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Recently Mike Margolis wrote about what Baselworld is like from the viewpoint of an exhibitor. Now, I would like to give you an idea of what it is like from the viewpoint of a working journalist and to do that I will focus on just one day; Thursday, the opening day of the fair.
I rise at 7:15am, shower and get dressed for the day; by 8:00 I have taken the 5-minute walk to the station. At the station I buy a croissant and a cup of coffee, whilst I do so, a tall Chinese gentleman is trying to give a similar order in perfect English to the lady behind the counter, unfortunately she doesn’t speak English, so I help him out and he then asks me if I am also going to Basel. I tell him that I am and we walk to the train with his two companions, get a seat together on the train & begin to chat. He gives me his card and tells me that his family owns a watch store in the North East of China, in a city called Dalian, which I had never heard of but which he tells me has a population of around 11 million. I ask him which brands his store sells and he tells me that they stock around 50 brands and that his store is 6,000 square meters in size (around 65,000 sq ft.) which is four times the size of Tourneau’s NYC flagship store. I ask him questions about the market in China but by then we have arrived in Basel. We get on the tram, and five minutes later arrive at the new exhibition halls.
But my first port of call is not in the exhibition, but rather at the press room, where I drop off my bag in my storage locker and make my way to the Seiko Press Conference, held at the Plaza. As I enter the foyer, I spot a line of Seiko executives and managers lined up, as though at a wedding reception.
The conference focuses on commemorative watches all celebrating the 100th anniversary of Seiko producing their first wristwatch, the Laurel, in 1913. The replicas of the 1970s Grand Seiko watches are stunning and I think that the Seiko Astron Solar is massively improved by the relocation of the cities from the rehaut to the bezel.
Once the presentation is over, I chat to a few of my friends at Seiko, including Mr. Hattori and then hurry over to the main hall for my next appointment; as I enter the hall I pass through a phalanx of Baselworld hostesses handing out copies of the daily Baselworld newspaper. They are dressed in some strange, almost 1970s outfit and all wear a small sequined yarmulke; I think that their uniform is somehow meant to mirror the design of the new hall, but it just looks strange to me.
My next meeting is with Rolex at their new stand; the new Baselworld building is not only twice the size of the previous one, it is also much higher, this gives the brands the ability to add a third floor. So almost all the brands have chosen to build brand new stands and Rolex is no different; like the Baselworld building itself, there are almost no right angles in this design, it is all acute angles, pointed corners and sloping walls. Very Daniel Liebeskind.
I walk into the cave like entrance to the stand
where I am stopped by two of their security people, I tell them I have a meeting with the press people and am dispatched to the rear entrance; it seems that the front door is only for dealers. However, it turns out the that the rear entrance feeds into the same reception area as the front one, and I only have to wait for a few minutes until my Rolex contact comes out & we head off to one of the meeting rooms.
It is joint meeting with two others from the UK based press and as I am the first, we sit and chat about the new stand. I learn that it took six weeks to erect and an unbelievable 150 semi-trailers to bring the components to the site. Then the rest of the troop arrive and the meeting commences; as is my wont, I insist on trying all of the men’s’ watches on, so that I can take wrist shots.
Just before I am about to leave, the head of Rolex PR worldwide comes by and we stop to chat; I congratulate her on the new stand and she asks if I would like a private tour; I beg off, citing my full schedule but ask if there is a later time we could do it. So we check our respective calendars and realize that there is possible opening in the afternoon, so we arrange to meet at 3:30pm.
I then head off for my next meeting, at Hermes, where they are to unveil their new stand; I take the escalator and realize as I see their new stand that they meant the word ‘unveil’ quite literally.
I am a little early for the event, so I spot a couple of other writers I know and we chat for a while until someone finally gets the curtain raised and we troop inside. The CEO of Hermes gives a nice chat about the stand and about Toyo Ito, its architect, who only the previous month has won the Pritzker Prize (architecture’s Nobel prize). They both talked about sustainability and remaining true to your sources. The stand itself is impressive, light, airy and almost organic in its curving surfaces but I wonder how long it will last, Baselworld stands are expected to have a five to ten year life.
So much attention has been given to the new stand that there is little to speak of in the way of watches, although my eye is drawn to an amazing clock.
The clock, resembling nothing more than an oversized golf ball is actually made of crystal (made by St. Louis Crystal, an Hermes subsidiary) and contains a JLC Atmos with a unique dial design.
