Swiss Fairs Defy Doomsayers

The success of this year’s Swiss trade shows indicates that the global luxury market remains healthy, and that watchmakers, especially, are responding with innovative horology and original designs.

Still, the luxury market was the focus of much discussion at the shows (see sidebar), and the weakened U.S. market was a central topic. Fewer American buyers attended the shows, and U.S. imports in some categories are down compared with other markets.

Following are reports on April’s fairs in Basel and Geneva, Switzerland.

BASELWORLD 2008

BaselWorld ended its 2008 edition with its largest-ever attendance and strong business results, underlining the vitality of the global luxury market.

“It was a very good, an outstanding edition,” said René Kamm, chief executive officer of MCH Swiss Exhibition Ltd., owner of the eight-day fair, to the Basler Zeitung newspaper. “Throughout the world, there are ever more buyers of luxury goods.”

Jacques J. Duchêne, longtime president of the show’s exhibitors committee, agreed. The 2008 fair’s success, despite the economic climate, “proves high-quality luxury products are always in great demand,” he said.

Some 106,800 visitors from 100 countries came, 5 percent above figures for 2007, itself a record year. Fewer Americans attended (5.4 percent, vs. 6 percent in 2007), a fact many exhibitors noted. However, vendors saw more French, Russian, Asian, and Middle Eastern buyers, offsetting the small U.S. decline.

There were 2,087 exhibitors from 45 nations, spread across six multilevel, football field–size buildings. Among the noteworthy trends: eye-catching diamond watches, including men’s; women’s chronographs and mechanical watches; more brands’ in-house movements; red gold and black on black; and several innovative advances in mechanical horology.

There weren’t only new products. Joaillerie de France, a government-supported label and hallmark already used by many French jewelry makers to promote French-made jewelry, debuted. And Enlightened – Swarovski Elements (formerly Signity) is Swarovski & Co.’s new brand for fashion-forward, trend-oriented gem cuts and colors.

A record 2,981 journalists reported on the show’s innovations and trends. CNN ran daily reports on BaselWorld, and TV crews from major networks in Europe and Asia broadcast in-depth coverage for consumers back home, who are increasingly fascinated with luxury goods.

Concerns that the weakened U.S. economy and global financial issues would hurt attendance and business were on the minds of vendors and show officials as BaselWorld opened. When it ended, many satisfied—and relieved—exhibitors said most foreign buyers seemed undeterred by economic anxieties.

BaselWorld doesn’t depend on any single market, show director Sylvie Ritter told JCK. “While difficulties in the U.S. market were expected, other markets are developing very well, and lower attendance by U.S. buyers was compensated by higher numbers of visitors from emerging markets. Our exhibitors reported very productive deals and sales.”

“We’re seeing a new phenomenon,” said Kamm in his Basler Zeitung interview. “Previously, the U.S. market was the biggest one for gemstones and watches. Today, Asia, East Europe, and the Near East have all solidly caught up.”

Some vendors called BaselWorld 2008 their most successful ever. Swiss watchmakers’ final report cited double-digit growth in orders over 2007 figures, for example, while Hong Kong exhibitors saw on-site orders rise 10 percent. “The volume of orders exceeded our expectations, despite the economic climate,” said Françoise Bezzola, international communications director for upscale Swiss sports watch TAG Heuer, while a spokesperson for luxury watch brand Maurice Lacroix cited “extremely positive feedback” from customers.

Hublot had its best show yet, with a 70 percent increase in orders over 2007 figures, for a total of about $248 million, said the luxury watch brand’s officials.

“A fabulous show, the best ever for us,” said Christoph Wellendorff, managing director of German luxury jewelry brand Wellendorff. In the Hall of Elements (gemstone and pearl exhibitors), Marc David, of diamond dealer David & Son, noted “a great willingness to buy, together with high purchasing power.”

Even U.S. retailers were stalwart, not gloomy, said vendors. “There’s no sense of pessimism,” said Stuart Zuckerman, senior vice president of Citizen Watch of America. “[Retailers] tell us they just must work harder to make the second half of 2008 successful.”

Still, effects of the weak U.S. dollar and gold’s high prices were felt—primarily by U.S. buyers and those with currencies pegged to the dollar. Many Swiss watch brands have raised their prices at least once recently, most by 10–15 percent because of higher costs and shrinking margins, causing sticker stock even for longtime BaselWorld attendees. “A Swiss luxury watch that was $24,000 [wholesale] two years ago now costs me $45,000,” said one annoyed U.S. jeweler.

This year BaselWorld had a reconfigured layout, including more space for branded jewelry, to accommodate what Kamm calls the “increasing merge” of watch and jewelry brands.

“Jewelry brands are making watches; watch brands are making jewelry. We can’t continue the old segmentations and infrastructure,” JCK was told by Bernard Keller, BaselWorld director of communications. “It’s now more important that brands have adequate space to present themselves.”

