Business News: Swiss Watch Exports Jump Again; Latest Figures Showing Continuing Recovery

Swiss watch global exports jumped 3.7% in value in September, in the latest sign that the industry’s two-year slump is over. It was the fifth consecutive month that exports rose in year-to-year comparisons, and the sixth increase in the last seven months. “The trend over a 12 months period shows a continuing recovery,” said the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), which released the data today.  

 September watch exports amounted to SF1.77 billion ($1.81 billion). The data represents wholesale – not retail – sales, i.e., shipments from watch companies to their distributors and retail agents.  

By far the best news for the Swiss in the September data is that their long-suffering top market, Hong Kong, is on the mend. Exports there rose 13.7% in September over what the FH acknowledged was a very weak September 2016. Nevertheless, after a nightmarish run of 25 consecutive months of declines through February of this year, Hong Kong exports have rebounded. They have increased every month since May. It’s an indication that the tremendous glut of inventory there has finally fallen to manageable levels 

The Hong Kong jump overshadowed a surprisingly soft increase in shipments to China for the month (+1.2%). China, Switzerland’s third largest market, has led the industry’s recovery this year; exports are up 17.2% to SF1.07 billion ($1.09 billion) through the January-September 2017 period.  

The China number was one of several anomalies in the data for September. Another hot market, the United Kingdom, which has benefited from the weakness of the pound after last year’s Brexit vote, rose just 0.7% in September. It remains up 10.2% for the year, however. Singapore, on the other hand, the eighth largest market, saw its exports nearly double in September (+90%) “because of the delivery of high priced watches,” the FH said.   

The worst news in the September data is that the United States, Switzerland’s second largest market, refuses to budge. “The downward trend continued in the United States, although the decline was limited last month,” the FH said. While tiny (0.6%), the drop extends a long-running weak streak here that puzzles Swiss executives. They see our expanding economy, low unemployment and high stock market, and figure that luxury watch sales should be booming. Instead, exports to the U.S. have dropped for seven of 2017’s nine months. Through September, U.S. exports of SF1.51 billion ($1.54 billion) are 4.1% below 2016. Measured on a quarterly basis, they have now dropped for 10 consecutive quarters. 

The main hall of Baselworld, 2017

Switzerland’s troubles in the United States are a reminder that the five-month Swiss-watch recovery remains fragile. Through September, exports are up a total of 1.5% over a dismal 2016. That may be enough to avoid the first three-year drop in watch exports since 1932. But through September, this year’s exports are 8.9% below those of 2015. A look at Switzerland’s top 20 export markets, which account for the lion’s share of sales, shows 10 are up year-to-date and 10 are down. 

Still, September’s export jump will cheer Swiss watch executives. The consensus in Swiss-watch C-suites is that the worst is over. A survey of 60 Swiss watch executives by the consulting company Deloitte between May and July indicated that a majority were bullish about business prospects through the first half of 2018. (The findings are in the Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study 2017 released at the end of September. Asked about their outlook for the next 12 months, 52% said they were optimistic, the highest percentage since 2013. A year ago, 2% were optimistic. (Deloitte has conducted the study each year since 2012.) Only 16% of Swiss watch executives had a negative outlook for 2017-2018. 

They were most optimistic about three main markets and regions: mainland China (excluding Hong Kong), the rest of Asia, and North America (dominated by the U.S.; Mexico is Switzerland’s 19th largest market, Canada the 21st).  

China makes sense. The recovery there started in the fourth quarter of last year, when exports jumped 12%. They jumped 17% through the first quarter of this year, and 27% through the second quarter. Consequently, 71% of the executives expect watch sales in China to grow over the next 12 months. 

The same percentage, 71%, expect sales to increase in the rest of Asia. But not Hong Kong. Most executives (56%) predict flat sales there over the next 12 months; 36% expect sales growth. But that’s an improvement from last year, when 57% predicted continued declines there and only 8% were optimistic. 

Asia accounts for 50% of all Swiss watch exports. Europe is the next largest region, accounting for 34%. But the executives are not bullish about Europe: 48% think sales will be flat going forward, 45% think they will grow. 

