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Baselworld’s State of Decay

I first went to Baselworld oh… about five years ago now. Yeah that’s not too long compared to other writers but give me a break, it was pretty much the same time I started working – which is probably why I’ve always had mixed impressions of the show.

It’s hard to envision what the ‘world’s largest watch and jewellery show’ actually is until you’ve walked in past the painfully pretty ladies of Basel handing out programmes and seen the main hall. What it is, is overwhelming.

The Rolex stand alone is just ridiculously big, enough that if it weren’t Rolex I’d say they were making up for something. I’m still not 100% sure they’re not. Add to that every major watch brand outside of Richemont, a separate building stuffed with niche independents and an entire Olympic village devoted to the Swatch Group and you have Baselworld. Or… had.

You see, the big news this show is that the aforementioned Swatch Group village will be no more. Every single one of their brands, from Longines and Hamilton to Breguet and Blancpain – not to mention the tour de force that is Omega’s marketing budget – have upped sticks and headed off.

That is a big bloody deal.

Last year Baselworld was already struggling. It lost a whole section and numbers fell by percentages only rivalled by the Great Depression. It was bad enough that they vowed to make changes, to entice brands back into the show proper that had been hanging around the peripheral. They were in a state of panic… and nothing they did could have prepared for this.

The thing is, it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise to the Directors of Baselworld. Every year there were murmurs that attending just wasn’t worth it. Brands tend to be cagey on numbers, but the amount they paid for their stand at Baselworld could have funded their own event in Geneva, plus flights to get people there and full catering staff.

Just look what Bremont decided to do instead of their kind of tiny stand: rent a full townhouse in London, stuff it full of Bremont paraphernalia and drink more gin than Victorian London. And it worked; it’s now an event to look forward to in and of itself. It’s also enough of a success that brands have to be wondering: what’s the point of Basel?

That’s what both myself and the brands can agree on. Baselworld has never been particularly useful for me. It’s never been where I see the best pieces, where I actually do all my horological research for the coming months. I get all that via email or when I’m back in London. No, it’s simply about being there. The same goes for the brands, and apparently the payoff of presence is now outweighed by cost enough that Baselworld may be finished.

People were crying that the end was nigh last year, but the Watchmaker’s Club members for one had a great year by all accounts. Now though, with an obvious budget shortfall of millions, is it even going to be financially viable after next March? In its current form, probably not.

Baselworld’s major selling point has always been that it’s the biggest, not the best, with nearly every watch brand there. Now it doesn’t even have that. I think we can all safely assume that Swatch Group will be doing their own SIHH rival and, should Patek and Rolex leave Baselworld, they’ll do the same.

There are many ways in which Baselworld can change of course, try to adapt, but if that were going to happen they should have started years back. They should have seen the signs and factored them in rather than sticking to stereotypical Swiss stoicism. All in all, it doesn’t bode well.

That means this March could well mark the end of an era. And, if every little group of watch brands starts holding their own events, the end of any season’s off in my calendar. Baselworld was my one big introduction to the watch world and for that, I’ll miss it. But I have to say… I won’t miss it that much.

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