Optimism, Better Business Mark 25th Basel Fair

It was sunny in Switzerland this spring, good for visitors to Basel 97 and an apt symbol for the show itself.

“I’ve seen more visitors and exhibitors smiling at this year’s fair than I have in several years,” says Michael Mamie, director of the Basel Fair, which operates the show. This enthusiasm is encouraging because Basel forecasts the timepiece and jewelry industries’ growth in the coming year.

Several factors buoyed the mood. One was the strength of the U.S. dollar against most currencies. Another was significantly more visitors from the U.S., Southeast Asia and Latin America. However, the enthusiasm was tempered by weak economies and domestic sales in much of Europe. Some Asian economies are riding out recessions too.

More exhibitors showed more new products this year at Basel – where debuts and news about new ventures in the international watch and jewelry industries traditionally happen – after three years of economic gloom. Debuts, trends and news of note included:

  • More jewelry manufacturers featured white metals, pale diamonds and soft-colored gems.

  • A jewelry industry association in Pforzheim, Germany, unveiled a “Virtual Jewelry Trade Fair” on the World Wide Web.

  • More Asian companies focused on handmade jewelry in competitive price ranges.

  • Seiko announced it will make its batteryless kinetic quartz watches the dominant watch type within 10 years.

  • The Australian Gemstone Industry showed a one-of-a-kind $250,000 choker containing 16mm to 17mm multicolored South Sea pearls and the world’s largest known Tahitian black pearl (21.7mm).

  • The World Gold Council unveiled a series of half-hour seminars covering jewelry trends in eastern Europe, North America and Asia.

  • The Diamond High Council announced it will open its first North American office this summer in Toronto, Canada. The office will coordinate and promote the council’s gemological courses and diamond certificates in the U.S. and Canada.

WATCHES: TECHNOLOGY, DESIGN & MARKETING

With the buoyant mood evident throughout the watch halls of Basel 97, it was easy to overlook the generally flat year Swiss watches experienced in 1996. But buyers from the U.S. had good reason to leave pessimism at the door: timepiece imports to the U.S. jumped 8.3% last year, consumer spending on fine watches is growing and the dollar’s value against the Swiss franc has risen 30% since last year.

Manufacturers, for their part, were ready with greater product depth, some lower prices and more features once associated with higher-priced models.

Precise figures were not available, but manufacturers generally confirmed seeing a long list of U.S. clients. Beyond reorders, many were searching for new styles and greater assortment. Here’s what they found.

Design trends: steel and square

Many more dials were vivid yellow, sporty red and metallic blue, boldly altering the course of conservatism that spawned last year’s dominance of white, black and silver. Even among tradition-bound major Swiss brands, brighter colors were evident. Traditional colors are still available also, of course.

Steel remains the material of choice for most new models. The growth of this category in the past 18 months has done two things:

  • Lowered the value of all exports.

  • Increased demand in terms of units.

The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry reports steel exports leaped 21.9% in units and 24.5% in value last year. Across many manufacturer’s lines – where karat gold, plated gold or two-tone were all that was available – all-steel versions are sold now also.

The steel rush also spurred greater use of white gold and platinum, echoing the white metal seen on so much fine jewelry.

Sport watches are new to several makers that specialize in dress watches. But dressier models seemed to outnumber purely sport looks as smoother, sleeker bezels with round-edged cases and metal bracelets were prominent. Square and rectangular cases were particularly common as dressier looks rebounded from the full sport press of the past three years.

Technology

Retailers can expect more performance from smaller movements typically used for women’s models. At the middle to high end of the price spectrum, more advanced automatic and manual-wind movements were seen in smaller sizes. Even men’s automatics were offered in thinner, dressier versions. Several manufacturers incorporated the tiniest movements ever made.

An ETA chronograph movement with sporty analog displays and alarm made its way into a variety of watches, attesting to the continued demand for sports watches with a new twist.

Building on last year’s titanium debuts, several brands have built full collections around the metal. The newest models are accented with polished titanium and coated to make them less prone to scratching.

Battery-free quartz watches from Japan and Switzerland are the core of several wide-ranging introductions. Lines featuring light-powered and rotor-driven models (as in SMH’s Autoquartz and Seiko’s Kinetic) were extended significantly.

Tissot, which debuted Autoquartz for SMH last year, launched a global ad campaign for the model. Similarly, Seiko debuted its new worldwide advertising campaign for its Kinetic line.

Notable introductions

As a prominent newcomer to Basel, Robergé of Geneva, Switzerland, displayed a large collection of 100% Swiss-made fine watches to a discerning crowd with winning results. As the newly expanded enterprise of the Mouawad family’s high-end, 130-year-old jewelry operation, Robergé added four lines to the jewelry watches it has been producing in limited numbers since 1972. These lines are Andromede, Castor, M31 and Pégase – named after galaxies. Oval and rounded cases house a variety of three-handed models, sporty steel chronographs and complications. The Pégase for women is the company’s only quartz line and will likely be available in the U.S. starting in 1998.