As for the United States, the Swiss remain optimistic, despite the continued sluggishness here. In each of the previous Deloitte studies, the U.S. was considered the most promising market. It is, after all, the world’s largest economy. This year the Swiss are more optimistic about China and Asia. But not by much. For the Swiss, when it comes to America, hope springs eternal: 68% of those polled expect Swiss watch sales to grow in the U.S. market through mid-2018.  

Exactly why the executives think the U.S. will shake its slump, Deloitte does not say. In fact, in a section on “Challenges and Risks” to the Swiss watch industry, Deloitte cites a factor that may have a negative effect on the American market. I confess that, in the list of ailments hurting Swiss watch sales here that I routinely cite (gray market goods; e-commerce retailers; smartwatches; strong Swiss franc; decline of department stores, malls and brick-and-mortar retailers, etc.) it’s one that I had not thought of: Donald Trump. 

Deloitte notes that political uncertainty is a risk factor that can impact Swiss watch sales. “The level of political uncertainty has increased in most of the main export markets for Swiss watches,” Deloitte says. “In December 2016, the global economic uncertainty index reached the highest level since its inception in the late 1990s, mainly as a result of the vote in the UK to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.” It asked Swiss watch executives to “rate the level of political uncertainty facing your business” in major Swiss trading partners. The U.S. came out on top with 50% of Swiss watch executives citing it. The UK was next (49%), followed by Hong Kong (44%), China (41%), France (31%), Italy (29%) and Germany (3%). 

Concludes Deloitte, “Despite the political uncertainty following the results of the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, watch brands continue to believe in the importance and potential of the U.S. market.” Just when – and whether – the U.S. rewards that vote of confidence remains to be seen. We’ll review the October data around this time next month. 

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Friday Live: With Paul Boutros From Phillips Auction House With Highlights From Winning Icons

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It’s been a busy week here at HODINKEE, and we are excited to say that tomorrow is Friday, and you know what that means – Friday Live! This week we have two very exciting guests. First we have Paul Boutros, Head of Americas & International Strategy Advisor at Phillips Bacs and Russo, who is heading up the first ever New York-based Phillips auction. You may remember Paul from his previous contributions to HODINKEE for our Three on Three on a dress watch under $20,000 and his three-part dissection of the modern Rolex Daytona. Our second guest is Paul Newman’s Paul Newman, who is coming up for auction at Phillips a week from today.

paul newman's paul newman

Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. 

But enough about Paul Newman’s Paul Newman – we will also be talking to Paul about a selection of interesting highlights from the Phillips auction including an early Rolex, a very rare Vacheron Constantin, and something a little more independent. As always, we will save time at the end to answer your questions. So if you have any questions for Paul, please be sure to leave them in the comments section. See you at 1:00pm ET tomorrow. 

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Hands-On: The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II

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The Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II is a classic modern Ball wristwatch: big size, bold styling, an aggressive tool-watch personality and, of course, the signature tritium gas tubes that give Ball watches their ability to maintain high visibility through prolonged periods of darkness. Most other modern watches use Super LumiNova, or a related compound, which has to be charged by ambient light, and which glows with diminishing brightness over time. Tritium, on the other hand, is a radioactive substance (much safer for use in watches than radium) that produces illumination without needing previous exposure to light; as such, it finds uses in many applications in which low light legibility is essential and where materials like Super LumiNova would not be suitable. Other modern applications for tritium gas tubes include aircraft instrumentation and gunsights, as well as numerous novelty applications, like glow-in-the-dark keychains. Before getting into the tritium vials, though, let’s look at the rest of the watch.

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II

The Hydrocarbon family of watches from Ball are, in general, their toughest and most tool-watch oriented timepieces, with dive-watch ISO-compliant depth ratings and visibility; most models also feature Ball’s proprietary crown guard system, in which a hinged flange held in place by a pushbutton-actuated lock both protects the crown from being bumped or damaged, and also ensures that the crown is fully screwed down (the lock will not rotate into position if the crown has not been screwed in all the way).

The system offers excellent security for the crown – the one point on most dive watches most vulnerable to the ingress of water, especially if the crown is inadvertently left unscrewed or if the wearer bangs it against something – at the cost of additional complexity. Perhaps equally to the point, it looks cool and gives the owner a way of locking down the crown that scratches the gadget-lover’s itch that so many watch enthusiasts have (in this respect I’m reminded of the locking mechanism for the crown on Panerai Luminor watches, which is also of arguable practicality in the 21st century, but does the same thing in terms of giving you something enjoyable to play with).

