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Geneva, Watches and Wonders, and Airport McDonalds

Visiting the place that birthed and perfected the thing one is most passionate about can be an extremely introspective experience. I can make all the pilgrimage analogies in the world and still fail to fully articulate what it feels like visiting Geneva as both a horology obsessive and vintage watch specialist.

While heading to Geneva is always a heady experience for someone with my interests, this trip was bigger than just drinking in Geneva’s watchmaking history and rich culture; my team and I were out there to attend the most important watch industry trade show of the year, Watches and Wonders – an absolutely massive gathering of nearly 50 of the most important and innovative manufacturers in the watch world to unveil their impending releases for the new year. 

As C + T moves deeper into the media space, attending and covering events like Watches and Wonders has grown more and more important to what we do. While vintage will always be our primary focus – and my true passion as a dealer – the modern watch space is an undeniably exciting one. I believe no one is better suited to weigh in on the direction these manufacturers are driving the watch industry than someone with the kind of grasp on watchmaking history, design, and culture that vintage dealers like myself and my peers have. There’s also the question of independent opinion, something that you’ll find less-and-less often as more and more watch industry media outlets get in bed the manufacturers their commenting on and reviewing the releases of. When it comes to our take on the pieces we saw at Watches and Wonders, we’re free to say what we want without fear of retribution from a brand we’re stocking in our webstore or hope to keep pulling advertising dollars from like a surprising number of our peers.

I linked up with Tyler Vanes, my right-hand man in all things at C + T and our COO, at London Heathrow and we hopped on a flight to Geneva to meet up with our Senior Editor, David Von Bader, who had arrived in Geneva from New York the morning prior. The time warp of international flight is starting to feel a little too natural to me at this point, and fresh on the heels of an extended watch-hunting trip in Asia, this Geneva trip felt like slipping back into the rhythm I’ve grown the most accustomed to. Perpetual motion and a bit of jet lag is the norm for me now. 

The team and I stayed in an AirBnB just over the border in a French mountain village called La Muraz. Driving through the lush countryside to the AirBnB from Geneva offered a really stark and welcome contrast to the cityscape of Los Angeles and those that I was recently immersed myself in when visiting Hong Kong and Tokyo. With the intense daily hustle and bustle of a major trade show like Watches and Wonders, there’s a lot to be said for staying somewhere as quiet and serene as La Muraz. Even if the internet bandwidth in the mountains was absolute shit. Lesson learned about upload speeds.

We hit the show days hard and heavy and really tried to make the most of seeing the new releases from all the major brands. While we’ve already covered all of the major releases in-depth, my big takeaway from Watches and Wonders is just how much effort these brands put into injecting their booths with a sense of identity. There were plenty of big releases that have been discussed to death by now – Cartier’s Tank Normale, Tudor’s Black Bay 54, Rolex’s various hits and misses – but one thing most of these manufacturers got right was building booths that really embodied their respective DNA. Rolex’s “booth” was a gargantuan impenetrable tower that confronted you right as you walked into the Palexpo’s main show hall. Cartier put together an unbelievably chic and dreamy salon that was pure class, pure in its design’s vision, and a genuine joy to stroll through. Tudor’s booth was highly interactive and educational, and featured a comprehensive selection of vintage Submariners to trace the evolution of the model from the “Small Crown” that the Black Bay 54 pays homage to through modern references. Tag-Heuer’s booth felt a bit confused, much like the brand is in its modern guise (though I loved that they had a vintage Porsche 911 on display). And finally, IWC’s booth was pure late ‘70s Bond villain fantasy. A sleek lair that celebrated the reissue of the Ingenieur, a watch that looked perfectly at home next to the ‘70s Mercedes Benz prototype race car they had on display. The stars of the show for me were the Tank Normale and the Black Bay 54, but you can read about those via those links. 

