Bellweather Basel By Alex Doak
The Chinese are gifting less, Russia’s slowing down, and the uncapped Swiss franc is driving up costs, but early signs are, says Alex Doak of Tempus Magazine, that Baselworld will be as exuberant as ever….
One of my favourite credit crunch anecdotes (admittedly there aren’t very many) comes from that stalwart of taste and understatement, Hermès. Allegedly, the Parisian brand’s boutiques began offering their more self-conscious customers plain white bags in which to surreptitiously stow their purchases, rather than the usual road-safety orange colour scheme broadcasting its new owner’s criminally insensitive largesse.
Because, as we all know, the very top end wasn’t terribly affected by the financial downturn of the late noughties. The rich continued to get richer, and the stuff they like continued to get bought – yes, mostly by the Chinese and Russians, but also by Westerners who are just better at that whole subtlety thing when it comes indulging their wealth.
A lot of that stuff happened to be Swiss watches – meaning that despite a brief dip in export value in 2009, things were soon exactly offset by a 22% recovery the following year. Then a 20% rise. And another 11%….All the while, however, the vitrines of spring’s Baselworld watch and jewellery trade fair had never looked so humble. Out with the pantomime über-complications, tourbillons for the sake of tourbillons and diamond-set carbuncles. In with the sixties reissues, slimline cases and clean white dials. Looking back, it’s patently clear that this return to simpler, less complicated, less flashy timepieces was merely Switzerland’s plain-white Hermès bag moment.
But what’s good about this – quite apart from reminding us all what tasteful watch-making looks like – is that the modern revival of ‘‘proper’’ watches, following the Quartz Crisis of the eighties, is now complete. With spending power in healthier shape than ever – the industry doesn’t even seem particularly worried by the uncapped Swiss franc driving up export costs – what we’ll see gleaming from each brand-pavilion’s vitrines this March and early April will be the most comprehensive range of product seen for decades. The more avant-garde watchmakers are yet again pushing the boundaries of materials, mechanics and design – such as Hublot, Girard-Perregaux and Arnold & Son – but they have also remembered to service the lower-end and those who simply want a watch that actually fits beneath their French cuffs (well done as ever, Blancpain).
It’s not just the suited and booted dapper chaps who are benefitting. Women are better served than ever, by watches with both brains and beauty, rather than a simple “pink shrink” kitted out with quartz. In fact, especially in the case of the Harry Winston Midnight Feathers, the line between men and women is increasingly blurred (maybe one day the “boyfriend watch” will be replaced by the “girlfriend watch”…?)
All of which means that the burgeoning parade of fashion press struggling to navigate the labyrinthine halls of Messe Basel are scratching their heads even more. How to populate their facile trends round-ups, when tastes have never been more catholic? Richemont’s SIHH trade fair in January proved this, with even the most fazed watch hacks struggling to conveniently encapsulate proceedings beyond a tenuous trend for a skeleton dial here and there. As much as we were tempted to fall back on good old blue dials, rose gold or matte black, the fact of the matter is that these ‘‘trends’’ are here to stay, along with every other conceivable incarnation of fine watch-making, providing more choice than ever for watch lovers.
Baselworld Watch & Jewellery Show 2015 runs from Thursday 19th March until Thursday 26th April. For further information, visit www.baselworld.com.
The Infamous Breitling Party
Exhibiting brands literally spend millions of Euros building their multi-storey pavilions at Baselworld, and thousands more renting the floorspace and storing all the bits during the year. So it’s no surprise that most of them would rather get their money’s worth and throw their cocktail soirées on site. But not so Breitling, which despite having its own palace complete with double-decker-bus-sized aquarium of tropical fish, get tongues wagging every year as to the secretive location of its notoriously debaucherous, theatrically immersive party. Thrown five evenings on the trot (yes, five!), it invariably involves boarding a convoy of buses – one year, guests were ushered onto battered old rattlers by rifle-wielding terrorists – and being whisked to a converted industrial space for Michelin-starred food, flowing cocktails, a performance by Kool and the Gang (one year at least) and the inevitable caged S&M show. Never say the Swiss are a shy and retiring bunch….