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II crown guard closed position

Pressing in the button at the top of the crown-guard releases a pin-latch, allowing access to the crown.

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II crown guard open position

Despite its broad-shouldered appearance (the crown guard adds quite a bit to the impression you get, when you look at the Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II, that you’re looking at a watch with some considerable heft) this is not actually an especially big wristwatch: 42mm x 13.5mm. The bezel overhangs the case by at least a couple of millimeters all around the diameter of the watch, however (according to the office calipers, the bezel is about 45mm in diameter) and from bezel edge to the outer edge of the crown guard, we’re at about 50mm. The lugs are fairly long as well; lug tip to lug tip distance is about 53mm. In terms of feel, the Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II is similar to a Rolex Sea Dweller, which has an almost identical case side (43mm) but which also has projecting crown guards that add a bit to its perceived size.

One major upside to the considerable bezel overhang, of course, is that operating the bezel is a snap. The bezel, by the way, rotates in two directions, which means that build, crown guard, and depth rating notwithstanding, this is not technically a diver’s watch, as the relevant ISO defining a dive watch (ISO 6425) requires a one-way bezel. The bezel of the Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II is there to allow you to read off a third time zone from the independently settable, Freccione-style 24-hour hand. The 24-hour hand can be set forwards only, but as the date display is not synchronized with the 24-hour hand this presents no major issues in terms of setting the time to a second time zone. The 24-hour hand is set by pulling out the crown to the first position and rotating it clockwise; the date can be quickset by turning the crown, in the first position, counterclockwise.

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II caseback

As an aid to the disoriented world traveler, the back of the watch is conveniently engraved with a chart showing the offset from Greenwich Mean Time/UTC, of 24 reference cities (although given the still-widespread use of the absurdity that is DST, one is still advised to check local time in that magical interval when you are putting your seat fully upright and stowing your hand luggage for landing). The bracelet and buckle of the Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II, by the way, are superb: very strongly built, with brushed outer and polished inner links, screw fittings rather than the cheaper friction-fit collar-and-pin links seen in many less expensive bracelets, and four—count ’em four—screws holding the solid end-links in place at the lugs. This is not a watch that intends to allow itself to be lost thanks to the failure of a two-dollar spring bar. The double folding clasp closes and locks with considerable authority, and the stolidity of the view once it’s shut is nicely broken up by the rather baroque Ball double-R logo.

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II dial closeup

The classic implementation of a GMT complication is found in watches like Rolex’s GMT Master II, which has an hour hand that can be set ahead or behind in one-hour jumps, and with a date display that is coordinated with the hour hand. In such a watch the hour hand is easily set to local time upon reaching one’s destination, without stopping the watch and without having to re-synchronize the minute and seconds hands with a local time reference. 

By contrast, the AeroGMT II, and watches like it, require more steps upon reaching one’s destination: pull out the crown (which stops the watch) re-set the hour and minute hand to the new local time, and push the crown in to the first position. In the first position, re-set the 24-hour hand to home time, and if necessary, re-set the date to the local date. If you wish to track time in a third time zone, operate the two-way bezel as needed. It would theoretically be possible, upon reaching one’s destination, to set the 24-hour hand to local time and leave the hour hand set to home time, but in such an instance one loses the ability to read the time more intuitively from the primary hour and minute hands, and as well, one loses the ability to easily read day or night at home.

These extra steps, however, add at most a minute or two to the re-setting process over a true GMT watch with an independently settable hour hand and are hardly a deal-breaker in terms of getting the utility out of the Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II that it’s designed to give. Legibility, by the way, is everything you could want it to be. This is classic high-contrast, white-against-black tool watch design. However, it’s in darkness – whether that of an anonymous hotel room in a foreign land, an unlit tent somewhere in the trackless wilderness, or the gloom of an aircraft cabin at 36,000 feet over god knows where – that the Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II shines, both figuratively and literally.

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II lume shot/night view

There are a total of 43 tritium gas tubes on the bezel, hands, and dial, with contrasting blue Super-LumiNova on the internal 24-hour scale. If you’re like me and take a childlike delight in things that glow in the dark, boy, are you gonna like the Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT. 

