The Basel Watch Fair, or Baselworld, to be precise, is the second great horological gathering of the year. The Geneva fair comes first, but while the January fair in the lakeside city is ritzier, the Basel undertaking is bigger.
I have been attending the Basel fair for most of the past 20 years, and it is testimony to the hold that watches have over me that I still feel a frisson of excitement as I enter the grand hall each year. I am always amazed by the ways the industry manages to innovate and surprise, and this year was no different. Though the scars of the financial crisis remain apparent—CEOs have been replaced and jobs lost—many stalwarts created opportunity out of the misfortune. When the high-profile movement-maker BNB failed, for instance, the irrepressible Hublot boss, Jean-Claude Biver, hired 30 of its staff, at a stroke creating an in-house haute horlogerie division. In Basel, Biver proudly displayed the fruits of that new endeavor, including a minute repeater.
The overriding mood of the fair seemed to be resilience, with companies tailoring what they do best to suit the new culture of restraint. "I think that a lot of watch brands arrived at Basel this year anxious as to how the fair would go," says Count La Rosée, the managing director of Breitling in the U.K. and a veteran of 32 Basel fairs. "But most of them have left feeling relieved and even positive." La Rosée's fair was made by the Superocean II—what he tactfully describes as a "less expensive" Breitling—a well-made, stylish, and youthful-looking diving-type watch for about €2,300.
Over at Zenith, new CEO Jean-Frédéric Dufour has worked hard to focus the brand's offerings. Recently characterized by baroque and extravagant timepieces, the collection this year reflects classic watchmaking, typified by the new Captain line. This is the sort of watch that would have barely been noticed a couple of years ago, but is now in demand: carefully designed, clean and simple, powered by a good in-house movement and sold for a reasonable price.
Indeed, on my visits around the stands the question of price—or rather "value"—was being openly discussed. Breguet, a brand that can never be accused of offering cheap watches, demonstrated its mastery of technical innovation with a high-frequency 10-hertz movement; by contrast, most mechanical watches operate between 2.5 and 4 hertz, with 5 hertz considered fast. Offered in the sporty Type XXII, this is a breakthrough movement for Breguet that starts at the sensible, if hardly giveaway, price of €13,000.
Over at Breguet's sibling brand Blanc-pain, meanwhile, CEO Marc Hayek was explaining how the real value of his timepieces resides inside the watch movement. Instead of compromising this aspect of his watches, he found another way to respond to the market. "Models that we might have brought out in white gold, we now bring out in steel." Hayek's collection was strong on classic timepieces, including a trio of pocket watches in which the engraving was on the movement, visible through a crystal caseback.
A pocket watch was also one of the stars over at Chopard, which, based on a design from the early 20th century, could also be worn as a wristwatch. This was one of a set of four special watches from Chopard's haute horlogerie subbrand L.U.C (Louis-Ulysse Chopard), which the company is making as part of its 150th-anniversary celebrations.
Sensing the nostalgia in the air, TAG Heuer, which is also celebrating a century and a half, reissued one of its more esoteric designs: the 1970s Silverstone. Fans of vintage-inspired sports watches had some spectacular pieces to choose from—including the Heritage Chronograph from Tudor, the subsidiary brand of Rolex. A stylish steel watch that revisits a design from around four decades ago, the Heritage chrono comes with both a metal bracelet and a chic nylon strap, and pays meticulous attention to detail, even in such small things as the knurling around the winding crown and the pushpieces. Tudor's parent brand, Rolex, summed up the mood of the fair perfectly with a version of its classic Explorer, tweaked for modern tastes with a slightly wider case diameter and a bracelet equipped with its patented Easylink system to allow loosening during hot weather.
Steel was also on the menu at Patek Philippe, although not quite in a -re-cession-conscious way. There was talk about sensible pricing for the attractively reconfigured annual calendars; at comfortably under €28,000 they are almost half the price of the perpetual calendars. But Patek's showstopper was a split-second chronograph in a steel case, priced at more than €335,000. The price is accounted for by the complexity of the movement and the resulting low annual production of just a couple of dozen. Even at this price there was huge interest: it is the only high-complication watch that Patek offers in steel, which paradoxically makes it much more sought after than its counterparts in precious metals.
It used to be said that Patek sold you a steel watch for the price of a gold one, and it seems heavyweight collectors were delighted that the brand was now proposing a steel watch for the price of a house. Having seen the value of rare Pateks rise steadily for a generation, collectors probably hope this watch—described by Patek as "steel in its most stately manifestation"—will prove a better investment than real estate.
150 All-in-One, Chopard L.U.C
Type XXII, Breguet
Arceau Cheval de Légende, Hermès
Minute Repeater Tourbillon, Hublot