't.
The idea of one watch for earth, sand, and sea went out with the three-martini lunch, so while modern manufacturing techniques may permit you to wear, say, the divinely slim and sleek Blancpain Villeret to the shore, there are watches that would be eminently more practical—not to mention in keeping with your brand-new Vilebrequin trunks.
This year the first guideline for picking a perfect beach companion is to think big but not comically huge. This is the era of the watch as SUV, so unless you have sequoialike forearms, any timepiece with a case diameter of more than 50 milli-meters runs the risk of looking like a small cooking pot when strapped to your wrist. Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak Offshore is an example of a watch with appropriate proportions and is distinguished by chunky rubber-coated push-pieces and a beefed-up octagonal case.
The original Royal Oak was launched in the early seventies and has grown in popularity—and size—ever since. In the mid-nineties, before Panerai hit the wrists of the rich and famous, Audemars Piguet introduced a steroidal update of the Royal Oak. Wearing one is the horological equivalent of driving a Hummer onto the beach. You are, in other words, sure to be noticed. There is also Hublot's aptly named Big Bang, the shock watch of 2005. A confection of rubber, Kevlar, titanium, and steel, it took the watch world by surprise with its dinner-plate dimensions. Deliveries did not commence in time for watch worshippers to take the Big Bang on holiday last year, so this is the first summer you will find the rubber-strapped behemoth—a sort of Swatch for rich people—on a sun chaise next to you. If you are the type who demands complete accessorial coordination, go for the all-white Aspen version; it will look very nice with your 60-gig video iPod.
Next, the matter of the bracelet: It should be metal, preferably titanium—the alloy is newly chic and, in more practical terms, less susceptible to corrosion than steel. A surprisingly subtle Titanium Sport watch was introduced by Jacob Arabo of Jacob & Co., the king of bling. If a metal band is not your style, then an equally ap-propriate and sportif choice would be a boldly colored one, such as the red rubber strap on De Grisogono's Power Breaker. You may also choose a band with rugged texture, such as those made of stingray. Or opt for the Breitling Chrono Avenger M1: Its rubber strap is black, but the face comes in bright shades of yellow or blue.
Another consideration is case design. A beach watch should at least look like it means business. Even if you intend to do nothing more taxing than order a bottle of Domaines Ott and a salade niçoise this summer, certain watches will give the impression that you are either (a) an experienced saturation diver or (b) on the verge of skippering your yacht around the world. Key indicators: a dark dial with contrasting, easily visible illuminated nu-merals, a rotating bezel calibrated to time dives, and guards that rise from the side of the case to protect an oversize winding crown (they're made large to operate more easily with gloved hands).
And then there is the diving watch. For many, the last word in this genre is the Rolex Submariner. Rolex snobbery is a serious and complicated business in which the most subtle nuances of dial design can have a considerable impact on both price and your standing in the eyes of other Rolex aficionados. The Submariner celebrated its 50th birthday a few years ago, and the anniversary model is altered just enough—the indices on the dial are noticeably larger than on the original and the bezel is green—to make a respectable impression. If your goal, however, is to strike deep envy, get your hands on a vintage "Double Red" Sea-Dweller Submariner. The only visible difference from the current models is that the Double Red has the words "Sea-Dweller, Submariner 2000" written in red on the dial. Those few scarlet letters and numerals can account for as much as a 100 percent price jump at auction—to say nothing of the comparable inflation of your ego on the beach.
Diving watches, of course, have no real practical purpose for most of us, but some of them are just so damn good-looking that it hardly matters. Among our favorites are Blancpain's Fifty Fathoms, Bulgari's Diagono Professional Scuba Regatta, Breitling's Avenger Seawolf, and Girard-Perregaux's Sea Hawk II Pro. The last two have titanium cases, sapphire-crystal watch glasses almost five millimeters thick, and gas escape valves that enable them to go nearly 10,000 feet below sea level. Have fun.
On day two of Baselworld, Chopard president Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele removed a $400,000 one-of-a-kind timepiece with a hand-painted leopard face from a humidor secured with diamond hinges. We pounced. Too late, we discovered: It was already spoken for. So, too, were ten of Chopard's new 25-carat limited-edition tourbillions.
