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Mind the gap


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By Nick Foulkes

20 Jan, 2020

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About 18 months ago I was approached by a well-known international entertainment group and asked if I would like to set up a watch fair in London. They believed that they had identified a gap and were of the flattering opinion that I was the man to fill it for them. As yet a Foulkes fair for fine watchmaking has not materialised, but who knows, maybe sometime in the future…

Watch events/fairs/summits/gatherings/whatever you want to call them have been multiplying steadily over recent years and some have real traction: I hear good things about one in Mexico run by friend Carlos Alonso; Watches and Wonders Miami is back for its third edition in February; and of course there is Dubai Watch Week, which I was finally persuaded to attend this year and enjoyed for all sorts of reasons, not least the chance to see the Shah’s oxblood dial platinum Day-Date with its special Midas-inspired bracelet and – if I recall correctly – slightly enlarged case diameter (what is more the catering by Cipriani including an excellent squid and polenta Venetian style was almost worth the trip alone).

But ever since Swatch Group pulled out of Baselworld, giving rise to their own ‘fair’, Time to Move, the topic has risen up the agenda. The Swatch decision has emboldened other brands big and small to quit the Messe Platz.

Those of us with long memories see history repeating itself. Mirabile dictu there was a time when Basel was more or less the only show in town and then, as those of us of a certain age will remember, Alain Dominique Perrin, the visionary boss of Cartier in the seventies, eighties and nineties and one of the architects of modern luxury, approached the organisers of the Basel fair to request a special area for high-end brands.

Apparently they did not fancy M.Perrin’s horological VIP zone so he decided to set up his own fair in Geneva and thus the SIHH was born, providing a calm and pleasant environment to inspect watches. It was not easy, I remember the that the first SIHH coincided with the First Gulf War, but three decades on, the SIHH, now renamed Watches and Wonders, has become an institution in itself.

This year Basel and Geneva have reverted to running their events back to back as in the old days, meaning that visiting press and retailers need make only one trip to Switzerland. But now that we have entered the age of the splinter event, the January slot once occupied by SIHH has been taken by Bulgari and LVMH watch brands have decided to stage a Dubai event, a few weeks after Dubai Watch Week and a couple of months before Basel. It is too early to tell whether it will become a regular fixture on the horological calendar but significantly, this desert get-together has already spawned its own satellite event with Moser and MB&F staging pop-up exhibitions to take advantage of the presence of a large group of international watch media in the region.

The pace of the industry has quickened: with greater investment, a more corporate, less maverick style, and shareholder ownership has become the spectre of quarterly results overshadowing every decision. While the increasing availability and quantity of information (the internet has made instant experts of us all) in turn stimulates a Pavlovian, bulimic desire for more.

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If it is not felt to be delivering value – which seems to have been the problem with Basel – dropping a macro-event is understandable; but the irony is that at a time when the word ‘community’ has entered the lexicon of marketing buzzwords, it could be argued that the watch world seems to be fragmenting into a rolling year-round pageant of micro-events.

Maybe the watch industry is becoming closer to the garment business which seems to have fashion weeks, runway shows and exhibitions all over the world as well as more ‘seasons’ (autumn/winter, spring/summer, cruise, resort, pre-fall etc.) than there are …well…seasons. Is this seasonal surfeit another symptom of climate change?

It is certainly indicative of industry change. And for those of us who passionately love watches and appreciate watchmaking as a cultural activity as much as a commercial one, a lively, vibrant, active and engaged industry is only a good thing, but filling a gap is not always the same as meeting a need.

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