Beyond the new releases, beyond the incredible booths, I found syncing with the watch community to be the most fulfilling part of the Watches and Wonders experience. Particularly hanging with folks like Cole Pennington, who has recently taken on an interesting role at Tudor. As a friend and peer, catching up with Cole and hearing about how he’s enjoying living in Geneva was a real highlight of the show. Sure, we were all very excited about what Tudor is doing and they’ve undeniably positioned themselves as the most enthusiast-minded brand in the business these days, and hiring Cole is a perfect example of that, but simply talking about what Cole was up to as a person was a really nice reminder of how cool this community ultimately can be. Similarly, it was great to run into author, photojournalist, and watch collector Kristian Haagen; seeing how he was putting together his content and working through the show was really inspiring for me. Seeing how peers like Kristian approach a show like WnW and do their thing was really inspiring and refreshing.

Between show days, we hit the streets and really tried to get a feel for Geneva. It was my first time back in years and was an eye-opening experience. Something you might find surprising is that the vintage watch business is almost non-existent in Geneva. While the buildings in the center of town loom high, bearing signs for all of the iconic brands we obsess over, and the core of the watch industry is in Geneva, the enthusiast side of watch collecting is looked at very differently there. When we hit the streets looking for vintage dealers to hunt watches at, I was surprised at how limited our choices were. The two big names in town are Davidoff Bros, who we know and consider peers, and a lovely father and son operation called the Ponti Collection. The Ponti Collection had a lot of killer pieces on display and a lovely store decorated with fantastic chrome and black modernist furniture – definitely worth visiting if you’re in town and looking for vintage. But other than those two dealers, this trip made it obvious that Geneva doesn’t seem to care about its history the same way the international enthusiast market does. And no, you still can’t get a new Rolex from an AD there. It’s the same “exhibition only” song and dance. The truth is unfortunately less-than romantic, but the divide between the business side of watchmaking that exists in Geneva and the enthusiast’s perception of the place is massive.

Seeing that disconnect between the passion for horological history and for vintage in general first hand made it a lot clearer why so few new releases from the majors speak to the taste of vintage enthusiasts. This is also why seeing heritage-inspired releases like the Tank Normale and the Black Bay 54 and even the Ingenieur feel like such a big deal. It also shows why it’s so important for companies to hire true enthusiasts like Cole Pennington; people that come from our side of the fence. 

While Geneva doesn’t do vintage well, it does do food incredibly well and everything we ate on this trip was phenomenal. The magical thing about Geneva is it has a really unique mix of French, Italian, and German cultures, and the ingredients they use in all of those cuisines are always incredibly fresh and as locally-sourced as possible. Our first meal in-town was at a traditional Swiss restaurant named Restaurant les Armures, which is attached to the Hotel les Armures in the Old Town part of Geneva. We hit all of the hearty classics – fondue, great steaks, some fish from Lake Geneva. You simply can’t get a more Swiss meal than what we had there and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re in town. The other big culinary hits from the trip were incredible authentic Italian meals that rivaled the food I’ve had in Rome, and of course the baked goods in any French-influenced place are always top notch.

Most of my Chasing Time entries are written about solo trips.  I’m out there on my own a lot, but exploring Geneva with Ty and David really changed the experience in a great way. I’m seasoned in operating like a traveler, not a tourist, and it was  great to have them participate in that experience in the same way – to bring them into that side of my work. There’s shit that happens on the road and experiences that this job provides that are a bit of magic in the mundane. Driving past roadside castles in the French countryside, taking wrong turns and figuring out our way back through some winding road in a beautiful village, navigating the language barrier with French border police on virtually zero sleep with an absurd amount of caffeine propping us all up. Oscillating between eating at Italian restaurants with 3 Michelin stars and walking to the airport McDonalds because we were tired of trade show risotto. These trips are about the job first and foremost and I hope that always comes through in these dispatches, but you truly do get so much more out of the experience. After all, it really is about more than just watches. 

Founder and CEO of Craft + Tailored, Cameron Barr searches the globe for vintage timepieces and ephemera. His passion for telling the stories behind these incredible objects laid the foundation for C+T.

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