The ins and outs of what is known as “The Oscars of the watch industry”: The prestigious Grand Prix Horlogerie de Genève.
Some movies are promoted as being a recipient of the Palme d’Or award at the latest Cannes Film Festival or having an Oscar- nominated actor as the lead. A book, meanwhile, might boast about it being on The New York Times Best Sellers list. As anyone really into high end watches can tell you, though, there is also an award for watchmaking that gives its winners that extra bit of cachet and prestige: The Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève aka the Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix or simply GPHG for short.
THE STARTING LINE
The very first GPHG was awarded in 2001, in November of the year. The event has been held every November since then, so by the time you are reading this story, the winners of GPHG 2020 would have already been announced. Furthermore, the 2020 edition has seen quite a few changes in terms of how watches are nominated and winners are selected. But more on that later… Instead, we’ll look back to the starting line of this grand prix back.
The Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève was established in 2001 before eventually becoming a recognized public interest foundation in May 2011. The founding members of the GPHG are the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the City of Geneva, the Musée international d’horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Geneva Laboratory of Watchmaking and Microtechnology (Timelab) and the Edipresse Group. The stated goal of the GPHG is “to highlight and yearly reward the most remarkable contemporary creations and promote the watchmaking art worldwide.”
Naturally, the annual event begins with selection. Up until 2019, registration for candidates would be opened in May. Watchmaking companies were then free to submit up to seven of their creations and to pick which categories they would like to enter them for. The winners for each category are then decided by voting and the ones doing the voting is a jury appointed by the Board of the GPHG Foundation. In pre-2020 regulations, the jury will then take part in two rounds of voting.
The first round is done via secret ballots based on documentation— everything from photos and videos to technical data sheets—of the competing watches. Each member of the jury would then select six watches for each category and then rank them by preference. Votes are then counted carefully—under the supervision of a public notary, of course—and the results would allow for the selection of six watches for each category. These are referred to as the “pre-selected models” which will be displayed on roadshow exhibitions and actually enter into the competition.
The second round of voting is held behind closed doors in Geneva just a few days before the award ceremony. By this point, the winners of each category are determined. In case of a tie, the vote of the jury’s president is worth two votes. By the way, the president of the jury is a very well-known figure in the watch world: Horology expert, renowned auctioneer and co-founder of the Bacs and Russo auction house, the one and only Aurel Bacs.
The other members of the jury include famous watchmakers, journalists and editors, company CEOs and presidents, and so on, including the founder or CEO of the brand that won the “Aiguille d’Or” Grand Prix in the previous year. This brand is then also ineligible to enter the competition in the current year. For the 2020 edition of the GPHG, that would be Audemars Piguet, whose CEO, François-Henry Bennahmias, now sits on the jury. Speaking of which, perhaps it’s time we take a look at the aforementioned changes to the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève this year…
2020 AND BEYOND
Since its inception, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève has underwent a number of changes, with the most common being new categories added or old categories removed. For 2020, however, something a bit more major was introduced: the academy. For the 20th edition of the GPHG, the competition sees the formation of Academy of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. In a way, the GPHG’s Academy operates mostly like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which awards the Oscars or the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma which presents the César Awards. In short, the Academy for the GPHG consist of several hundred members who are “experienced and significant stakeholders in the key watchmaking-related sectors, divided into colleges and forming a vast network of ambassadors worldwide.”
The primary mission of the Academy is to find and propose watches deemed fit to enter the competition. As stated in the GPHG’s regulations for the Academy, “each member is responsible for proposing one to 12 watches per category in at least eight of the 14 categories.” This, however, will run in parallel with the tradition of having brands submit their own entries. The establishment of the Academy also changes the way voting is done.
For one, the first round of voting is done by the Academy. For the second round, a jury of 30 is formed from among the ranks of the Academy: 14 are chosen at random, 15 are chosen by the GPHG and the last spot is reserved—as mentioned earlier—for a representative of the “Aiguille d’Or” Grand Prix winner from the previous year.
ON THE ROAD
Another exciting component of Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève are, without doubt, the roadshows. All nominated watches are taken on a world tour that is open to the public. This year’s exhibitions are done at La Chaux-de Fonds, Zürich, Bern and, of course, Geneva. Since 2011, the GPHG’s traveling exhibition has also included stopovers in various major cities all around the world, from Beijing and Bangkok to Mexico City and Sydney.
These exhibitions are usually accompanied by private dinners, private tours and conferences for haute horlogerie enthusiasts. These are, for sure, an effective promotion method for both the GPHG and the participating brands. After the roadshow and the voting, the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève will then culminate in a jubilant gala dinner and exciting award night held at the Théâtre du Léman in Geneva.
