As a watch fanatic, there’s nothing quite like the annual extravaganza that is Baselworld. The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) is arguably more luxurious and elegant, but nothing can compete with the sheer size and scale of Baselworld. At least, that’s how it used to be. In recent years, however, Baselworld has come under fire, with exhibitors and attendees alike accusing the show of not keeping up with the times. Now, amid the shock withdrawals of some major brands and increasing competition from smaller yet more agile shows around the world, Baselworld finds itself with a lot to prove. So, will 2019 be the year the world’s oldest luxury watch and jewelry fair turns its failing fortunes around? Or will the promises of big changes fall short?
Only time will tell. In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know about Baselworld and what we think you may (or may not) be able to expect from this year’s show.
What Is Baselworld?
Those of us in the watch industry take it for granted that everyone knows what Baselworld is. In reality, your average person may have a vague notion of what it is or, more likely, no awareness of it at all. So, for our readers who are new to the world of luxury watches, allow us to provide some brief background.
For 2019, the show’s owner, the MCH Group, which also organizes Art Basel in Basel, Miami Beach, and Hong Kong, has branded Baselworld “The Premiere Show”. However, when it started out back in 1917, watches and jewelry only formed a section of the Schweizer Mustermesse Basel (muba). As some of our readers will no doubt already know, Mustermesse is German for “sample fair.” A total of 831 companies, covering the entire spectrum of the Swiss economy, participated in this initial show. It was by no means the glamorous luxury watch fair we know today—not by a long shot.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and the early 1980s that Baselworld really came to be known as a global fair dedicated to watches and jewelry. At its peak, the number of exhibitors swelled to over 2,000 and visitors to the fair topped 100,000. Then it all came crashing down. Last year’s fair saw the number of brands participating drop to less than 700, and the duration was shortened by two days as a consequence. Visitor numbers were also down, although complaints were on the increase.
It seems there is no one single cause we can point to for Baselworld’s recent woes. Some attribute it to mismanagement by the MCH Group. (Few in the industry were surprised by the announcement of the resignation of the longtime managing director, Sylvie Ritter, last May.) Others claim it is the predatory practices of the hospitality businesses in and around Basel. It’s not uncommon for hotel rooms to increase in price ten-fold during Baselworld, and regular bars and restaurants suddenly become some of the most expensive “gourmet” experiences in the country.
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: The fair has not evolved with the changing tastes of consumers and the changing needs of exhibitors, and brands are no longer afraid to take matters into their own hands. In a sensational development in mid-2018, the Swatch group announced that none of its 18 brands would be exhibiting in 2019. That includes major names like Omega, Longines, Tissot, Breguet, and Blancpain. Other brands, like Raymond Weil, Corum, and Maurice Lacroix have since also pulled out of the show.
The unexpected exit of one of Baselworld’s most high-profile partners was undoubtedly a tipping point. Shortly thereafter, MCH announced the resignation of its CEO, René Kamm. It’s another man though, Michel Loris-Melikoff – the new head of Baselworld – who’s been tasked with turning things around. And so far, the response to the sweeping changes he’s made has been relatively positive. Loris-Melikoff has done everything from negotiating partnerships with the city’s hotels and restaurants in an attempt to curb price gouging, to finding a way to repurpose the massive hole in Hall 1 left by the Swatch Group’s departure. (It’s reportedly been transformed into a new media center, with new restaurants, bars, and lounges, all embedded in a park-like setting).
He’s also managed to convince other major anchor tenants like Rolex, Patek Philippe, and the LVMH Group that Baselworld still has plenty of value to offer. In addition, he’s welcomed back some of the smaller, independent brands which were pushed out of past Baselworlds due to cost or lack of available exhibiting space. This is great news for watch lovers keen to discover new products and innovative ideas. It is no secret that independent brands are often the most dynamic and willing to try new things.
Perhaps the most important thing Loris-Melikoff has done, however, is demonstrate a willingness to listen. To exhibitors. To the press. To visitors in general.
Will It Be Enough?
This seems to be the question on everyone’s lips this year. Baselworld has already shared an intriguing – yet, at times, confusing – video of what the show will look like from 2020 onward. Visitors will supposedly be getting their first peek of this new vision this year, one which the show’s organizers promise will be a totally new experience.
Am I convinced that this year’s show will be dramatically different from previous years (ideally in a good way)? Maybe. Do I think it will be enough to make an outdated way of presenting products relevant again? No, not really.
As I said at the beginning, though: only time will tell. The Chrono24 team will be visiting Baselworld 2019 to decide for ourselves, so make sure to keep an eye out for our unfiltered thoughts after the show.