The few watches, which are there, are displayed in futuristic (or maybe retro 70s) white bubble stands rising from the floor.
I manage to grab a few moments with the CEO of Hermes to discuss with him his firm’s purchase last month of Joseph Erard, the company who assembled Hermes’ watches. With their purchase of their dial supplier last year and their investment in Vaucher, the movement maker; Hermes is well on the way to becoming a totally integrated watch producer. He tells me that they do this because they want to be able to guarantee their sources and also to control the quality. As an explanation he says that thirty years ago, they were simply one of the largest buyers of silk fabric in the world; whilst nowadays they actually own the mills and produce everything in house.
I take my leave of him & hurry next door to Harry Winston, where I am a few minutes late for my meeting to view the new Opus 13. I love visiting this stand; for two reasons, it is an oasis of peace & calm in the horological zoo that is Baselworld and because I always look forward to the new Opus from them. Because each Opus comes from a different independent watchmaker there is never any continuity or repetition & each one is a surprise; in the whole time I have been covering Basel, they only let me down once, and that was with the Opus 8, which was a mechanical digital watch and which I thought was the answer to the question that no-one had ever asked. Despite being a little late, I was greeted with the courtesy & kindness I have come to expect from HW, I was also pleased to see that my very old friend Alan Downing was on hand to act as translator for the presentation. So he, I and the HW PR Lady sat in a quiet corner of the room as a large box was brought to us by a gentleman, he sat down with us & was introduced to me as Ludovic Ballouard, the gentleman behind the new watch.
We watch a computer generated video on the watch & how it functions, after it is over I am still unable to work out how to tell the time on the watch and say so, Alan then attempts to explain it to me, but my feeble brain has taken in too much in the last few hours and I remain no wiser. Then M. Ballouard demonstrates the watch to me and I finally ‘get it’; I am handed the watch and examine it closely, the ‘face’ of the watch is incredibly futuristic,
Whilst the rear of the movement looks like something from the 19th Century.
I can respect the work which has gone into it and admire the craftsmanship & ingenuity but it strikes me as the least successful Opus since number 8.
But the new watch from their ‘Histore de Tourbilion’ series alleviates any feelings that I might have had that HW were losing their touch under their new corporate masters. It is stunning and almost mesmerizing to watch as the three concentric tourbilion cages rotate, each in a different dimension and at a different speed.
Whilst the Histoire de Tourbilion 4 was amazing, it wasn’t my favourite tourbilion on the HW stand, that honour fell to the Ocean Tourbillon Jumping Hour model.
If the Histoire & the Opus amazed with their complexity; the Ocean Tourbillon Jumping Hour was simple to the point of austerity; with large amounts of clear space in the watch.
It felt almost ethereal, with the slim bridges suspending the tourbilion cage and the dial assembly seeming almost incapable of holding them. I love the touches of blue against the white gold and also the tiny touch of red, which is the minute hand. So far it is my favourite watch of the show; but I am only half way through my first day, with another three and a half to go.
I grab a couple of mini-sandwiches at the bar inside the HW stand along with a couple of espresso coffees, which represents my lunch and head off from one end of the horological spectrum to the other, for my meeting with Mondaine.
The Mondaine meeting did not go as I expected, because I had made the appointment in an attempt to discover their plans for the future. Mondaine were one of the few Swiss watch companies to raise their heads over the Swatch Group decision to cease supplying smaller firms & I wanted to talk about their plans now that Swatch have started to throttle the supply. But the two PR ladies I met with knew nothing about this but promised to pass my queries along; I still await an answer.
My next meeting was with Davide Cerutto who is the head of design and of marketing at Tudor, I have known him since he got the job a few years ago and he is one of my favourite people in the watch business; he loves watches but at the same time, is not afraid of speaking his mind. The Tudor stand is inset into the corner of Rolex stand, but as there is a passageway between them, it feels like a completely separate stand, even though they are joined on the two upper floors. And it was to the upper floors that I went, where a couple of Tudor folks presented their two main introductions for 2013, the new ceramic Black Shield chronograph and the Chrono Blue, a new iteration of the Heritage Chrono from a few years ago. The Black Shield took design cues from a Ducati motorcycle, and so to launch the new watch, they commissioned an Italian bike customizer to develop a Black Shield version of Ducati’s iconic ‘Monster’.
I love the ‘shadow’ branding on the bike and, if I still rode motorcycles, I would love to ride this one; but the truth is, it looks more like Batman’s bike than Tudor’s.
