The Highs and Lows of Baselworld

Baselworld concludes on April 3, but I am officially done. So done, as they say, you could stick a fork in me. After four days of running around the Basel convention center, attending as many as 17 appointments in a single day (as I did on Saturday), I can’t take it anymore.

As JCK’s resident watch reporter, I am obligated to be here, but in all truth, I have a love-hate relationship with this show, the world’s largest luxury watch (and jewelry) fair. (Jewelry gets parentheticals because even though some truly fine designers and luxury jewelers show their wares here, the fair is undeniably devoted to its watch exhibitors—big brands such as Rolex, TAG Heuer, Hublot, and Patek Philippe that command multimillion-dollar booths and the lion’s share of attention.)

In any event, the go-go-go atmosphere of the show is demanding, to say the least. It’ll take several days for my brain to process what it’s seen here, but my initial impressions of this year’s event are that it was a good fair, strong in sales and upbeat in mood, yet devoid of any clear blockbusters.

Which isn’t to say that it lacked talking pieces. Rolex presented a new GMT-Master II that was touted as “the watch everyone’s been waiting for” because it features a bezel carved from a single block of Cerachrom, the brand’s proprietary ceramic, in both red and blue (red was believed to be “impossible to create,” which explains the hoopla). Personally, I liked the pricey, two-tone piece—it retails for $38,250 on a white gold bracelet—but even more impressive was the fact that I had the opportunity to see it at all. This year marked my first appointment with Rolex—ever. In 13 years of attending the fair, I was finally able to sit down with a brand representative and see some novelties. (I’m not kidding when I say that it felt like I’d finally gotten into a club that had long kept me standing on the wrong side of the velvet rope!)

One of my favorite brands, Patek Philippe, showed only a few new pieces, which were as elegant as ever, but the relatively few introductions made me think the brand is saving its big guns for October, when it will celebrate its 175th anniversary in Geneva. If past milestone celebrations are any indication, expect Patek to debut at least one timepiece that will ignite the auction world (eventually).

Chopard showed one of Baselworld’s most interesting—and, frankly, groundbreaking—pieces, the L.U.C. Tourbillon QF Fairmined, the world’s first watch to be encased in fairmined gold.

Chopard’s L.U.C. Tourbillon QF Fairmined (photo courtesy of Chopard)

The watch is a continuation of a journey Chopard began last year, when it debuted its Green Carpet Collection of haute joaillerie at the Cannes film festival. Using gold sourced from a mine in Colombia that is affiliated with the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), the jewels and the timepiece, which comes in a limited edition of 25, mark the first time a global jewelry brand has made fairmined gold—defined by ARM as “ethical gold extracted by artisanal and small-scale miners” who’ve been certified under its standards—available to its high-end customers. Bravo, Chopard! (Check out JCK’s upcoming May issue for an in-depth feature on the other jewelry makers making headway in this important arena.)

As far as Baselworld booths go, Graff Diamonds, a first-time exhibitor at the fair, had what I thought was the most spectacular presence—made all the more impressive by the fact that the brand does not have a wholesale network and therefore doesn’t do the kind of business that other brands do here. At 503 square meters, the single-story booth had super-high ceilings, original art from Mr. Graff’s personal collection, incredible chandeliers that are more accurately described as light sculptures, and a rarefied vibe befitting the world’s best-known diamantaire (who, incidentally, was standing behind the walnut-paneled bar, snacking on mini sandwiches when I had my appointment).

The exterior of Graff Diamonds’ impressive Baselworld booth (photo courtesy of Graff Diamonds)

Graff Diamonds Baselworld booth was big, airy, and ultra-refined (photo courtesy of Graff Diamonds).

The Gold room at the Graff booth (photo courtesy of Graff Diamonds)

As always, the highlights of Basel involved meals and drinks with friends—from Friday night’s convivial Maurice Lacroix dinner at Bel Etage, one of the city’s fine-dining restaurants (thanks again to our ever-gracious host, North American president Hartmut Kraft) to drinks at Grand Hotel Les Trois Roi, where, amidst ribbons of cigar smoke, seemingly every personality in the watch and jewelry business congregates to the hip party my friend Anders Modig organized at a former brewery last night for a crew of independent watchmakers.

In any event, I’m writing this on the bus from Basel to the Zurich airport, where I’m boarding a flight bound for JFK this afternoon. The fact that I haven’t had a moment to write my weekly blog until now, here on this shuttle bus, should convey just how densely packed my four days at Baselworld have been. Which is why I’m threatening never to return (until, of course, the next time).