BaselWorld 2008 Opens

BaselWorld, the world’s largest watch and jewelry trade show, opened Thursday with a reconfigured layout, including more space for branded jewelry, to accommodate the “increasing ‘merge’ of watch and jewelry brands, in the words of René Kamm, chief executive officer of MCH Swiss Exhibition Ltd., which owns and runs the show.

Outside, the weather was overcast, with occasional sun and rain, and cold temperatures. That might be a metaphor for concerns of some vendors and buyers here about effects of the “sub prime crisis,” the weak dollar, the weakened U.S. market, and other economic factors on their own businesses.

Still, “we’re not worried” about their effect on BaselWorld 2008, said show director Sylvie Ritter, to JCK. “Our many visitors and buyers are here, as they were last year—though we expect fewer American visitors (about 6 percent of show attendance)—and those here  will be impressed by the innovations and new products they see here this year.”

Those include more eye-catching diamond watches, especially those for men; more ladies’ chronographs and mechanical watches, more brands with their own in-house movements, more red gold, and some innovative advances in mechanical horology, that greatly improve performance and accuracy.

More than 100,000 industry professionals and other visitors from 100 countries are expected at this eight-day fair (Apr. 3 –10), where 2,087 exhibitors from 45 nations present products and services in six multi-level football field-sized buildings. More than 2,500 trade, consumer, lifestyle, and specialist journalists from around the world are covering its innovations and trends.

The show was officially opened at a morning ribbon-cutting ceremony by Swiss Economics Minister Doris Leuthard, Duchêne, Kamm, and officials of Basel City. Leuthard’s participation underlined the importance of this trade fair to the Swiss watch industry, Switzerland’s third-largest commercial sector, whose 2007 exports topped $1 billion, a record first.

BaselWorld is primarily a stage for new watch products and innovations debuts. Here are just a few:

* New brands include the “Joaillerie de France,” a government-supported label and hallmark already used by more than 40 French jewelry makers, which promotes and guarantees jewelry made entirely in France to the highest standards, and Swarovski & Co.’s “Enlighted—Swarovski Elements,” (formerly Signity), a new brand of fashion-forward, trend-oriented gem cuts and colors.

* Among a number of new in-house produced movements are those of Carl F. Bucherer (its first, the CFB A1000, three years in development, with peripheral rotor, new shock absorption system and bidirectional winding) and Alpina Genève’s Avalanche Manufacture Regulateur.

* Innovations include Patek Philippe’s exclusive Pulsomax escapement, made of silicon-based Silinar, a significant improvement on the traditional Swiss lever escapement; Maurice Lacroix’s Mémoire 1, the first mechanical watch with memory; Frederique Constant’s mechanical movement with a silicium escapement wheel, a world-first, in its Heart Beat Tourbillon; Seiko’s Spring Drive Space Walk, especially designed for the first space walk by a private citizen, an American, set for this fall; the first-ever carbon neutral watch (offsetting the impact on the environment from its materials and production), debuted by Wyler Genève.

* Among many diamond lines are Roberto Coin’s Diamond Time, Perrelet’s eye-catching Diamond Flower series, Marc Eckô’s “diamond-look” Vice, with Swarovski crystals encircling the bezel and one the bracelet, and BaselWorld first-timer IceLink’s 6Timezone Snow collection, with dozens of tiny diamonds suspended in liquid in one of its six dial zones.

Also new to BaselWorld are designers Valentina and  Salvatore Ferragamo, both lines produced by the Timex Group, which is expanding its business in fashion watches and has opened a Milan design center for it.

BaselWorld’s many social events include Swiss luxury watch Hublot gala debut for its “Euro 2008 Big Bang” watch” (for the European soccer championship this summer), with funds raised going to the Fight against Racism. Hublot, one of the main sponsors has donated its entire billboard space at each stadium to Unite Against Racism, a pan-European campaign against racism in football.

Meanwhille, the luxury market in these economically-troubled times was the focus in several arenas at BaselWorld.

“The “sub-prime” crisis will last for some time, with implications for our business [and] further complex problems in its wake,” warned Jacques J. Duchêne, president of the Exhibitors’ Committee, at the annual pre-show press conference. “The situation could become difficult for both suppliers and customers [because] we’re at the mercy of [economic] events that could develop into a crisis.” Companies of whatever size “must be vigilant, objective, and pragmatic and think carefully about their actions and development.”

Still, there are reasons for optimism, he noted. The Swiss watch industry had its best export year in 2007 in 18 years (up 16 percent in value, and up 50 percent since 2004, and “Our businesses are growing, requiring greater levels of investment.