RACES TO BE WON
Now we come to the most exciting part: the categories. When the first Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève was held in 2001, there were only seven trophies. Since then, the number of awards has increased to 11 at most until 2012. Then in 2013, there were 15 awards and it has grown steadily since then. Last year, there were—quite fittingly—19 total awards. And for 2020, there are, of course, 20 prizes.
One more step before we list the awards are the categories. Basically, every watch competes only in a single category and brands are free to choose the category in which they enter each watch. There are the Ladies’ and Men’s categories, which are quite self- explanatory (although there are limitations on types of indication, complication and gem setting), along with Ladies’ Complication and Men’s Complication for more mechanically impressive timepieces. The Iconic category, meanwhile, is meant for watches from, well, iconic collections that “has been exercising a lasting influence on watchmaking history” and has been available for more than 20 years.
The stated goal of the GPHG is to ‘highlight and yearly reward for the most remarkable contemporary creations and promote the watchmaking art worldwide
The Chronometry category, meanwhile, has watches with at least one tourbillon, a special escapement, or any other development that improves timekeeping accuracy (or, in other words, chronometry). The Calendar and Astronomy category, on the other hand, is limited to men’s watches with at least one calendar or one astronomical complication. For particularly innovative mechanisms— whether it’s a particularly sophisticated display, an automaton on the watch, striking mechanisms, etc.—there is the Mechanical Exception category.
The Chronograph category is yet another self-explanatory entry in this list. The same goes for the Diver’s category and also the Jewellery category. Watches decorated using techniques such as enameling, lacquering, engraving, guilloche and so forth are celebrated in the Artistic Crafts category. The two last categories, interestingly, are based on price. Watches that retail between CHF 4,000 and CHF 10,000 can compete in the “Petite Aiguille” category, while those that go for under CHF 4,000 can go in the Challenge category.
Now, from the 20 awards presented at GPHG 2020, 14 are bestowed on the winners of each of the 14 categories mentioned above. The other six include the Innovation Prize for the best competing watch offering an innovative vision of time measurement.
This prize, however, is discretionary, which means that the jury will decide whether there are grounds to actually award this prize at all based on the lineup of competing watches. Other discretionary awards include the Audacity Prize for the most non-conformist watch of the year, the Horological Revelation Prize for creations from young brands, the Smartwatch Prize and then the Special Jury Prize, which rewards a personality, institution or initiative (so, specifically not a particular watch or brand) that has played a fundamental role in promoting high-quality watchmaking.
Interestingly, while each watch can only compete in a single category, that doesn’t stop a watch from winning multiple awards
And finally, we have the “Aiguille d’Or” Grand Prix, awarded to what is essentially the very best watch released that year. It goes without saying that this is the most prestigious and sought-after award in the entire watchmaking world. It was mentioned earlier that the number of awards (and also categories) grew throughout the year. But not only has new awards been added, sometimes old awards are phased out or changed. For instance, in 2013, the Complicated Watch Prize was introduced but then retired.
The aforementioned Calendar and Astronomy category was, until 2018, known as the Calendar Watch category. There also used to be separate awards and categories for striking watches, travel time watches, design watches, electronic watches, and ultra-thin watches. There were also awards known as the Geneva Hallmark, the “Pendulette” Prize, the Public Prize and the Best Watchmaker Prize.
Interestingly, while each watch can only compete in a single category, that doesn’t stop a watch from winning multiple awards. In 2001, for example, the Vacheron Constantin Lady Kalla won both the “Aiguille d’Or” Grand Prix and the Jewellery and Artistic Crafts Watch Prize. Then in 2012, the MB&F Legacy Machine No. 1 nabbed the Men’s Watch Prize and Public Prize. A year later the A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar received the Grande Complication Prize and the Public Prize. In 2014, the Urwerk EMC won the Innovation Watch Prize and the Mechanical Exception Watch Prize, while
in 2015, independent watchmaker Antoine Preziuso’s Tourbillon of Tourbillons won the Innovation Watch Prize and Public Prize.
A GLOBAL CELEBRATION
While the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève is, of course, centered in one of the most important cities in the Swiss watch industry, its reach is global. And we’re not only talking about the roadshows. This
year’s competing brands, for one, include Japan’s Seiko and Grand Seiko along with Kurono Tokyo by Hajime Asaoka, Austria’s Habring2, Finland’s Sarpaneva Watches and so on. There also plenty of Swiss brands that are not exactly mainstream.
Based on this, it’s safe that say that the nominees and winners of this year’s GPHG—and all the previous editions—not only showcase the cream of the crop of watchmaking, but also how expansive this industry really is in terms of location and range of craftsmanship. So, if you ever find a watch promoted as being the winner of such and such award at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève of any particular year, rest assured that it is beyond exceptional.
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