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II wrist shot

The Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II is a limited edition of 1000 pieces. The price is quite reasonable, at $3,090 ordered direct from Ball; for someone looking for a big, bold, fun, tough sports watch with a lot of personality, it’s actually something of a bargain, especially in this day and age (it’s a COSC certified chronometer to boot). A great alternative to many of the more expensive GMT/dual-time-zone watches out there, and a great value offering from Ball.

The Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon AeroGMT II: movement, Ball RR1201-C, ETA 2893-2 base; COSC certified chronometer; hours, minutes, independently set-able 24 hour hand with date. Indications for up to three time zones. Water resistance, 100m; antimagnetic to 4,800 A/m. Case, stainless steel with dome shaped sapphire crystal. 43 tritium micro-gas tubes. Find out more at ballwatch.ch.

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Auction Report: Two Very Strange (But Very Real) Vintage Rolex Watches Coming Up For Sale This Season

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It’s finally October, and you know what that means: fall foliage, sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes, and auction catalogues. We’ve all been hotly anticipating this season’s auctions – partly because the you-know-what is coming up for auction, but also because it’s always nice to peruse the crisp pages of a freshly printed catalogue, and see what’s up. Some seasons are more exciting than others, and this fall’s selection has definitely exceeded expectations. Here are two examples of Rolex watches that I had literally never heard of before coming across them this week. They don’t look like anything else out there – but the stories check out, or so we think.

The Only Two-Tone Rolex Daytona Reference 6265/3, Maybe Ever

First up, we have the Phillips Watch Auction, Winning Icons, onThursday, October 26th. This is the first Phillips watch auction to take place in New York, and the central lot is, you guessed it, Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. But there are 49 other lots left to chase – all special in their own way, but one that really sticks out is a two-tone Rolex Daytona Reference 6265/3, because who knew that was a thing?

<p>The bespoke two-tone Rolex Daytona 6265/3.&nbsp;</p>

The bespoke two-tone Rolex Daytona 6265/3. 

<p>Custom-made for Seattle-based gentleman racecar driver, Bruce J. Leven.</p>

Custom-made for Seattle-based gentleman racecar driver, Bruce J. Leven.

<p>18k yellow gold screw-down chronograph pushers, yowza.&nbsp;</p>

18k yellow gold screw-down chronograph pushers, yowza. 

<p>Letter from Bruce J. Leven describing how he obtained a possibly unique two-tone Rolex Daytona 6265/3.</p>

Letter from Bruce J. Leven describing how he obtained a possibly unique two-tone Rolex Daytona 6265/3.

<p>Bruce J. Leven (left).&nbsp;</p>

Bruce J. Leven (left). 

This two-tone 6265/3 was a custom piece made for Bruce J. Leven, a Seattle-based entrepreneur and gentleman racing legend, who became successful with his waste management company, Bayside Disposal. Leven was well-known in the racing circles, and more than held his own as driver, competing at the top level. This, combined with his love of Porsches, soon translated into owning the Bayside Disposal Racing Team. Leven and his team went on to take three wins at the Twelve Hours Of Sebring, and, notably, purchased Porsche 962 chassis #001 in 1984. To celebrate the occasion, his close friend and the then-Vice President of Rolex USA, William Rosen, offered Leven "any watch in the catalogue." Leven chose the 6265 but he had one request: he wanted it "with a twist," and asked for it in two-tone (this was 1984 after all). 

Porsche 962

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The Porsche 962 was a sports-prototype built by Porsche between 1984 and 1991 as a replacement for the 956. Only 91 in total were produced with 16 used by the Porsche racing team. The 962 became a popular model amongst private race car drivers (like Bruce J. Leven). It debuted in 1984 at 24 Hours of Daytona with Mario and Michael Andretti leading the charge, with a later appearance at Le Mans. The 962 would go onto become one of the most dominant cars in motorsports, winning 24 Hours at Le Mans in 1986 and 1987 with Derek Bell, Al Holbert and Hans-Joachim Stuck both times. 

