Watchmaking and the pandemic: #Resilience

2003: Horology hit by SARS (from our archives)


March 2020

2003: Horology hit by SARS (from our archives)

The comparison is not 100% accurate, obviously. But we wanted to find in our archives the impact that the first pandemic of the 21st century, SARS, had on the watch industry in 2003 - and above all how this first alert had been managed (badly, it must be said, as you will discover). Today, the coronavirus is reaching a much greater scale.


n 2003, seventeen years ago, the SARS epidemic – a “cousin” of the coronavirus family – hit Hong Kong. On 1 April, just two days before the opening of Baselworld, the Federal Office of Swiss Health issued an order prohibiting exhibitors to employ staff from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore – affecting 3,000 people.

These workers were gathered in Zurich, rather than Basel, because of the “One Show, Two Locations” concept (a short-lived and disputed concept which flopped). The day before the opening, just half of the 800 stands planned for Zurich had been installed. Visitor numbers were down 22% and Baselworld attempted to claw back 50 million francs in compensation from the Swiss Confederation (the Group finally withdrew its compensation demand in November 2005).

Europa Star 3/2003
Europa Star 3/2003

Beyond this however, the damage to Baselworld’s image in Asia was great, as demonstrated by the statement by Kevin Lau (of Hanville Company Ltd, Hong Kong) to Europa Star: he believed the decision was “politically motivated” and that the Swiss industry had a hand in it. Indeed, the fact that Asian exhibitors had been prohibited in Zurich, but not the rich Asian clients in Basel, only served to fuel suspicion further.

The leaden mood at Baselworld 2003 was further weighed down by the launch of the disastrous invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush on 20 March 2003 just a few days previously. To the 1,300 deaths from the SARS epidemic would be added those of 100,000 Iraqis and nearly 5,000 Americans.

As the main headline of Europa Star 3/2003 ran, Baselworld that year was “death in the gardens of luxury”.

To access all our archives, subscriptions are available here.