First, the Swatch Group left. Then, the brands within the LVMH Group bade their goodbyes. But when Patek Philippe, Rolex, Tudor, Chopard and Chanel withdrew their participation from the Baselworld Watch and Jewellery show on April 14, we finally had to acknowledge that things were well and truly over.
It’s not without some sadness that I witness these happenings, because my experience at the show have always been enjoyable – being amidst that many beautiful watches is a drug and I’m 100% addicted.
But outside of the watches themselves, even a glass-half-full person like me has to admit that the organisation of the fair leaves much to be desired – I’m always hungry, Internet is patchy, and there’s never enough places to sit, unless you have access to the press lounge (which is always full) or if you have a friend within one of the brand booths and secure a seat by their bars.
In Switzerland, there are two fairs every year – Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in French-speaking Geneva, held in January, is the more serious of the two and undoubtedly more luxurious.
I love SIHH for its unapologetically fanciful trappings, from the free-flowing champagne (breakfast cocktails really should be more popular than they are) and hot meals to the buses that transport everyone from hotel to exhibition hall. It’s all very formal and very luxe, which certainly has its charm.
Held in the warmer month of March in the German part of Switzerland, Baselworld is a bit more relaxed, and I do enjoy the bustle (it’s always been much bigger than SIHH) and the diversity of the crowd it attracts and the variety of the brands on display.
The sense of community it established often resulted in the most enjoyable after-hours drinking sessions – live bands would belt out popular hits right outside the exhibition centre on most evenings, for example, a setting almost impossible not to make friends in. Enjoying champagne and cheese from Jean-Claude Biver’s own farm at Hublot’s booth is a cherished memory of mine, my intimate chats with the watchmaking legend emblazoned in my mind. But does a bit of a dance and some bubbly eclipse so many other shortcomings?
Where SIHH evolved with the times and paid heed to what its stakeholders wanted, Baselworld did not. If I was less than satisfied as an attendee, I cannot imagine what the brands themselves had to put up with – extremely high cost to even be present, outrageous costs to build booths, dreadful internet connectivity and many others. In the city of Basel, restaurants and hotels raised their prices to more than 300% — I get wanting to earn a few extra bucks during a peak period, but this is ridiculous.
Covid-19 waved its mighty crown earlier this year and president of Baselworld Michel-Loris Melikoff announced a postponement of the fair till next year, unveiling conditions such as carrying forward 85% of the fees for exhibitors to next year, while keeping 15% to offset out-of-pocket costs that would hurt the brands financially.
It was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, resulting in Patek Philippe, Rolex, Tudor, Chopard and Chanel’s reluctant withdrawal. The response from Baselworld’s organisers are a masterclass in how not to deal with a break-up – it’s been quite painful to read.
Although this year has been one marked by unprecedented upheaval, the watchmaking industry has been begging Baselworld to change for years – no one needs a watch fair, we all attend it every year because of the opportunities and experiences it affords us. With that being denied to its participants year after year, this sort of destruction was waiting to happen.
Petrina Fernandez, Lakshmi Sekhar, Mae Chan and I have enjoyed our time at Baselworld over the years and we are pained to see it disintegrate in this way, but much of what has happened is its own doing. We mourn the chance to make the annual pilgrimage to this wonderful city, to meet watchmakers and fellow journalists from all over the world.
Earlier his year, SIHH was renamed Watches and Wonders, and prior to the travel restrictions brought on by Covid-19, was scheduled to be held in late March.
They have a full year to learn from Baselworld’s mistakes, if in fact anyone is able to travel by March 2021. Let’s hope that they do.
Rolex, Patek, Chopard and the other big brands are working with the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) to create a new event in April 2021 for retailers, press and key collectors. Stay tuned for updates.