Recovery, not recession, is on the lips of Swiss watchmakers as they greet visitors to BaselWorld, the industry’s bellwether event held each March on the banks of the Rhine. Brands are buoyed by the latest figures out on Swiss watch exports – the opening months of 2010 marked an end to five consecutive quarters of negative growth.
In the aspirational Hall of Dreams (home to the likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe) inside Basel’s fairgrounds, some speak of the modest upturn in hushed tones; others, meanwhile, have plenty to shout about. “We’ve had the best quarter ever!” booms Hublot CEO Jean-Claude Biver, as he bangs the table with his fists for emphasis.
Biver is again playing the part of provocateur, resolute in his belief that the economic crisis has offered forward-thinking firms an advantage. “We’ve hired people while others were laying off and we’ve invested in a new factory.” The marque also unveils Unico, its first movement made entirely in-house, to much fanfare with the screening of a 3D film.
Over at Omega, employees bask in a post-Vancouver glow – the firm is the official timekeeper of the Olympics. “We have held up well,” says Omega president Stephen Urquhart. “Our retail presence has helped us weather the storm; own store sales are up 17 per cent.”
Like many, Omega has turned its focus to Asia – the region now accounts for over 50 per cent of industry revenue. Boosted by new shoppers in China, Singapore and Taiwan, Asian retailers are out in force at Basel, with many spotted at the stand of Carl F Bucherer as interest remains strong for classic brands from Switzerland.
Design-wise, understatement and innovation are the dominant themes. Slightly smaller cases are common, while titanium and ceramic, once exclusive watchmaking materials, are gaining in popularity. Among those pushing the horological envelope is TAG Heuer. Celebrating 150 years in the trade, its Pendulum concept watch is fitted with a magnetic oscillator, making it the world’s first mechanical movement without a hairspring. While marking the 40th anniversary of its Astron quartz wristwatch, which spurred a revolution that still stings in Switzerland, Seiko ups the ante with its new electronic ink timepiece that features a 300-dpi display.
At Maurice Lacroix, watchmakers pull off a geometric coup by using a square wheel, itself driven by a signature cloverleaf, on the dial to indicate the hour. Even couturier Chanel jumps on the creative bandwagon with a retractable crown on the dial of its sleek new J12 Rétrograde Mystérieuse.
But not all the buzz is generated by the big names. Start-up Celsius X VI II talks up its mobile phone-mechanical timepiece complete with tourbillon. The asking price? A pre-recession price tag of €250,000.
Watch my lips- trade talk
“The consumer is pickier than he was before but we’ve kept faithful to our strategy. People are willing to come into our flagships and shop.”
Stephen Urquhart, president, Omega
“You need to go out with a strong product and we see demand for our high-end pieces. People today are looking for real value.”
Thierry Stern, president, Patek Philippe
“In Chinese, crisis is written with two symbols: one means threat, the other opportunity. We read it as the latter.”
Jean-Claude Biver, CEO, Hublot
“We are doing well in Europe, the US and Asia. When there’s a crisis, you need to take advantage of it; you need to permanently innovate.”
Carlos Rosillo, CEO, Bell & Ross
“Bling and useless complications are a thing of the past. We’ve seen a move towards more functionality.”
Martin Bachmann, CEO, Maurice Lacroix
Bell & Ross: BR 03-92 42mm in olive drab ceramic with luminescent dial.
Chanel: J12 Marine in sandblasted ceramic and steel with rubber strap. Water-resistant to 300m.
Hublot: King Power Unico 48mm in microblasted ceramic with column-wheel chronograph. Only 500 will be made.
Omega: De Ville Hour Vision Annual Calendar in platinum with self-winding movement. Only 88 will be made.
Patek Philippe: Reference 5170 in yellow gold with manual-winding movement and alligator strap.
Dior: Christal Mystérieuse 38mm in steel with electro-mechanical movement. Two versions (one with diamond set bezel).
Maurice Lacroix: Pontos Day Date in steel with blue dial and self-winding movement.
Patek Philippe: Nautilus chronograph in rose gold with brown alligator strap.
Rolex: Submariner Date 40mm in steel with self-winding movement and green gold dial.
TAG Heuer: Silverstone chronograph limited edition (1,500 pieces) in steel with perforated alligator strap.
01 Colour: Blue (in shades from sunburst to midnight) was popular as watch- makers featured it on bezels and dials, including blue gold hands on Omega’s limited-edition De Ville.
02 Ecological: Brands were eager to promote their green credentials. TAG Heuer teamed up with electric car maker Tesla Motors, Chopard signed up to save tigers with the WWF, and Hublot launched a timepiece to support African wildlife.
03 Downsizing: Watches were slightly smaller at this year’s fair – for example, Dior’s 38mm Christal Mystérieuse.