Seiko’s newest Kinetic line, called Arctura, features metal injected molding that allows for aerodynamic curves and asymmetric shapes in the case and bracelet. The line features two collections. Arctura 100, a higher-end, all-metal collection with thin Kinetic movement, power indicator and bracelet made with metal and contoured urethane. Arctura 50, designed for watch fans ages 25-35, features colorful silicone straps. Six versions of each are slated to enter the U.S. this fall. Seiko Corp. of America plans to add 1,200 retailers to the 1,000 that now sell its Kinetic line.

Gucci’s introduction and rapid success of its “G” watch in stainless steel last year led to a new steel introduction in the shape of a pear. The steel bracelet mimics the look of a traditional leather watchband. Gucci also introduced a bangle watch incorporating its horsebit symbol as the bezel. The new Plaquette steel watch uses a square bezel linked by hinges to a series of large steel squares that make up the bracelet.

Concord offered the Saratoga Splendours jeweled watch collection. Each watch in the collection features diamond, sapphire, ruby or emerald. While the premiere set of four will sell for about $2.15 million, 25 more sets are priced from $34,000 to $53,000. Concord’s newest full collection, La Scala, features square watch cases and comes in four sizes with yellow or white 18k gold bracelets or straps, women’s styles with diamond markers, diamond bezels and accents on the case. Coming for fall is an all-steel Concord Sportivo line and a karat gold line of round-cased Impressario watches. The company issued a Concord Delerium (limited to 97) to mark the return of Hong Kong to China.

Citizen introduced Eco-Drive light-powered watches, including a world timer, three women’s styles and a women’s titanium version. Also, look for the Citizen-made Yves St. Laurent watches in bangles, two-tone and diamond accented models and chronographs. The new J Class Noblia watches are set for this fall.

Raymond Weil added to its flagship Parsifal line with Parsifal Evolution Tendance, a limited series of Duo Jubilé 97 with a square upper time zone face, a diamond and colored gemstone Tango Sertie and a hexagonal-cased Chorus for women.

Sector Sport Watches replaced its entire line with sapphire crystals, 660 feet of water resistance, screw-down crowns and deployant straps or surgical steel bracelets. Several models have lower prices than in 1996 (reduced up to $100). No price rose despite upgraded features. The Expander line of introductory-priced fiberglass and steel watches will enter the U.S in select locations, but will never comprise more than 20% of any retailer’s Sector offerings.

Mondaine, distributed by Chelsea Marketing in San Diego, Cal., will add a light-powered watch and a railway chronograph to its offerings in the U.S. Equally notable is the development of its “Stop-n-Go” watch that looks and operates like Mondaine’s official Swiss Railway clocks. The new watch features a seconds hand that stops at 12 while the minute hand advances one minute. Mondaine also offers a commemorative 150th anniversary Swiss Railway watch. Chelsea Marketing also announced it is now the U.S. distributor for Fortis, the official timepiece of Russian cosmonauts.

Wenger, in addition to new features in its quartz lines, added an upmarket automatic line called Wenger GST in four styles: Classic, Air, Sea and Field. All contain Valjoux 25 jewel movements and are $1,695 retail each. All contain double-coated antireflective crystals, a variety of technical features and a choice of strap or bracelet.

Philippe Charriol debuted Supersports chronographs, a large number of white gold and steel Flamme Blanche watches in its Celtic collection and a unique Celtic Le Tourbillon.

In addition to showing the first chronograph in its 6000 Series, TAG Heuer displayed the redesigned Formula 1 chronograph with black, white or vivid blue, red, orange or yellow dials and large Arabic numerals. A new collection called the 5000 Series will debut this fall.

New from Oris is the Worldtimer Classic, which automatically changes the date when the hours are changed forward or backward. Also new is a tonneau complication and the Big Crown’s new chronometer status.

Michel Herbelin, which makes the top-selling watch in France in the $500-$1,000 price range, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a line of steel bracelet watches with brightly colored round faces, an ionized blue titanium- plated Cable Caree with square face, a palladium case and bracelet watch for women, and a square-faced model for women with a bracelet as wide as the bezel.

SIHH: The Luxury of Timepieces

Two newcomers to the Salon International de la Haute Hologerie – Vacheron Constantin and Mont Blanc – needed no introduction at the seventh annual luxury watch fair, held April 6-12 in Geneva, Switzerland. Both companies – part of the Vendome Group – are well-known in the luxury area – Vacheron Constantin for timepieces, Mont Blanc for writing instruments. Mont Blanc’s first watch line is called Meisterstück. Like the writing instruments and related accessories of the same name, the watches are 18k yellow gold with jet black accents. Numerals are embossed in a style reminiscent of the 1920s, when the pens were first created. The MontBlanc star symbol is set into the crown, strapped on the fastener of the leather strap or formed on the end of the seconds hand. The watches are available in solid gold or goldplated stainless steel in three sizes.

