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Mind-Boggling Machines: A Q&A With Wristwatch Annual’s Marton Radkai

Marton Radkai

New York City-born, France-raised Marton Radkai has been the editor of Wristwatch Annual 2013, Abbeville’s definitive annual guide to the world of fine timepieces, since 2010. He has worked as an independent print and radio journalist, copywriter, editor and translator for over 25 years, mainly in Germany. He covers a wide range of topics, from culture and human interest to travel and technologies. A few years ago he became fascinated with the world of watches, both its products and personalities. As a resident of Geneva, Switzerland, he is right at the heart of the movement, as it were.

As the year turns over and the watch industry anticipates its major annual exhibition, the SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie), Radkai was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Abbeville Blog.

What do you see as the dominant fashion trends in the watch industry right now?

The watch year 2013 will begin here in Geneva in January, and we will be seeing what some of the big brands have in the oven. Having said that, the world of watches – and I mean mechanical wristwatches – is a microcosm of our society in many ways and intimately linked to the economy. When times are uncertain, many batten down the hatches and take a fairly conservative tack. The big brands are keeping to classic watches, reviving old designs and processing standard materials. In the run-up to the SIHH [Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie], I have been seeing JeanRichard pieces that seem touched by the 60s, for instance, or Girard-Perregauxs, Vacheron Constantins that are definitely beautiful pieces, but not really pushing the envelope. For that you have to explore the whole sector of independent makers or brands, like Sarpanewa, Speake-Marin, Urwerk, Azimuth, Artya, Ludovic Ballouard, Badollet, Jenni, or the great Thomas Prescher, to name but a few. Grieb & Benzinger’s recent productions are like rococo masterpieces, and everyone always waits with bated breath for MB&F’s next recession-defying, mind-boggling, industry-shaking machine.

Blue Danube, by Grieb & Benzinger

Performance Art HM3 MoonMachine, by MB&F

Another issue is that the industry itself has its constraints. The recession put paid to the years of manic buying by new and ephemerally wealthy customers. The restriction on ETA sales is also compelling some brands to rethink their design. So something else has to be found to justify the mantra of “innovation.” In the watch biz, that can be something very small, insignificant to the non-collector. What I did see in 2012, besides more dragons and Chinese references, was a bolder use of colors. The Meccaniche Veloci dials come to mind, or the Perrelet dials that flash through turbine blades. Hublot’s Zebra Bang is not exactly a new wine, but the bottle is…wow! And by the way, straps are not excluded from the more exotic dying vats. I would like to speculate that there is a generation moving into professional class that may also seek a particular esthetic, not necessarily the traditional look. It could be that the HYT brand with its fluid display moved by a hyper-tech pumping system is really for them.

Meccaniche Veloci

How has the industry changed in the last 10 or 20 years?

The industry is under internal and external pressures. Internally a kind of restructuring is taking place, because the ETA movements will not be liberally sold as they have been. This has spurred some companies into developing their own movements, like Cartier. Other movement makers, like Concepto, are also expanding now to take up the slack.

Esthetics and business trends are closely related in this industry. Twenty years ago, mechanical watches were still emerging from the hecatomb of the Quartz Revolution. Then came the frenetic money-making that began in the 1990s and grew the industry considerably, particularly between 2002 and 2008. The downturn did not last long: by 2010, figures were climbing steeply again, thanks in particular to China, where a burgeoning middle class is looking to exhibit its new-found wealth. Any market, however, has to be carefully cultivated. Lesser-known brands have to work quite hard to get recognition, while the big names are finding an avid customership.

There are other markets, of course, like the BRIC. The Russian market is growing again, and heads are also beginning to turn towards Brazil, where raw materials are pushing growth. At any rate, the growth has been quite staggering, and some voices are cautiously suggesting that it may be a bit illusory. The amount of watches sold in China may be less than the number of watches delivered to distributors. This could be a problem up ahead, or represent a boon for the grey market.

What watch do you wear?

I am not a great collector; it’s an economic issue, and as a journalist I get to manipulate many beautiful watches. So to use a stretched-out metaphor: I go to the recital, but do not have to own the pianist and the piano and the rights to the work played.

But I do have some special pieces: I inherited a beautiful gold Movado chronograph from my father, but it needs heavy repair. I also have a Vostok Komandirskie that I picked up in East Germany back in the mean days of the East Bloc. I also got some pocket watches from then, very fine pieces that are remarkably accurate still. But my great pride is my brushed steel Maximalism by the Israeli independent Itay Noy. It fits my personality as I perceive myself to a tee, half rococo and half modern, perhaps even a little austere. I feel a watch should harmonize with the owner in one way or another, and yet transform him or her in some way.

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Click here to learn more about Wristwatch Annual 2013, published by Abbeville Press.