So, some 90 watch exhibitors (out of 355) were relocated from Buildings 1 and 5 to a new section in Building 2 (formerly just for jewelry), while exhibition space expanded for prestigious jewelry in Building 2. Another 75 jewelry exhibitors were relocated to a newly opened floor in Building 3. Also new was BaselWorld Palace, a complex of glass walls and white tent roofs housing a diverse group of exhibitors, among them Paris Hilton Watches, H.Stern jewelry and watches, Casio watches, and Swarovski & Co.

Meanwhile, at the preshow press conference, René Kamm detailed BaselWorld’s 2012 Exhibition Center project, which will unite its exhibition buildings. The center will be “more compact and self-contained, with interlinked exhibition areas, allowing flexibility in placement of different sectors to meet changing demand,” he said. Improvements will include shorter visitor paths and indoor connections between halls.

There will be twice as much exhibition area, with halls 24 to 30 feet high, allowing more multilevel stands. “With this project, we’ll create the necessary infrastructural requirements to ensure the watch and jewelry sectors enjoy excellent conditions for exhibitors and visitors, and enable BaselWorld to develop successfully,” Kamm said.

THE GENEVA WATCH SHOWS

Geneva has been Switzerland’s traditional fine watchmaking center for centuries. In recent years, it’s also become the stage for high-profile luxury watch fairs catering to retailers and industry professionals from around the world.

The 18th invitation-only Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (April 7–12), one of the globe’s top luxury watch fairs, ended on what its postshow report called “an exceptionally high note” and a record number of visitors.

The show drew about 14,000 visitors (8 percent higher than 2007 figures) from around the world. Asia led, with many retailers from Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore, followed by Europe, the United States, and the Middle East.

SIHH, organized by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, is now run by an autonomous exhibitors committee whose members represent each of the 16 exhibiting brands. The brands are A. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Dunhill, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Panerai, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, and Van Cleef & Arpels (all owned by Richemont), Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, JeanRichard, Parmigiani, and Roger Dubuis.

SIHH 2008 had a record number of journalists. Some 1,450 members of the world’s print, electronic, and online media jostled with visitors to cover SIHH’s watches and trends.

SIHH, held in Geneva’s Palexpo convention center, has overlapped BaselWorld since starting in 1990, enabling visitors to attend both. In 2009, however, SIHH will take place Jan. 19–24, two months before BaselWorld 2009 (March 26–April 2), because the Geneva Motor Show has booked the later dates. It’s uncertain how that will affect attendance or the smaller luxury watch exhibitions in Geneva, held concurrently with SIHH and Basel.

The Franck Muller Group, a mini-conglomerate of luxury brands, held it own seven-day fair (April 6–13), the World Presentation of Haute Horlogerie, at its Watchland estate near Geneva. Its 11th edition posted record sales, says its closing report, and welcomed over 6,800 visitors (a 15 percent gain) and some 600 journalists.

The group in recent years has expanded significantly, making not only luxury watches but also jewelry, and has added more high-end watch brands. Its portfolio includes Franck Muller Genève and Franck Muller Jewelry, Pierre Kunz, ECW (European Company Watch), Rodolphe, Alexis Barthelay, Backes & Strauss, Martin Braun, Pierre Michel Golay, and Christian Huygens.

Double-digit sales gains were reported by Franck Muller Genève and Rodolphe, breaking past records. Custom-cut-diamond watch brand Backes & Strauss had “another successful WPHH,” said Josina von dem Bussche-Kessell, international brand manager, with new couture timepieces, the Royal Berkeley, and the Prince Regent 1609 A.D. limited edition. Pierre Kunz, ECW, Barthelay, and Martin Braun all posted gains. Pierre Michel Golay and Christian Huygens, participating for the first time, were well received.

In 2009, WPHH—usually concurrent with SIHH and BaselWorld—occurs three times. The Jan. 18–25 show overlaps SIHH 2009, and the March 24–April 4 show overlaps BaselWorld 2009. One for the public takes place Aug. 18–23.

The success of SIHH and WPHH has spawned smaller shows and exhibits by independent watchmakers. Most reported healthy attendance and business.

One was Maîtres du Temps, a new haute horlogerie brand from master watchmakers Christophe Claret, Roger Dubuis, and Peter Speake-Marin. Its first watch, called Chapter One, combines a tourbillon, mono-pusher chronograph, retrograde date, retrograde GMT, and idiosyncratic rolling bars for weekdays and moonphase. It received a “tremendous response,” said a spokesperson.

Another was Time Floats 2008. Three high-end Swiss brands—HD3 (including renowned watch designer Jörg Hysek), Instruments & Mesures du Temps, and Golay Spierer—presented it on one of the world’s last steamer boats, anchored on Lake Geneva. Attracting interest were HD3’s Raptor Chrono, with titanium movement; the first aquatic tourbillon, from I&MT; and Golay Spierer’s “upside-down” titanium Angelo watch.

Among other exhibits were award-winning watchmaker François-Paul Journe’s presentation of his newest creation, an ultra-slim minute repeater (with 4 mm mechanical movement); Jean-Mairet & Gillman’s salon; and Cvstos The Timekeeper, whose co-owner is a son of Franck Muller Group’s chairman.