Vacheron Constantin showed its limited series 1912 watch, new enameled watches in a line inspired by John James Audubon’s paintings of birds, a new Fiorenza jeweled watch and a collection of pocket watches inspired by artist Muriel Séchaud.

Cartier introduced 126 new styles, many in white gold (35% of the 1997 collection is white gold, up from 15% in 1996). Introductions saluting Cartier’s 150th anniversary included a series of Tank Basculantes set with precious stones, a mini tonneau Art Deco style in white gold, a white gold Tank American with diamond bezel, and a platinum Louis Cartier Tank featuring the new 430 MC movement made by Piaget and personalized for Cartier. Specifically for women, Cartier introduced Navette and Trinity, the latter being the company’s first watch based on a jewelry design (the three-gold-band rolling ring).

Baume & Mercier debuted new models in its Classique, Classima and Linea lines. White gold is new in the Classima, Linea and Ilea lines. The Ilea Carrée is the newest style – square-faced in white or yellow 18k. For the best-selling Hampton, the company added a British Retro dial featuring a cream face and larger numerals.

Piaget’s major introduction is a white gold bracelet version of Protocole, a model that first appeared in the 1960s with clipped corners and a vertical guilloche pattern that now extends to the bracelet. Piaget also created two new mechanical movements – the 430P and the 500P – to be used primarily in women’s watches.

JEWELRY: THE WHITE WAVE CONTINUES

The wave of white seen at recent jewelry trade shows in Vicenza, New York City and Orlando swept into Basel 97 unabated. The interest in white in Basel extended beyond white gold and platinum to include sterling silver, titanium, stainless steel and palladium jewelry designs.

The new design aesthetic is clean and airy, with open spaces created by wraps, cut-outs or trellises. Many pieces shown in Basel have a real or imagined sense of movement, with elements that slide, spin or just look as if they move. New to the mainstream were mixes of heights, textures and polishes, similar to techniques that Scandinavian art jewelers such as Lapponia have used for years.

Diamonds were the gem of choice, whether in a simple, daytime solitaire necklace or glittering pavé for evenings among the moneyed set. Other white-on-white selections included white gold with frosted white quartz, and South Sea pearls alone or mixed with white gold or platinum.

The pendant is the necklace of the moment, worn short and close to the neck on a single or multistrand neckwire, on a mesh or woven chain, or on a cord of silk, leather or rubber.

Despite the apparent white-out, bright and vivid color still had appeal at Basel. Many German companies introduced futuristic designs using synthetic spinel in blue, green and orange, worked with platinum or sterling silver and often worn on matching silicon cords. The Italians made bicolor gold look fresh by using pink and white, plain or with diamond pavé, and colored gems looked new with big stones in cabochon, briolette and checkerboard cuts.

Symbols and words are important. From a simple “I love you” to hobby theme pictures, jewelry tells something about the wearer. A few German companies introduced a new sense of whimsy with pastel enameled flowers and other designs on platinum, stainless steel or modular pieces. Nature was a continuing theme, Art Nouveau influences cropped up and several experts predicted the millennium to become a popular theme in Europe, as jewelers create precious mementos.

What it means to you

For every U.S. jeweler who won’t miss Basel, there’s another who says the jewelry is too far ahead of our market to be worth the trip. Who’s right?

Both are. Many of the trends are too European, too “out there” or expensive for typical U.S. tastes. But many of these same trends will influence the designs you’ll see in the U.S. in the next few years. Here are some of the trends JCK saw this year, and predictions of ways they may affect jewelry design in the future:

  • White metal. This is already popular at the U.S. shows. Christine Yorke, merchandise manager of the World Gold Council, says sales of white gold have increased, but that conservative jewelers still opt for white accents on yellow pieces. Many women have mostly yellow gold jewelry and aren’t comfortable mixing yellow and white, she says. Some jewelers question the longevity of the trend, though the Platinum Guild International’s promotion efforts should keep boosting demand for platinum, which in turn will help sustain interest in other white metals.

  • Vivid synthetic spinels with silver, platinum or matching plastic neck cords. A few avant-garde galleries may try this look, but a more realistic translation is that colored gems will be set in white metal for a newer, brighter look than the traditional yellow gold.

  • Message or theme jewelry. This enables people to express their individuality. One translation for conservative markets: renewed interest in ID bracelets or other jewelry with initials or names.

  • Whimsy. The playful pieces introduced by some German firms may be accepted in a low price-point silver or fashion jewelry version, but U.S. consumers generally won’t spend thousands of dollars for precious jewelry that looks like costume jewelry. Flower, nature, personal interest and hobby themes, however, should be accepted as long as they look like they’re worth their price.

  • Pearls. Between Jackie fever and the fashion world, pearls should remain popular. Pearls wax and wane in popularity, but one element to watch is women of the Baby Boom generation who are expressing interest in classics as they grow older.