The Swiss watch industry is worth over $20 billion to the brands based in the tiny European country. It is a truly gargantuan market on a global scale, and yet any worthwhile conversation about watches should be so intimate, people’s foreheads should be almost touching as they hunch over a piece of stunning art and engineering.
This is part of the dilemma facing the world’s two great watch exhibitions: Baselworld and SIHH. How do you project the might and majesty of the Swiss watch industry while coming across as warm, welcoming and accessible?
Until recently, might and majesty ruled. The king of all watchmakers, Rolex, erects its skyscraper of a stand at Baselworld which, while muffled and perfumed once you cross the threshold, has a tightly policed perimeter across which the uninvited cannot cross.
All the biggest brands at Baselworld and SIHH are the same, and there are perfectly sensible reasons for the crowd control.
But the world is changing and today’s consumers do not want to be told where they cannot go, who they cannot follow on social media and what they are allowed to touch. Delayed gratification may, alas, be an entirely lost human trait.
Baselworld’s new management team, headed by Michel Loris-Melikoff understands this, and is gradually reshaping the show to make it more open.
Today’s unveiling of a new community district is a step in the right direction and, if I were a watch brand that walked away from the show in recent years, would give me pause for thought.
Maurice Lacroix has, correctly in my view, concluded that the concept is a perfect re-entry point. The community district is in the very epicenter of the show in Hall 1.0; it has pre-built stands that are ready to move into and dress, which will dramatically reduce costs and complexity; and they are designed to draw people into more intimate encounters. Run well, and watchmakers will find a way to welcome casual watch enthusiasts into their booths, not just reserve 20 minute slots for dealers and journalists.
This could bring back what Baselworld has been in danger of losing: the ability for everybody with an interest in watches to see not just the mega brands, but the insurgents, the independents, the innovators.
I hope Maurice Lacroix is the first of many brands that take space in the community district. Some that have been exhibiting in other halls in previous years, others that have never exhibited and most importantly those that have left Baselworld.
Swatch Group would be wise to encourage some of its brands to return. Omega might need to compete on physical presence with the likes of Rolex and TAG Heuer, but brands like Certina, Hamilton and Calvin Klein would work best in a more welcoming environment where they could attract new partners, not just talk to their existing dealers.
Aloofness was the greatest flaw of the old management at Baselworld. I am delighted to see the new team getting more intimate.