His wish was granted, and here it is: a possibly unique two-tone 6265/3 with box, papers, service papers, and service sticker on the caseback. The 6265 was produced from 1971 to 1988, in yellow gold or stainless steel (with a couple of wild cards in between). It’s known for its steel or gold bezel, and for having screw-down pushers. The 6265 also has been known to feature the Paul Newman dial, though most of those have been put in 6263 cases at this point. Ellen owns a gold non-PN 6265 and we have seen a couple on Talking Watches with Morgan King and John Goldberger. Goldberger’s is in white gold with a crazy-cool bracelet. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a piece unique? This two-tone is essentially a follow up to that, and the fact that this even exists in two-tone is insane (you get the picture). The estimate is $100,000-200,000 and you can read the full listing here

Rolex Day-Date Reference 1803/9 With Special Order Dial

OK, this one actually made me question my entire existence in this world of watches, because it is something that I have genuinely never seen before. When I first laid eyes on it, I thought, "Wait, is that a Sub? With a day window? And on a President’s bracelet? Wt!f?" 

<p>The bespoke white gold DayDate 1803 with exotic dial.&nbsp;</p>

The bespoke white gold DayDate 1803 with exotic dial. 

<p>Reference 1803 between the lugs.</p>

Reference 1803 between the lugs.

<p>The interior caseback.</p>

The interior caseback.

<p>The original owner wearing his unusual timepiece.</p>

The original owner wearing his unusual timepiece.

<p>The new service card provide by Rolex.</p>

The new service card provide by Rolex.

<p>2017 service paperwork from Rolex.</p>

2017 service paperwork from Rolex.

Well, my friends, here we have a white gold Day-Date 1803/9 with special order dial and it is exactly as cool / strange as you think it is. 

Remember The Most Expensive (White Gold) Submariner That Ever Sold?

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This was another cool and totally unexpected Rolex  – a rare white gold Submariner. This crazy watch was sold at Christie’s earlier this year and while most of my colleagues recoiled at the sight of it, I fell head over heels for this strange Sub. One of three, this prototype sold for a whopping  $628,572 (631,500 CHF), breaking the record for the most expensive Submariner ever sold. You can read more about it here

The story goes like this: a client of Klarlund – a Rolex authorized dealer in Copenhagen – loved the look of a white gold Day-Date (can’t argue there) but wanted something a little "sportier" to enjoy while engaging his favorite activity, sailing. Klarlund obliged, and in 1969, a white gold Day-Date was made for him, with a black matte dial, round tritium lume plots, and Mercedes hands. While this is clearly a strange combination, this watch was in fact was born this way, and has been serviced by Rolex four times between the 1970s to the 1990s. It was most recently overhauled in March 2017, leaving with a brand new Rolex Service Guarantee card; and if you know Rolex, you know if they doubt the authenticity of your watch, they won’t service it. The watch is consigned by descendants of the original owner, which leaves little room to doubt this piece at all. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that Rolex seldom (and I mean seldom) made bespoke pieces, making this Day-Date/Sub, and the above 6265, both incredibly rare. The estimate on this watch is $63,000-$120,000 and you can read all about it here

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Norman Rockwell’s What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker) To Be Auctioned by Christie’s

In 1948 the Swiss Federation of Watchmakers, now known as the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), began work on an advertising campaign to raise the profile of Swiss watchmakers globally. The campaign needed an image that would make an immediate impact, communicating relatable aspects of watchmaking to a worldwide audience. They chose American illustrator Norman Rockwell for the job, and the result was an incredible painting of a boy, mesmerized by a watchmaker at the bench. The painting is now being offered for sale as part of Christie’s November 21, 2017 American Art sale.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was an American painter and illustrator, famous for portraying American culture. Rockwell is well-known for his Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations, the Willie Gillis series, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, Saying Grace, and the Four Freedoms series. Rockwell was not taken seriously by art critics during his lifetime, but today he is celebrated as one of the most important artists in American history.

The subject matter of Rockwell’s What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker) reveals a family connection to the horological trades. Rockwell’s great-grandfather, Samuel Rockwell, was a watchmaker in New York City during the early 19th century. Samuel Rockwell began his apprenticeship in 1825 to a watchmaker and jeweler in Manhattan, and by all accounts was very successful in the business. Perhaps Norman Rockwell was thinking of his great-grandfather while working on The Watchmaker. The catalogue is not yet online, but here’s some info.

  • Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
  • What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker)
  • signed ‘Norman/Rockwell’ (lower right)
  • oil on canvas
  • 26 1⁄4 x 26 in. (66.7 x 66 cm.)
  • Painted in 1948.
  • Estimate: $4,000,000 – 6,000,000

And of course as we get closer to the date, you’ll be able to visit Christie’s website for more information.

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Norman Rockwell’s What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker) To Be Auctioned by Christie’s

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In 1948 the Swiss Federation of Watchmakers, now known as the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), began work on an advertising campaign to raise the profile of Swiss watchmakers globally. The campaign needed an image that would make an immediate impact, communicating relatable aspects of watchmaking to a worldwide audience. They chose American illustrator Norman Rockwell for the job, and the result was an incredible painting of a boy, mesmerized by a watchmaker at the bench. The painting is now being offered for sale as part of Christie’s November 21, 2017 American Art sale.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was an American painter and illustrator, famous for portraying American culture. Rockwell is well-known for his Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations, the Willie Gillis series, Rosie the Riveter, The Problem We All Live With, Saying Grace, and the Four Freedoms series. Rockwell was not taken seriously by art critics during his lifetime, but today he is celebrated as one of the most important artists in American history.

The subject matter of Rockwell’s What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker) reveals a family connection to the horological trades. Rockwell’s great-grandfather, Samuel Rockwell, was a watchmaker in New York City during the early 19th century. Samuel Rockwell began his apprenticeship in 1825 to a watchmaker and jeweler in Manhattan, and by all accounts was very successful in the business. Perhaps Norman Rockwell was thinking of his great-grandfather while working on The Watchmaker.

  • Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
  • What Makes It Tick? (The Watchmaker)
  • signed ‘Norman/Rockwell’ (lower right)
  • oil on canvas
  • 26 1⁄4 x 26 in. (66.7 x 66 cm.)
  • Painted in 1948.
  • Estimate: $4,000,000 – 6,000,000

Visit Christie’s website for more information.

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Happenings: Join Us To See Paul Newman’s Paul Newman In New York This Friday

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Unless you have been living under a rock, you may have heard that Paul Newman’s Paul Newman is coming up for auction next Thursday evening. We have already covered this watch extensively and will continue to do so until the hammer drops. This week we are honored to announce that we are hosting a get together this Friday evening with Phillips, to preview their upcoming Winning Icons auction, including a Vacheron Constantin Cioccolatone, a Cartier Grand Cintrée in platinum, and a Philippe Dufour Duality.  If you’re looking for more Rolex goodness, by the way, there is new-to-market Submariner 6200 in amazing original condition (with an estimate to match) as well as, of course, Paul Newman’s Paul Newman.

Paul Newman’s Paul Newman is coming up for auction at Phillips next Thursday. 

The event will take place this Friday evening in Manhattan. Space is very limited and attendance will be based on a first come, first serve basis. If you would like to join us please complete this form and we will send you the details. Should you not hear from us before Friday evening, then sadly we are at capacity. 

But fear not fellow watch-lovers! We will be serving up lots of Paul Newman’s Paul Newman on the site throughout the next week (cough, Friday Live anyone?). Stay tuned. 

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Hands-On: The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 38mm

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Earlier this year at Baselworld, the Fifty Fathoms Bathsycaphe 38mm was released. The latest 38mm edition was a welcome addition to the Fifty Fathoms line up, as way back in 2013, Blancpain released the first edition of the Bathyscaphe with a 43mm case (as well as a 38mm ladies’ version with a white bezel and dial, and white NATO strap). The 43mm verison was received with very positive reviews, but the biggest complaint was the size. Now Blancpain has released the 38mm version  of the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe in black or blue, which feels much more in the vintage spirit than the previous iteration. Let’s go hands-on, shall we?

ladies fifty fathoms

The 38mm Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe case was actually borrowed from the ladies’ Fifty Fathoms collection. 

The first Fifty Fathoms was made by Blancpain in 1953. Technically it was the original modern dive watch  – a nod that is often given to the Rolex Submariner, but truth be told the Fifty Fathoms debuted the year before. The Fifty Fathoms was created by Captain Robert Maloubier and Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, who were commanders of the French Combat Diving School at the time. They teamed up with Blancpain CEO, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, to create the ultimate dive watch, and the Fifty Fathoms was born. It was 42mm, with a one-way rotating bezel (the very first watch to have one) automatic (to reduce the need to operate the crown and potentially compromise water resistance) and was water-resistant up to 300 ft. Fast-forward to 2013, and the modern, but vintage-inspired Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe was introduced – in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the original 50 Fathoms – in a 43mm stainless steel case and with the automatic caliber 1315. 

