#Resilience


The heartbreaking fate of the Basel Fair

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April 2020


The heartbreaking fate of the Basel Fair

As an exhibitor for more than 80 years, like so many members of the global watchmaking community, we can only express deep sadness at the heartbreaking fate of Baselworld. So many memories and emotions: part of the collective memory of watchmaking is about to disappear, as a result of the relationship between the exhibition and its exhibitors turning sour. Once again, the pandemic has acted as an accelerator of History.

I

n the 1930s it was my great-grandfather; in the 1960s, my grandfather; in the 1990s, my father and my uncle...and also myself as a teenager. Generations passed, names changed (Mustermesse, Basel Fair, Baselworld), but one immutable ritual remained: the trip to Basel once a year, to meet the entire world of watchmaking, from its most exotic corners (Chinese brands – a totally new world at the time!) to the most impressive halls and booths, the cathedrals of a watchmaking golden age.

The plan of the Basel Fair in 1975 (Europa Star n°6/1974)
The plan of the Basel Fair in 1975 (Europa Star n°6/1974)

With the departure of the most loyal exhibitors, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard and Chanel, the death knell appears to have sounded for the venerable event, which was abandoned by Richemont at the turn of the millennium and Swatch Group two years ago.

The stand of Rolex at the Basel Fair 1957 (Europa Star n°4/1957)
The stand of Rolex at the Basel Fair 1957 (Europa Star n°4/1957)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese brands fought for access to the elite watchmakers’ club present in Basel. The prestige of the event was then unique, without any doubt. The hubris that contaminated the entire industry during the years 2005-2015, boosted by Chinese growth, and which led to the monumental investment in a building designed by star architects Herzog & De Meuron, is a distant memory. Growth has slowed, and digital technology has gradually invaded daily life.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese brands fought for access to the elite watchmakers’ club present in Basel. Since then, Seiko and Casio have left the event.

The globalization of the fair underway in the 1980s (Europa Star n°2/1984)
The globalization of the fair underway in the 1980s (Europa Star n°2/1984)

The relationship between the trade fair and its exhibiting brands became increasingly strained, with disputes over costs, bills, the price of accommodation, the price of sausage, etc... Times have changed and, despite the admirable efforts made by the new management under Michel Loris-Melikoff, it was perhaps already too late. The prestige on which a global event must rely had been profoundly eroded. The pandemic crisis – an accelerator of History – merely widened the gaps and precipitated decisions.

From now on, there will be a single global watchmaking event. Geneva has won its long and tedious chess game, which began years ago. In the end, what was intended as coordination actually precipitated the downfall of one or the other, and fate conspired against Basel, whose paradox was perhaps to have been held at arm’s length by the Geneva brands...

In the end, what was intended as coordination actually precipitated the downfall of one or the other, and fate conspired against Basel, whose paradox was perhaps to have been held at arm’s length by the Geneva brands...

The meeting point of watchmaking (Europa Star n°1/1962)
The meeting point of watchmaking (Europa Star n°1/1962)

Of course, many more questions remain to be answered: what about the entry-level, the mid-range, the Japanese, the Germans? Will they find a place in Geneva? That was the strength of the Basel event: it was the meeting point of a truly global watch industry. But perhaps one of the victims of the pandemic crisis will be globalisation itself.

We’re left with the memories. All those faces, those acquaintances, those personalities, who walked miles and miles each year in the halls of the Basel Fair. The ghosts of our ancestors. A part of the watch industry died today.

We’re left with the memories. All those faces, those acquaintances, those personalities, who walked miles and miles each year in the halls of the Basel Fair. The ghosts of our ancestors. A part of the watch industry died today.

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