Basel 2006-A Hollywood circus on the Rhine

Part circus, part Hollywood, part car rally, part party, part theater—Basel 2006 is all that and more. While the focus of the world’s largest watch and jewelry trade fair is new products, there’s also a big emphasis on entertainment and fun.

The overlap between marketing and entertainment at this year’s fair in Basel, Switzerland, is incarnated in Das Zelt, a large, white, multi-peaked, Arabian Nights–style tent opposite the fairground buildings. Fashion designer Diane Furstenburg, who launched her first-ever jewelry collection with luxury jeweler H. Stern at a press conference there, said the setting made her feel “like I am in the circus.” And Tourneau, the largest U.S. watch retailer, chose it as the site for a March 31 signing ceremony marking its expansion (with Hong Kong watchmaker Peace Mark) into China.

Das Zelt isn’t the only site of special events. Throughout the six football-field-size, multilevel buildings of the Basel fairgrounds—and in many of the city’s hotels—a variety of entertaining galas, events, and marketing tie-ins are happening.

Looking for celebrities? Supermodel Gisele Bündchen launched Ebel’s new Brasilia collection at a crowded press conference that included an overabundance of enthusiastic photographers, professional and amateur. Basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman was on hand to help launch the new, edgy Van Dutch watch line (appropriately, in Das Zelt). “Check it out,” he recommended. Saint Honore of Paris presented its brand ambassador, French racecar driver Paul Belmondo (son of French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo), while Swiss brand Voltige SA brought in supermodel Adriana and French soccer star Christian Karembeu.

Guess Watches launched its new two-year worldwide “Faces to Watch” model search with rising young singer Kaci Brown in a live performance. Parlux, the fragrance company that produces Paris Hilton watches, kept hoping the blond TV personality would show up to promote the watches bearing her name, and there were rumors actress Sharon Stone would come to Chopard’s invitation-only premiere of her new film at a Basel movie theater. (They both were apparently no shows.)

Looking for cars? Fair visitors could be forgiven for thinking they were at a car rally. A number of companies promoted their relationships with upscale car companies whose male customers are often the same ones courted by watch companies and retailers. Oris, for example, a major sponsor and watch partner with the Williams Formula One racing team, had the team’s car on display (and a scale model in the packaging for its newest William F1 timepiece). Seiko promoted its new relationship with the Honda 1 Formula One racing team with games and giveaways on the show’s opening day. Mercedes Benz, a German watch line, displayed its R-Klasse Grand Sports Tourer outside the fair’s main entrance. Porsche Design went a step further and displayed the engine and transmission of Porsche’s Flatline model, also the name of the brand’s newest watch collection.

But it wasn’t all cars. On the fair’s opening day, Hamilton presented star acrobatic pilot Nicholas Ivanoff, whom it sponsors in the worldwide Red Bull Air Race series, and his Extra 300 SP aircraft inside the main watch building.

The exhibition booth attracting the most attention is Breitling’s astonishing 25-foot-long wall-sized aquarium with more than 600 silver sea bass swimming in more than 16 tons of water. The aquarium is on the second level of the Breitling booth, high above the fair floor, and the fish seem to be swimming in mid-air. “Flying fish” are appropriate for a luxury brand known for its fine aviation and pilots watches.

Looking for a party? Basel 2006 has plenty. Many are held in Das Zelt as well as in the fine restaurants and hotels in and near the city, including the five-star Three Kings, the oldest hotel in Europe, re-opened after a three-year $80 million renovation. Some chose more unconventional locations. Swiss luxury brand Ulysse Nardin, celebrating its 160th anniversary, marked the event by sailing a three-masted schooner— with its logo and “160” emblazoned on the middle sail—up the Rhine to the delight of Basel residents. The boat is docked across the river from the Three Kings, where it regularly welcomes aboard clients and guests.

Not to be outdone, Breitling—through an arrangement with the local government—took over the unfinished portion of a Basel highway tunnel under construction, redressed it lavishly, and is welcoming guests and clients to invitation-only evening events throughout the duration of the show.