The latest version of the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe that you see here, is pretty much the same watch except that it measures 38mm in diameter and 10.77mm thick (as opposed to the 13.4mm thickness of the 43mm version). The watch comes in two versions: one with a black dial and bezel, and one with an "Abyss Blue" dial and bezel, the latter being a limited edition. While the blue version is certainly more vibrant, the black version has a lot of desirable qualities, and after all, blue watches tend to be a little more polarizing. 

blancpain brushed steel

The brushed steel case is not for everyone, but the attention to detail is there. 

First things first – the case. As I mentioned, the case measures 38mm which is a great size for classic watch fans. The stainless steel is brushed throughout which makes the watch look a bit more substantial than if it were polished. While this certainly makes sense for a tool watch, and certainly makes the watch feel more robust, I personally tend to lean away from brushed cases (there is something about the sparkle of a polished case that I will just never not love). But regardless, I think Blancpain did a nice job adapting this case to accommodate the desire for a smaller Fifty Fathoms, and the faceted lugs are an attractive additional detail. The unidirectional ceramic bezel is a rich black, which gives the watch a little more depth visually, while serving a functional purpose. 

blancpain lugs

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms boasts sharply faceted lugs and a brush stainless steel case. 

While the case size is the Goldilocks of case diameters, the thing that I love most about this watch is the dial brushed anthracite dial. It’s a beautiful rich grey color and it gleams when you wear it, something that I look for in a watch. The hours and minutes are indicated by the luminous dot indexes, with trapezoidal markers at the quarter hours. The center seconds hand has a vibrant red tip, which adds a sporty touch. 

anthracite dial fifty fathoms

The anthracite dial is one of the nicest things about this watch. 

The one complaint I have about this dial is the date window. Now, you know I am a fan of the date window and its functionality, but there is a way to do it right and there is a way to make it look like an afterthought and sadly, this is latter. To be fair this is where it’s always been on the Bathyscaphe, but I feel that any time a window is tiny and placed between four and five o’clock it looks like you’re trying to hide the aperture. Don’t hide it, people! Embrace the date window! 

blancpain fifty fathoms thickness

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 38mm measures 10.77mm thick.  

The movement of the watch is the caliber 1150. It’s not a new movement, and has actually been used in several existing models including the Ladies’ Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathsycaphe, and the Villeret Ultraplate Automatique.  Caliber 1150 has a 100-hour power reserve, and you can see the solid gold rotor through the back. Caliber 1150, at 3.25mm thick and 26.20mm in diameter, qualifies as an extra-flat movement and the 100 hour power reserve (unusual for a movement this thin, and under 30mm) is courtesy two mainspring barrels; the free-sprung balance provides better long-term accuracy. While it doesn’t contain any major new innovations, it’s a solid choice for a tool watch despite the thin profile.

ceramic bezel blancpain

The ceramic bezel is uni-directional and adds depth to the aesthetic of the watch against the grey dial. 

On the wrist this watch wears really comfortably (despite a slightly too-stiff strap). It can be worn by someone of just about any build, and I can see this watch easily transitioning from casual-office wear to the beach in one fell swoop. But the thing that is so interesting to me about this watch is that all of it was essentially borrowed from the women’s version from the Bathyscaphe’s 2013 launch, and made into a "men’s" watch, when usually it’s the other way around. The only reason for this that I can come up with, is that a lot of people (men and women) wanted a 38mm Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe all along.

caliber 1150

The in-house caliber 1150 can also be found in previous ladies’ collections. 

Whatever the reasoning, the 38mm Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe will surely be a welcome model to the family. I know that when I wore it around the office, everyone was interested in giving it a go. The retail price is $9,500 which is still $2,000 more than a n0-date Rolex Submariner, or $950 more than a Sub with a date (which is the ultimate price comparison test for a dive watch). So it is hard to justify the cost of this watch if you are looking to buy your first dive watch – though again, the in-house movement, with its 100 hour power reserve and gold rotor, makes the Blancpain more than just an als0-ran technically. Then, too, one could argue that the original 1953 Fifty Fathoms was the first dive watch and therefore any modern version is like buying a piece of history for your wrist. Either way, this watch is a nicely done revision of the 2013 original, in a (for me) much more wrist-friendly size. 

blancpain fifty fathoms 38mm

The 38mm looks great on both men and women’s wrists. 

