Fashion: An Upbeat Mood at the Basel Watch Fair

It was the penultimate day of the Basel watch fair (known as Baselworld) and I was chatting with Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of the watch and jewelry house Chopard. "Well, no one is going to bail out the watch industry like the car industry,' " he said. On the face of it, Scheufele's remark seemed rather obvious. But after giving it some thought, I began to see his point. After all, the Swiss watch industry employs real people and forms the heart of such communities as La Chaux de Fonds and Le Locle—and right now it is going though difficult times.

However, unlike Detroit, Switzerland can at least console itself that watchmaking culture is in better shape now than it was 30 years ago when cheap electronic watches from the Far East all but finished off the luxury mechanical timepiece. From near extinction the Swiss watch industry has battled its way back to occupy a place in the pantheon of personal possessions that would have once seemed unimaginable.

Until recently, a watch was for life. Now watches have become wardrobe items, with most affluent men having a small, or not so small, collection of watches for different occasions: sports, business, dress, the beach, etc. This cultural shift—coupled with the increasing number of business executives in the so-called new markets of the East—has created the watch boom of the last 20 years. Exports of Swiss watches have climbed from 5.1 billion Swiss francs in 1988 to 17 billion last year.

Given these demographic patterns, Tag Heuer CEO Jean-Christophe Babin expressed cautious optimism about the long-term future of the luxury watch. This is not to say that Babin does not see difficulties in the short term; as a producer of between 600,000 and 800,000 watches a year, his challenge is to spread the impact of the downturn across the company. One way that Tag Heuer is reacting to the crisis is by presenting pieces such as the new Aquaracer 500, a handsome, good-quality sports watch that epitomizes what this brand does well.

The same was true of another large-volume watchmaker, Rolex. Long one of the most reserved and opaque brands, there is a hint of glasnost at the home of the timepiece with the coronet. After many decades under the stewardship of the Heiniger family, there is a new CEO, Bruno Meier, who gave a much buzzed-about interview at the end of March with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that ran under a headline claiming that watch exports might shrink by as much as one third. With this stark message in mind, Rolex launched one of its most commercial collections in some time: after such cult pieces as the Milgauss and the Deep Sea, this year saw the arrival of a new Datejust in a 41mm case, a more contemporary, attractive and salable reworking of what many people regard as the classic Rolex.

Another much-discussed brand in Basel was Breitling. Until now Breitling has relied on buying in the "engines" for its watches, but now it will be able to offer its customers the choice of a proprietary movement with a longer power reserve and other mechanical enhancements over current models. According to Count Franz Larosee, the architect of the brand's success in Britain, interest was brisk. "People seem to be adjusting to the crisis and realizing that while they have to be more careful, there is still business to be done," he said.

I was fortunate enough to see evidence of this in the subterranean vaults of the Three Kings, Basel's top hotel, where the irrepressible Hublot boss, Jean-Claude Biver, was hosting a private dinner for a group of visitors from China. Biver has an electrifying personality, and in spite of the language barrier, the evening became very high-spirited, with many of the visitors—the majority of whom had never before heard of Hublot—spontaneously ordering Biver's signature overscaled sports watches. The image of one sober-suited Chinese millionaire posing for photographs with Biver while showing off a giant white ceramic watch on a rubber strap will stay with me for some time to come.

The Basel watch fair is fascinating because of the contrasts it serves up. The morning after this boisterous dinner, I was seated in the Patek Philippe stand (though "stand" barely does justice to the three-story structure with meeting rooms, bar and restaurant) and examining a watch as restrained as the Hublot is extravagant: the classic "officer-cased" Calatrava, which means it has a hinged crystal back that can be opened to examine the movement.

But the big news at Patek Philippe was that the company has chosen to abandon the Seal of Geneva, a stamp depicting the city's coat of arms etched into the movement, ensuring it has met various exigent criteria first laid down in 1886, when the city enacted legislation to protect watches bearing its name. For many years Patek was conspicuous in its use of the seal, but in recent years a number of other top watchmakers have adopted it, so Patek developed its own seal this year. Patek watchers were thrown further into a frenzy by the announcement that chairman and paterfamilias Philippe Stern would begin handing the company over to his son Thierry.

When I caught up with Stern, he told me that during the first Basel fair he attended (albeit not in a working capacity), in 1958, he had to drive over from Geneva with a second table so they could conduct two meetings at the same time. Looking around the glittering conurbation of "booths," it was evident that much has changed. Yet a sense of those early Basel fairs was on offer in a tented exhibition space a few hundred meters from the main hall, where the young watchmakers and microbrands were on display: Jean-François Ruchonnet, Max Büsser, Felix Baumgartner's Urwerk and Marc Newsom's Ikepod. These low-volume makers, some counting their annual production in the dozens, were exhibiting innovative-looking pieces, sometimes with six-figure price tags, in booths that consisted of single tables divided by portable walls.

Despite the perfunctory surroundings and the towering sense of world gloom, the atmosphere was exciting and upbeat. It is this spirit of passion and emotional involvement that will help the Swiss watch industry ride out this crisis. There were fewer visitors to the fair this year and those who came were more cautious. But by the end of this marathon watchfest, many exhibitors who had arrived fearful left without their worst fears having been realized. It is precisely because nobody needs a watch that the industry will continue, as it feeds people's dreams. And while mere commodities can become the subject of a price war, it is far more difficult to put a value on dreams.

Patek Philippe—Ref. 5153 Calatrava officer's watch
Breitling—Navitimer 125th Anniversary Chronograph
Jean-FranÇois—Ruchonnet Cabestan
Rolex—Steel and Gold Submariner
Blancpain—50 Fathoms 'Ocean Blue'
Harry Winston—Histoire de Tourbillon
TAG Heuer—Monaco 40th Anniversary
Hermès—H au Galop

Fashion: An Upbeat Mood at the Basel Watch Fair | News