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Sinking the Titanic

A post-Baselworld watch industry


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By Nick Foulkes

22 Jul, 2020

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It has been a little like watching the film Titanic – only without the dreary musical score and the soppy across-the-social-divide love affair between Kate and Leo.

A few years ago the Baselworld seemed, like the Titanic did on its launch, unsinkable. As recently as 2017 there were 1300 exhibitors from leviathan brands to the humble sub-suppliers; whether you wanted to look at a Patek Philippe minute repeater or a new concept for a studded leather Bund-style watchstrap Baselworld was the place where these two ends of the industry, and other polar extremes of the watch world, could be experienced if not under the same roof then at least in adjacent exhibition halls. Even last year the bar at the Three Kings was its pre-social distancing self, more packed than a Mumbai commuter train in rush hour albeit with better refreshments and a river view. Such was the throng and ‘door policy’ that if you were resident at the Trois Rois you were issued with a card that guaranteed you entry for a nightcap after attending two or three brand drinks and dinner parties.

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“And then suddenly, like the Titanic, Baselworld hit the iceberg of Swatch Group’s decision to depart from Basel”

At first like those who had faith in the claims of the White Star Line, one might have been forgiven for thinking that, even after sustaining a large hole, the Titanic would remain afloat; few predicted the imminent collapse of Basel.

However more brands announced their departure, support began to haemorrhage, the old complaints about lousy internet connectivity and overpriced hot dogs, in fact over-priced everything gained renewed traction and the coup de grace came when the independent brands; by which I do not mean the craft-based artisanal makers of a few dozen pieces a year, but giants Patek Philippe, Rolex, Chopard and Chanel; made the announcement that they were leaving for Geneva. In terms of the Titanic this was the moment that the proud ocean liner once considered unsinkable broke in half and headed for the bottom of the Atlantic.

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Viewed with impartiality and without sentiment, the first words to spring to mind are ‘What took them so long?’ Geneva is the cradle of modern watchmaking. French is the language of watchmaking. Instead of being the other side of Switzerland from the exhibition halls the HQs of Patek, Rolex and (especially) Chopard are less than quarter of an hour’s drive away from Palexpo. Geneva is their town. The fact that there is already an established fair thanks to the pioneering work of Cartier’s Alain Dominique Perrin who broke from Basel three decades ago is another bonus as is the planned programme of satellite horological events around the town organized by the FHH to create a true commercial watch event. And for the press, retailers and final clients instead of the prospect of numerous micro fairs splintering off requiring numerous trips; there is relief that the majority of the industry will be congregating in one location at one time, enabling (pandemic permitting) the sort of convocation that strengthens the industry and renews our enthusiasm for the wonders of watchmaking.

Nevertheless, it will be a great shame, for me at least, to no longer have a reason to visit Basel every spring. I know I am terminally nostalgic but there is a routine, and a ritual about the Basel fair that has become familiar over time. When I first started visiting a generation ago I remember hearing Old-timers talk of the days when watches fought with washing machines and wines for the attention of visitors at what had been a very general exhibition of Swiss industries. Sadly, or perhaps happily, I am just a little too young to have experienced those rather less polished more innocent times.

I started visiting what was in those days simply known as the Basel Fair about 30 years ago; I remember being there the year Gunter Bluemlein was said to have been knocked down by a tram; and the time IWC celebrated its 125thbirthday with a man who was apparently a famous Swiss German comic and another who tore rolled up newspapers into bunting while whistling. Some events like Breitling’s risqué bacchanals were not even that long ago but seem to belong to a very distant past.

The Basel fair was where I first met Richard Mille, even before he had established his eponymous brand. It was where I saw the Royal Oak offshore make its debut (at the time it seemed such a large watch that I felt I had to buy one because I was sure they would not be making it for long!) I remember the excitement around the Omega coaxial escapement.

All these moments and many many more, are indissolubly associated in my mind with the city on the Rhine and it does sadden me that this once proud flagship of the watch industry has sunk.

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