BaselWorld Opens under Cloud of Economic Crisis

Baselworld 2009 entranceBaselWorld 2009, the world’s largest watch and jewelry trade show, opened Thursday under gray clouds, recurrent drizzle, cold temperatures—and occasional patches of blue sky. It was a fitting metaphor this year for the mood of many at this important international trade fair in Basel, Switzerland.

As Sylvie Ritter, BaselWorld director, told a press conference before opening day, “the current economic crisis is at the heart of every conversation [and] has an effect on everyone’s life.”

René Kamm, chief operating officer of the MCH Group, BaselWorld’s ownerStill, “Something good always comes out of a crisis,” René Kamm, chief operating officer of the MCH Group (pictured), BaselWorld’s owner, told reporters. “Fluctuations in the market are corrected. More and more consumers are rediscovering secure values and safe investments. And Well-established brands and stable companies are able to profit from this development.”

Even so, Show officials and the heads of large national delegations acknowledged the effects on the industry of what they called the “unprecedented,” “difficult,” and “unsettled” worldwide financial crisis.

In 2008, more than 100,000 people came to the show but this year, said Ritter, buyer attendance will “definitely be down,” primarily because retailers and wholesalers are sending fewer buyers and staff people “due to the economic instability.” (And at least one major U.S. department store chain reportedly isn’t sending anyone this year). Among vendors, were a few cancellations in the watch sector (though with replacements, the show actually has more watch exhibitors—359—than last year), and several cancellations in show’s jewelry sector, “which have been heavily affected by the crisis, manly due to bankruptcy,” noted Ritter. Together, there are 1,952 exhibitors at BaselWorld 2009, down from 2,087 in 2008.

Still despite the serious impact on of the crisis on the watch ad jewelry industry—Swiss exports, for example, were down 23 percent for January-February 2009–cautious optimism was expressed by show officials, heads of national delegations, and officials of companies,–especially watchmakers. Some examples:

* Francois Thiébaud, president of the Swiss Exhibitors Committee and president of Tissot watch worldwide, said one good thing coming out of the financial crisis is “the return to traditional values” in watchmaking and selling, by both consumers and watchmakers. “There’s less extravagance, less emphasis on price and more on craftsmanship,” he said.

* Takashi Wakuyama, chief operating officer, international marketing, for Seiko Watch Corp., sees “great opportunities even in such a challenging environment as this.” Seiko is expanding its luxury watch market, unveiling in Basel its new upscale Ananta watch line ($2,400 starting retail), launching worldwide in September, including in dozens of upscale U.S. jewelers.

* Chopard is adding a 5,100 sq.-ft. building in Fleurier, Switzerland at a cost of 15 million Swiss francs ($20.3 million). Karl Scheufele, president of Chopard SA opened its press conference with a ‘smiley face’ on a large screen to show “we all have to keep a positive attitude now more than ever.

* Philippe Stern, CEO of Patek Philippe SA, one of the world’s leading luxury watches, told the show’s “Daily News” he is “positive and confident for the future,” saying the independent family firm is “ideally placed to go through challenging times and potentially com out of it in a better position.”

* The watch exhibition area of the show has been expanded, with 46 watch companies investing in new, larger two-floor stands to showcase their brands and products to greater effect.

* BaselWorld itself is pressing ahead, said Kamm, with an extensive expansion of its exhibition center, though its opening date has been pushed back from Jan. 2012 to April 2013.

Through lean years and fat ones, Basel annually is a stage for important industry events and introduction. Among those this year:

* The Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC) debuted its certification system, outlining for exhibitors, attendees and the media the process involved. The RJC is open to all in the gold and/or diamonds jewelry and watch supply chain willing to submit to the RJC’s Code of Practices and submit to RJC-approved third party auditing.

* Hublot became the second luxury watch company to unveil a system to fight counterfeits and theft. (The first was Vacheron Constantin in 2008). Under the “Wisekey system,” Hublot watches and their owners get a “SmartCard” and an electronic guarantee certificate with the watches identity code, and enables Hublot retailers and clients to instantly check a watch’s authenticity on the Hublot Web site.

* Luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe launched a new quality benchmark, called the Patek Philippe Seal, for its own timepieaces. The quality seal, two overlapping Ps in a six sided box resembling a Patek Philippe watch strap buckle, will replace the Geneva Seal, a seal which only the finest watchmakers received and which adorns most Patek Philippe watches. Starting in September, the seal Patek Philippe Seal will be used on all its watches.

* Swarovski, the luxury brand name known for precision-cut lead crystal glass and a supplier to the fashion, jewelry and watch industries, unveiled its own, first watch collection, aimed at “the multi-faceted woman …w with a sense of fashion.”

* Casio has expanded its “Multiband6” system. Enabling owners of its solar-powered, radio-controlled watches to get precise time anywhere in the world.

* The Rapaport Fair Trade Conference, being held for the time at BaselWorld (Mar. 30) will address the impact of the global economic crisis on the diamond and jewelry trade.

* Omega watches, the official watch of NASA and the first worn on the moon, on Mar. 28 celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing with a press conference starring several astronauts, including “Buzz” Aldrin, the first man to land on the moon (as Apollo 11 lunar module pilot, and the second to set foot on it) and Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (the last U.S. astronauts to walk on the moon).

* The “Watch of the Year” will be announced March 26, selected by thousands of readers of two leading European publications, Armbanduhren magazine and Welt am Sonntag newspaper.