All of the coverage on the Black Shield has been about the all black version, however I have to say that I prefer the ‘safari’ version with the ‘canvas’ style strap.
The Chrono Blue is stunning, they have hit it ‘out of the park’ with this one; whilst I loved the ‘Home Plate’ when it came out (and was one of the first to buy one); this one takes the whole ‘Heritage’ thing up just one more notch.
In five years Tudor have firmly pulled themselves out from under the coat tails of Rolex and no longer position themselves as the ‘Poor man’s Rolex’; now, in some ways they are the cutting edge of the Rolex group. Remember it was Tudor who made the first Titanium watch from the group and now the first ceramic piece; and a major part of this repositioning as the cutting edge brand is moving them upmarket and so increasing the price point at which the new models are offered. It is an interesting business proposition & it will be interesting to see how well it works, so far, all the signs are good.
Soon it was time for me to head next door to the Rolex stand and meet up with their head of press relations; once again I had to fight my way past the ‘Gate Guardians’ who seemed to operate on the basis that they would be punished if anyone actually got on to the stand. I was in the process of pleading my case with them when my contact came over and saved me. The new stand is more than 50% bigger than the previous one; in the fifteen or more years I have been visiting the Rolex Baselworld stands, I have spent time in the reception area (which was 8 chairs and 2 coffee tables) and then been shown into one of the 5 ground floor presentation rooms; within which there were drawers with all the new models, a central table and half a dozen chairs. It was in these rooms that dealers would be invited and they would be shown the new introductions and then invited to place their orders. Now, everything had changed; there were two distinct reception areas, each with 25 or more comfortable armchairs and the rear wall led to a corridor where there seemed to be almost endless presentation rooms as well as five specific rooms dedicated to display materials, to promotional items, store design, to Rolex service and even one just for advertising material.
It isn’t until you look closely that you realize that every part of the décor reflects some iconic Rolex feature or another, the wall behind the staircase represents the milled bezel found on so many of their watches.
Whilst the back wall of this presentation room features the roman numerals seen on both the Datejust and Day-Date models.
On the top floor of the stand there is even a full waiter service restaurant for the stand personnel and invited guests; all in all, it is a spectacular operation & one I am glad I was able to view.
Then it was a quick 20 meter walk down the main aisle to TAG Heuer’s new stand, which forms one corner of an LVMH plaza, with Hublot, Zenith & Bulgari making up the other corners. I met with Christoph Behling, who has designed most of their watches for the last few years and we sat together whilst we discussed the new MikroPendulum watches; these are simply stunning and I have to confess that when I first saw the pendulum idea at its 2010 launch, I had my doubts if it would ever make it to production. But as with the V4 and the Mikrograph, TAG Heuer have proved, once again, that they are capable of operating at the limits of horological technology and making it work.
For the first time in nine hours, I left the show, walking out into unexpected sunshine, strolled along the length of the Messeplatz to the corner of Reihenring, sat in the sunshine for a few minutes and then climbed into one of the Louis Vuitton cars, which took me to their off site location. Vuitton & Baselworld have a strange relationship; whilst the ‘mainstream’ LVMH brands (TAG Heuer, Bulgari, Hublot & Zenith) have a prominent position just inside the front door of Baselworld Hall 1, Vuitton itself doesn’t show there, for one simple reason; it has no retailers, all Vuitton watches are only sold through their boutiques. So their presence at Baselworld is mostly to keep the press up to date with what they are doing, and for that they don’t really need a stand in the main hall. Rather, each year they take over an existing site, last year it was one of the Rhine cruise boats and this year they have taken over a grand mansion on the outskirts of Basel.
I arrive after a short ten minute drive and am ushered through the main floor and directed to the garden, where an outside bar area has been set up & I find myself in the company of a couple of dozen other watch writers, many of whom I know well.
I join them for a glass of champagne and immediately start to ‘decompress’; we start to chat about the day and about our feelings about the fair, the almost unanimous feeling is that the brands seem to have used up all their creative energy on their new stands, leaving little for the products themselves.
As the sun went down, we were requested to come inside, move upstairs and take our seats in the dining room, there were half a dozen tables, each seating around eight people, but before we took our designated places there was even more discussion about the show.
The dinner was gorgeous, the company was fun and the conversation was stimulating, but by the time we rose it was well after 11pm & I had been up for 18 hours, so I headed off to the station to catch the last train & got to bed a little after midnight.