ts main competitor is a Geneva cultural foundation. Its headquarters is a city recognised internationally for the influence of its art. Its venue is the work of venerated architects. And yet, strangely, Baselworld seems to have missed a fundamental shift in the world of watchmaking: the mechanical watch has become both a contemporary art form, appreciated by the world’s wealthy, and a true global culture that ignites the passion of younger people.
Far from killing off the watch by appropriating its basic function, the virtual world has increased its attraction. Instagram has not made the watch an old and odd thing, it has restored the glory of the most traditional timepieces! The frenzy of social networks has made the slower pace of the watch industry ever more attractive, as we explained in a recent column on the success of Omega’s Speedy Tuesday operation - a heavyweight that is leaving Baselworld...
Instagram has not made the watch an old and odd thing, it has restored the glory of the most traditional timepieces!
The best salespeople almost never mention numbers. When you come down to a negotiation based purely on finances, something is missing. And that something is most probably enthusiasm. However, at Baselworld, the main issue for brands has become the price per square metre; for retailers, the price of their hotel rooms; for journalists, the price of a Bratwurst – it’s not in any sense a passion project. However, today more than ever, the so-called “emotions” promoted night and day by the brands sell watches in the tens of thousands of francs, from Dubai to Singapore.
In Basel, financial considerations have totally taken precedence over the cultural ambition of a global event devoted to watchmaking – to the point that it has become a misleading obsession. And just as the budgets of the brands are split between an ever-increasing multitude of investments in their own stores, their new e-commerce platforms, and local events for collectors, the trade fair no longer has a place in the brands’ global budgets.
The best salespeople almost never mention numbers. When you come down to a negotiation based purely on finances, something is missing. And that something is most probably enthusiasm.
As journalists, we ourselves are in a good position to see how quickly the world has changed. Investments in print are of course no longer what they were in the 1990s. We take note of this new reality. And yet: the golden age of journalism is not behind us. On the contrary! After a period “digesting” this digital disruption, we are witnessing a strong resurgence of interest in the beautiful physical object that is the magazine.
It’s the same for the mechanical watch: an “all-virtual” world gives new value to what is tangible. We ask for interviews for our new websites, and we are quizzed about our next print edition! This fall, we will put online our first burst of digitised archives, 50,000 pages that will trace the history of the great watchmaking adventure. What a wonderful time this is, that ascribes greater value to older times! Watch culture is in very good shape... and sales are tracking alongside.
An “all-virtual” world gives new value to what is tangible. Watch culture is in very good shape... and sales are tracking alongside.
And therein lies the added value of Baselworld: it is a human ritual, a tangible entity, rooted in the watchmaking “season”. This event should be to watchmaking what the World Cup is to football. But FIFA, this huge cash machine, talks about nothing but emotions and sweat, constantly raising the stakes, accentuating the rivalry between the stars. Its enormous contribution to global football culture makes it a huge commercial success, capable of surviving any scandal.
Baselworld, rather than clinging to its imperilled empire, should place the culture of watchmaking before the culture of numbers.
This event should be to watchmaking what the World Cup is to football.
How? First, by being bold! Its current image, that of a fast-declining fair, is the first existential obstacle for the new management to overcome. They have just taken the reins and they are immediately confronted with a major crisis, following the departure of their main exhibitor.
It could take the form of involving the one person who is on the radar of all global watch brands: the collector. Let’s stop pitting the end client against the business customer. Retailers are regional experts who, if they have survived the recent years’ drastic changes in the watch distribution chain, are still there for a good reason: their address book, their access to collectors in their area, and their ongoing dialogue (both online and off) with them.
Its current image, that of a fast-declining fair, is the first existential obstacle for the new management to overcome. They have just taken the reins and they are immediately confronted with a major crisis, following the departure of their main exhibitor.
Imagine that the profits of MCH, the parent company of Baselworld, could serve in part to invite renowned retailers from around the world for an “experience” (the buzzword today) with one or more of their best end clients.
Once in Basel, let’s imagine that, far from being limited to a tour of the booths – which are certainly impressive – the “experience” would translate into major retrospectives with exceptional pieces (the Geneva watchmaking museum, closed for fifteen years, could supply some interesting exhibits...), interactive experiences into the heart of the watch movement, panels of speakers debating the hot topics of the industry.
Let us imagine a fair that would become “B to B to C”, truly bringing together the whole of watchmaking... Let us dream of a fair that doesn’t give the impression of always favouring the biggest brands, to the detriment, over the years, of independent brands and subcontractors – the very places where innovation really originates – and which at the end does not satisfy anyone. So let’s dream of a more “horizontal” fair, in tune with the managerial culture of our time.
This fair must become “B to B to C” in order to truly bring together the best of watchmaking!
Consider the participation of major auction houses, which have become the real new gathering place for watch collectors. It’s not just about money: the fair, with its rich archives, could use its powerful cultural resources to offer something new about the old days.
Let’s not forget the queue of visitors two years ago at Baselworld, eager to participate in the virtual immersion experience offered by Samsung, a company that is anything but a watchmaker. Now, imagine that the fair invested in innovative 4D experiences. And explored the full potential of new connection technologies for watchmaking. Let’s reconcile the virtual and the physical!
Let’s fight for the creation of a genuine central library, offering books devoted to fine watchmaking (a bit of self-promotion here...), as it is this heritage that is so lauded today by millennials. And beyond: the Bodmer Foundation in Geneva is a good example of what can be done in this area, combining ancient writings and ultra-contemporary technologies.
Let’s invite a guest from the world of the arts to blend their vision with watchmaking. Ulysse Nardin exhibited works by Damien Hirst on their booth at the latest SIHH. The organiser of Art Basel certainly has the resources and networks necessary for such an initiative!
Baselworld belongs to MCH as a financial entity. But the Basel Fair, which is more than a century old, belongs to the entire industry as a cultural entity. Its disappearance would be anything but a positive signal, as it is part of a long tradition which is also the best commercial argument for the industry today. The catharsis of the watch planet should not start with the destruction of its ancestral rituals...
Baselworld belongs to MCH as a financial entity. But the Basel Fair, which is more than a century old, belongs to the entire industry as a cultural entity.