Death in the gardens of luxury

June 2003

They were surprising times at the two spring watch fairs this year, especially at Basel, which took place in a very bizarre atmosphere, full of worry, fear and forced smiles. Between the war and SARS, the festivities were definitely muted, with the dreary weather adding to the overall gloom.

For a person from the Far East, it must have been very uncomfortable, to say the least, to wander freely through the corridors and visit the stands. While no one would dare admit it, everybody tried to discreetly avoid contact with a potential 'carrier' of SARS, seen as a 'biological time bomb'. Whether we wanted to or not, whether we tried to combat our own fears or not, everyone at Basel had to finally come to terms with his own dread of this invisible and uncontrollable virus. The ongoing war in Iraq fertilized even more the terrain of worry and rumours.

Honestly, I must confess that, even though I tried at all costs to avoid the awful feeling of ostracising the Asians, I myself fell 'victim' to this fear, when 'instinctively', I moved back from a Chinese friend who invited me to look closely at a watch's detail! Obviously no one, especially those most concerned with the problem, wanted to catch this potentially fatal disease simply for the love of fine watchmaking.

By a strange turn of events, however, the ambient relativism of the fair ended by producing a form of welcome detachment. Business was down 30%, there is no denying it, but the quality of the contacts was apparently better than before. There was more time to talk and to listen. There was less stress and less ferocity in the commercial dealings. It was as if the crisis (from a political, economic and health point of view) put things back into perspective and into place. It was not a climate of defeatism or of slashing prices. Yes, there was a trend towards lowering prices, but this was, in fact, a return to a more correct equilibrium.

Paradoxically, the crisis has helped the watch industry to rebalance itself by offering the perfect pretext for carrying out such a readjustment. It also afforded another 'advantage', that is, it temporarily turned attention away from certain, sometimes fairly serious problems, being experienced by some of the major players in the industry. The crisis certainly is not curing these ills now, nor will it cure them in the future. Yet, it is providing time, a necessary and precious pause, for these players to digest their spate of acquisitions, to recover their investments and to reposition themselves in the marketplace.

In the halls of the SIHH, the air was apparently less 'tainted' than at Basel and especially at Zurich, which was a total and complete 'flop'.The haut de gamme people in the lush corridors of Geneva, providentially felt sheltered from the hordes of suspected coughers and sneezers.

But people were carrying out the same type of readjustments. Everyone was conscious of the fact that in order to maintain current price levels, serious efforts had to be made in terms of improved technology, design and superior quality. Having educated their clients, these consumers were now demanding what the marketing campaigns had been preaching. They wanted authenticity (a so-called manufacture must make its own movements). They wanted real originality. And, they would not settle for less than a correct and reasonable price/quality/ image ratio.

But beyond these 'practical' consequences, SARS and the war reminded us all of the real nature of time which unavoidably ends by death. In the gardens of luxury, everyone has re-learned this lesson with modesty.