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ARIEL’S ESSAYS: Baselworld’s demise is part of deeper problem with the watch industry

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When I first came to the conclusion that the luxury watch industry was in a shrinking mode, I knew there would blood, writes aBlogtoWatch founder and editor Ariel Adams. This was all before COVID-19, and the global pandemic just made a bomb out of what was still a small fire. The problem in essence is that the world does not need or want as many luxury timepieces as the the industry was and continues to produce. Eventually luxury watch production needs to meet global demand, and because there are fewer commercial opportunities available, brands new and historic will need to either shrink or go away.

None of this was going to happen without a fight. As brands keep finding it challenging to do business in a changing world, there was bound to be combat, rivalries, squabbles, alliances, factions, and ever war. All of this was to be expected, and over the last few months we have been seeing all of this hit Swiss soil in a way that the watch industry had not experienced since the mid 1970s and 1980s during the “quartz crisis.” The crisis today is in many ways worse, albeit more temporary when it comes to the harmful commercial effects of COVID-19 isolation and the related shut down of all in-person retail.

Baselworld and other watch trade shows are one of the current battlegrounds – and the brands who exhibit there continue to ask the question “am I getting my money’s worth?” In better times the question was easier, since the value of Baselworld visibility and prestige was real. As the world and the watch industry tightens its belt, collectively managers are re-evaluating many of their traditional expenses – Baselworld being a not insignificant one. Indeed, if attending the Baselworld tradeshow was not as formidable a financial investment, much of this hoopla over the cancellation of the show would likely have been avoided.

Sentimentally I regret the fact that Baselworld memories of “non-stop watch week” may be a thing of the past – though it will very much be that way in Geneva next April. I have dutifully supported Baselworld tooth and nail because I appreciate the incredible value of industry people coming together as it is one of the only venues to actually conduct business in our increasingly remote world. With that said, the aBlogtoWatch team reminds me that the millions and millions of dollars freed up from exhibiting at the show will go to more effective places such as media investment and advertising – that should benefit my business sooner than later. Already, as a digital publication that routinely experiences over 750,000 unique page views a month, aBlogtoWatch is probably the most logical place for watch brands to go when needing to share news of their new products to the world’s seasoned watch collectors and buyers.

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Perhaps the most distressing thing about Rolex and Patek Philippe’s decision to leave Baselworld is that it marks the end of these two famed brands appearing flawless and as stable as a 400 year old bank. These brands market their ability to endure and maintain throughout social, military, and political upheaval as a cornerstone of their long-term value propositions. Consumers are meant to feel that no matter their personal finances or the state of the world, Rolex will always be there to service your watch or maintain commercial demand so that you can sell your watch to someone else. Rolex’s rare expression of emotion toward the situation with Baselworld, shows a human side to a company that has done so much to hide being run by mere mortals.

That Rolex and Patek Philippe, along with Tudor, Chanel, and Chopard are embarking into the unknown is almost alien behavior for a risk-averse Swiss company. They have left Baselworld for something that doesn’t even have a name yet. These brands are famous for taking years to make a decision, liking to wade before they swim, and always wanting someone else to test the waters first. With that said, collectively joining forces to embark into the unknown of what is in store for them in Geneva (relatively unknown as Watches & Wonders – previously – SIHH is a bit of an established formula) shows a lack of stability and confidence in the future. I actually applaud their courage (relatively speaking), but also am certain that none of these companies would have been able to announce this news without doing so while being seen as holding hands with friends.

“Swiss solidarity” is perhaps a term or concept that we will see over and over again in the months to come as I have a feeling the luxury houses will start to feel like it is “them against the world.” Luxury houses will band together in ways we’ve never seen as they believe they are in a fight for their survival. I actually somewhat disagree and feel that while there is indeed effort to be make to save many companies, the battle isn’t with the world, but with themselves and the culture that has been so irritated by changed and needs to modernize. Smart brands will not fight with one another but will rather seek internal changes within their companies to effectively modernize and treat doing business on a global scale seriously. That means less centralized decision making, more investment into stronger foreign offices, and respecting how distribution of product in a connected world cannot be a free-for-all with retailers and distribution partners routinely fighting against one another.

Nothing tells me that the allure of a luxury mechanical watch is going away in the future – provided that consumers are made aware of these products and given safe and comforting ways to purchase them. That current system is broken and my hope is that as brands bicker among themselves and traditional partners, some best practices and new models to do business in today’s world will be established.

I do not miss or will I lament much of the frustrating and dysfunctional things I’ve seen in the watch industry over the last 5-10 years. In my own words, “a lot of stuff was broken.” Now there is hope some of it might be fixed.

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Tags : Ariel's EssaysbaselworldGeneva Watches & Wonders
Rob Corder

The author Rob Corder