You can read more about the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms at blancpain.com. 

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Found: Alaska Project, The Most Famous Speedmaster To Never Go To Space, Actually Did (At Least Once)

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The Omega watch known as the Alaska Project was originally developed as one of several efforts made by Omega to introduce a version of the Speedmaster built specifically with support for manned space flight in mind. As we all know, the original Speedmaster was never designed for use in space, and especially not for one of the roles in which it became most famous: as a watch to be worn during EVA (that is, on the outside of a suit during a spacewalk, or during work on the lunar surface). "Alaska" had nothing to do with the state of Alaska; instead, it was simply Omega’s internal code-name for the project, which included a version of the Speedmaster with a very large, cushion shaped titanium case.

An Alaska Project Prototype 1969

The first Alaska Project Speedmaster prototype, from 1969. 

Probably the most famous version of the Alaska Project Speedmasters, however, is one that was tested by NASA in 1972. This version had a zinc coated dial, high visibility hands for the minute and hour registers, and most conspicuously, a very large red anodized aluminum outer shroud, designed to protect the watch from excess heat. 

Omega Alaska Project Red Heat Shield

Original Omega Speedmaster Alaska Project from the Omega Museum, seen at a get-together of Omega fans in 2013.

It was long thought that these watches were never actually used in manned space flight and as far as we know, this is certainly true of the US space program; apparently, NASA never took the project beyond the prototyping stage, and never tested the Alaska Project watches in a spacecraft, or during EVAs. However, the Omega-focused Tumblr known as Moonwatchuniverse, has run across what seems incontrovertible photographic evidence that in fact, at least two Alaska Project watches were used: on Soyuz 25, which in 1977 became the first Soviet spacecraft to attempt to dock with the newest Soviet space station, Salyut 6. Though little remembered today, Salyut 6 was revolutionary for its time and orbited the Earth from late 1977 through July 1982, when it was de-orbited and as planned, burned up during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Salyut 6 was launched unmanned, and the first manned attempt to dock with it was Soyuz 25, with two cosmonauts named Vladimir Kovalyonok and Valery Ryumin as crew. Unfortunately they failed to dock with Salyut 6 despite 5 attempts and had to return to Earth after two days – neither had any prior piloting experience and this led to a new regulation in the Soviet space program, that any manned mission must have at least one crew member who had been in space at least once before. For our purposes, however, the major point of interest is a picture posted on Moonwatchuniverse, which shows Kovalyonok and Ryumin wearing what appear to be Alaska Project Speedmasters on their flight suits, as they walked to their launch vehicle. Check out this fascinating addition to Alaska Project scholarship on Moonwatchuniverse.tumblr.com, and a big thank you to the alert reader who brought this to our attention!

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Happenings: The British Horological Institute To Host A Conference On Navigational and Military Watches

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The story of the problem of longitude is well-known, with the British Board of Longitude and John Harrison’s marine chronometers playing a major role. The British horological industry produced some of the finest navigational and military timepieces in history, and today that history is exemplified by the large crowds of tourists that visit the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to take their photo standing over the prime meridian. This coming weekend in London, the British Horological Institute will host a conference on navigational and military watches featuring some of the world’s foremost experts in the field, and you don’t want to miss it.

BHI Land, Sea and Air Conference

BHI Land, Sea and Air Conference, October 21, 2017, London

The one-day conference is packed with intriguing speakers. Rory McEvoy, Curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, will present his work with Kendall’s K1 marine chronometer (which HODINKEE highlighted recently). Noted author and collector James Dowling will speak on wristwatch navigation, via Weems and the Mark 11. And internationally-renowned guide and adventurer Inge Solheim will discuss the finer points of polar exploration using a wristwatch.

The conference takes place Saturday, October 21, 2017 aboard the HQS Wellington, an ex-Royal Navy ship moored on the River Thames in central London. Tickets are £35 for BHI members and £47 for non-members. Visit the British Horological Institute’s website for more information.

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