What Sort Of Odds Are The Bookies Offering on Baselworld?
You know on FaceBook there’s always that space at the top of your Time Line where the big kahuna of social media asks, ‘What’s on your mind?’ A few days ago when I logged on I saw what was on the mind of Sophy Rindler and it was something that is on many minds in the watch world these days: “Let’s start the bets for the brand that will announce their (sic) leaving Basel next week,” followed by an emoji thoughtfully stroking its chin.
Sophy is one busy lady. She heads up business development at online retailer TrueFacet, helms RedBarMiami, co-founded microbrand Tockr and owns luxury jewellery brand J&S International. If Sophy is taking time to wonder about Basel 2019 then you know the topic is important and so it is. In fact, as watch sales are improving and the destruction of the mechanical watch industry by the smart watch seems mired in Cupertino, California day-dreaming Basel is the conversation piece of choice whenever horological nerds gather.
If Baselworld’s future is in doubt after one hundred glorious years the question to ask is why?
For me, the answer comes in two parts. The first has to do with the changing nature of the watch marketplace and the second with the fair itself.
The marketplace is changing for several reasons the most pronounced one has also changed other industries; the internet. Back in the 1990s when the web first poked its way into the consciousness of the world the watch industry hardly noticed. A few years later most brands launched websites but still, there was something missing: selling watches online. That has changed. Holdouts remain, notably heavyweights such as Breguet, Patek Philippe, Rolex and independents such Francois-Paul Journe but many other brands are now happily taking your money or at least you credit card details straight from your keyboard or phone to their banks. Some brands, Omega, Vacheron Constantin are joining forces with watch geeks sites like Hodinkee and Fratello Watches to sell watches, which has proved highly successful.
The logic of selling on-line is easily understandable: it is more profitable because the brand does not have to share any part of the price of a watch with a retailer or distributor. Brands do share the financial rewards with watch geek sites but because of the devotion of the readership, those transactions feature the benefit of happening quickly selling all the watches on offer in a matter of hours.
Who are the most important visitors to Basel: retailers and distributors. If you can sell on-line who needs retailers or distributors? If you don’t need retailers and distributors why pay for a stand half the size of a jumbo jet hanger at Basel?
Does this mean the end of bricks and mortar watch retailing? No. Mono-brand boutiques, which usually kickback more money to a brand will continue to operate as will large and long-established multi-brand outfits like Wempe and Watches of Switzerland. Brands with sizable offerings can channel specific watches to each outlet. So what you are able to purchase on-line will be different from what you can purchase at a multi-brand retailer.
It’s the small retailers, the mom and pop jewellers in affluent parts of the world that are hours from a major city who will be hurt by the internet led developments. Such establishments only sell a few watches per annum. Brands may well abandon mom and pop as the internet and the large retailers sell all the watches a brand produces.
Speculation abounds about why Rolex and Patek Philippe continue in their devotion to Basel so I won’t hesitate to add my thoughts to the mix. Those two brands like things the way they are. As mentioned earlier neither sells on-line so retailers and distributors remain important parts of the sales network. This is especially true for Patek which has sold through Tiffany in New York for over one hundred years. Most people are surprised to learn that Patek does not have a boutique in the Big Apple.
Anyone who says they know the future of Basel is either a clairvoyant of greater magnitude than Nostradamus or delusional.
But, as Sophy has indicated there will be some interesting wagers to be placed.
About Michael Clerizo:
Michael Clerizo is an American freelance writer living in London. He writes a monthly column on watches for the Off-Duty section of the Wall Street Journal and is a contributing editor at WSJ. magazine. He is the author of two books, Masters Of Contemporary Watchmaking and George Daniels: A Master Watchmaker And His Art.