For a week each April, watch fanatics from all over the globe pack Baselworld, the annual watch and jewelry trade show in Basel, Switzerland, to see what's ticking. Each year brings new stars and trends; this time around there were tourbillions galore, rose-gold bezels, and a noticeable return to artisanal methods, including marquetry and guilloche. Over at Jacob & Co. we spotted the Quenttin, which comes in its own crystal box. Pass a hand over a fiber-optic light and the lid rises, De Lorean car-like, to reveal a 31-day power-reserve vertical tourbillion timepiece with a black rubber strap—135 were made; 35 sold within hours of the show's opening. The price? $360,000.
For those interested in complex workings, Carl F. Bucherer debuted the Manero Perpetual Calendar, complete with a new moon-phase function that adjusts every 28 1/2 days. At Harry Winston, the rubber-strap tourbillion sport watch had glow-in-the-dark numbers. The real showstopper was Breguet's double-rotating tourbillion—its inner workings are so intricate that the company's craftsmen produced only five this year. The bill for such a grandly complicated affair is $350,000.
Many companies went for outright diamond-crusted bling—Chanel showed the J12 Haute Joaillerie with 605 diamonds. Others, like Zenith, Bulgari, and Jaquet Droz, took a more subtle route with pale gray faces. Corum watches have elaborately painted themes, such as pheasants and birds of paradise. Our favorite was the Royal Flush, a detailed image of playing cards. Though unisex models have become big business, most companies still cater to men or women. Blancpain presented a full women's line, which includes Orchidée, a moon-phase in white gold with diamonds on python. Patek Philippe went back to its forties archives for the Gondolo Serata, a ladies' watch with a mother-of-pearl guilloche face and a black satin band.
In other news: Tag Heuer has reinvented the golf watch with a cleverly crafted claspless model ("Tiger," we were told, "said the clasp gets in the way"); Ebel enlisted model Gisele Bündchen to be the face of its Brasilia line; Breitling showed off the oversize rectangular-face Flying B, its latest collaboration with Bentley. And Rolex is still reveling in a recent discovery: It turns out that on the night Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to JFK, she also gave him a watch—none other than the classic Oyster Perpetual Day-Date.
Meanwhile, in Geneva...
Baselworld may be the biggest and longest established show, but for many the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva offers a more refined experience. The exhibition started back in the early nineties, when the then Vendôme Group—now Richemont—decided it needed a more luxurious atmosphere in which to present its nouveautés. Since then a number of other companies have also decamped, and now each year in the week following Baselworld, Geneva's Palexpo is transformed into an oasis of haute-only watchmaking.
This year was the year of anniversaries: Jerome Lambert, the highly charged CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre, has reinvented the company's 75-year-old signature Reverso with the launch of Squadra, a sportier square version of the rectangular flip-over classic. He has also used the Reverso case to present a stunning timepiece with a dozen and a half complications (tourbillions, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters).
Jaeger-LeCoultre's sibling brand, IWC, took the opportunity to mark 70 years of its aviator watches (in my opinion, the Big Pilot is the pick of the bunch). They threw a great party, featuring a concert by Ronan Keating, Hollywood stars (yes, that was Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett), and, of course, dozens of vintage aircraft on display. Montblanc also had a birthday—it turns 100 this year—and introduced an ultracomplicated timepiece and a tantalum diver's watch to mark the centenary.
In other news, Cartier debuted some highly covetable additions to its Collection Privée (the Tank Asymétrique is a must-have for serious students of luxury timekeeping), as well as a ladies' watch called La Dona, a bold white-gold bracelet named in honor of a role famously played by a devoted Cartier client. Audemars Piguet made a big push for its oval Millenary watches and its partnership with Maserati, which produced the futuristic-looking MC12 in a Millenary case.
One of the most consistently intriguing companies at SIHH is Girard-Perregaux, which, under the stewardship of Dottore Luigi Macaluso, has scaled the heights of haute horlogerie. This year it continued to test the boundaries with a highly contemporary redesign of its iconic three-bridge tourbillion, using bridges of sapphire and an innovative case of titanium and platinum. It was the talk of Salon.