BASEL, Switzerland—The premiere watch fair BaselWorld 2018 offered insight into what wealthy people are willing to spend, with its staggering display of tiny, priceless accessories that tell time and decorate a wrist.
The preeminent watch and fine jewelry fair, once a massive testimony to the roaring economies of China and Russia, has reduced its footprint by half. In its heyday, it spanned nine buildings with booths touting hundreds of millions of dollars of priceless mechanical movements and precious gems. This year, 650 exhibitors occupied four buildings instead of 1,300 exhibitors in nine buildings.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Despite the dramatic impact on the watch industry from jewelry store closings, along with the rise in online purchasing, retailers and watch geeks from all over the world made the annual trek to Basel to network and to see these miniature wonders in a classy, high-end environment.
Many of the exhibitors were world-renowned watch companies. The rest of the fair was divided between high-end fine jewelry companies and dealers of jewelry elements (gemstones, pearls, and precious metals).
The excitement of watch innovations, referred to as novelties in trade language, is what keeps BaselWorld ticking. Anchor brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, and The Swatch Group’s portfolio of luxury timepieces dominated the first floor of the main hall and will keep BaselWorld afloat for a few more years, as most of them have signed up for 2019, according to BaselWorld organizers. In fact, the convention center was entirely renovated in 2013 for close to half a billion dollars.
While appointments to exhibitors were reserved only for retailers, VIP customers, and the press, the event as a whole was open to the public.
A few fascinating items and events: at Graff, a duo of gem-studded birds, the enormous Breguet booth housed a craftsman who engraved a watch dial using a microscope; on the way out of the main hall, the Chopard booth showcased their newest Happy Fish floating diamond watch; and at Patek Philippe, a collection of specialty watch movements and the world-time minute repeater.
On the second floor in a section called Les Ateliers, visitors could take a close look at watch industry newcomers, a renegade group whose experiments with sophisticated watch movements is fascinating. Complicated movement timepieces were lovingly displayed in chic little booths, each of which was lovingly decorated to represent the DNA of each watch company.
Taking a Closer Look at Graham
The watch company Graham, owned by Swiss watch industry veteran and executive Eric Loth, has created three watch companies using Graham as his anchor. Graham, Alex Benlo, and Charles Bowtie are making some serious inroads and profit in an industry that typically reaches only watch nerds and collectors, because he’s cleverly packaged three kinds of watches with vastly different price points under his premium-brand Graham.
Eric Loth, a mechanical engineer from the capital of Swiss watchmaking, Le Locle, trained and then worked at many of the Swiss watch companies with many of the people who now run these companies.
His obsession with precision came from making the highly calibrated machines which punch out tiny holes into which tiny watch gears fit. Owning a watch company was the logical next step for someone who has a fanatical approach to telling time and likes to wear two timepieces on opposite wrists.
His company Graham has an illustrious past and pedigree, Loth explained an interview at the booth, buzzing with retailers and people stopping in to say hello to the boss. Britain was the birthplace of intricate watchmaking, because of the expansion of the British colonial empire.
Ship captains needed precise time measurements to calculate their journeys across the oceans, Loth explained. George Graham, born in 1673, invented the wall clock for the Greenwich Royal Observatory and tinkered with time keeping, resulting in the invention of the chronograph, a stop/start mechanism that counts seconds and minutes.
Loth’s passion for innovation drove him to create a new watch which pays homage to Britain and the namesake of his company. The Chronofighter series debuted in 2001 based on the large pocket watches used by the Allied pilots in World War II but re-designed as a watch with a special trigger mechanism that protects the chronograph button for precision stop/start timekeeping.
The two other watch companies under Loth’s management are Alex Benlo, which echoes Tissot’s Rock Watch from the mid-1980s using a slice of quartz as the watch dial, and Charles Bowtie watches, with colorful, bright dials and watchbands reminiscent of the strong color blocks used in pop art.
Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.