The Double-Fair Affair for High-End Watches

New York Times, November 27, 2008

NEW YORK — NEW YORK: Early spring, for anyone with a stake in the high-end watch business, means an obligatory trip to Switzerland, first to Basel, then Geneva, to attend a double-header in which the trade's two largest fairs, Baselworld and the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH, respectively, compete. The whirlwind pace, booked-to-capacity hotels and lavish parties characteristic of both events are the stuff of industry legend.

Next year, however, things will be different. Baselworld will run as usual from March 26 to April 2; but because of a scheduling conflict at the Geneva Palexpo venue, SIHH will take place Jan. 19 to Jan. 23, ten weeks earlier than normal.

The timing split has irritated retailers, who are loath to leave their stores in January, a month traditionally reserved for inventory and sales analysis. Because many travel with sizable entourages, moreover, two long-haul trips will strain their budgets at an already challenging time.

Further complicating the travel schedule for Asian buyers is a clash with the Jan. 26 Chinese New Year celebration.

Beyond the logistical inconveniences, the new schedule seems bound to exacerbate tensions between the Basel and Geneva camps - the latter dominated by brands owned by the luxury industry holding company Financière Richemont. The result is likely to be a searching test of the loyalties and established relationships that bind Switzerland's watchmaking talent to its marketers.

"If you're a major player in the watch industry, you have to do both," said Thierry Oulevay, president of World Première Watchmaking, a six-year-old Swiss company that will show its exclusive Jean Dunand brand at the Beau Rivage hotel in Geneva concurrently with SIHH. "But my fear is that next year will be a tough one for the industry, and this division between the two shows will be felt much harder than it would have been this year."

Although Geneva has long served as the de facto capital of the high-end watch trade, the industry has gathered in Basel since 1917 to sell its wares. As research headquarters for a slew of big pharmaceutical companies including Roche and Novartis, Basel thrives on industry. At its mammoth, graffiti-scrawled port on the Rhine, an all-night parade of big rigs belies, and simultaneously explains, its reputation as Switzerland's wealthiest city.

The industrialists, however, make way for a much more conspicuous parade of wealth when hordes of jewelers descend on the city's sleek convention complex to attend the Basel show. The event, open to the public, sprawls across 160,000 square meters, or 40 acres of exhibition space, and is home to 2,109 exhibitors, encompassing specialists in watches, jewelry, gems and related brands. This year, the show played host to a record 106,000 visitors; many were forced to stay in neighboring France and Germany because of a shortage of hotel rooms.

The fair, owned by MCH Swiss Exhibition, rebranded itself in 2003 in order to project a more luxurious image and is planning a significant infrastructure renovation for 2012, but it continues to attract a wide range of watch companies, from middling start-ups to the twin powerhouses of Rolex and Patek Philippe.

"The most important thing for Baselworld is to reflect the entire market," the show director Sylvie Ritter said. "All companies occupying an important place on the worldwide market have to be present."

The brands in Geneva embrace a different ethos. The rift began in 1991, when Cartier registered its dissatisfaction with Basel's all-encompassing spirit by forming a rival event "to offer more exclusivity to their clients," said Fabienne Lupo Magnaudet, managing director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, SIHH's organizer. Piaget and Baume & Mercier were among the four brands that followed.

Today, the invitation-only salon is ruled by a coterie of 17 elite brands, including Cartier, IWC and a few handpicked independents, including Girard-Perregaux and Audemars Piguet. In April, they welcomed 14,000 visitors across 24,000 square meters of plush exhibition space notable for its gourmet meal service and urbane ambience, buzzing with cigarette smoke and a low-key Babelian hum.