BaselWorld reports 39% attendance rise

BaselWorld 2004, the world’s oldest and largest watch and jewelry trade show, ended April 22 and reported a 39% gain in attendance to 89,350. Attendance last year at BaselWorld and other international spring trade fairs held in Europe was weakened by travelers’ concerns about the SARS epidemic in Asia, the beginning of the war in Iraq, and terrorism.

More significantly, this year’s attendance was 8.3% over 2002, a more normal year for the eight-day show held annually in Basel, Switzerland.

Participating were 2,186 companies from 44 nations, and some 29,000 persons (not included in the 89,350) employed by those companies or hired to be exhibition stand personnel. More than 2,100 journalists from around the world reported on the fair.

Exhibitors, especially in the three busy and often crowded watch halls, were generally enthusiastic about the mood of their retail clients and the orders they generated. “Business was wonderfully lively. BaselWorld 2004 was a tremendous success,” said Jacques J. Duchêne, president of the show’s exhibitors committee. Hugues-Olivier Borès, marketing director of the top Swiss luxury watch brand Patek Philippe, concurred. “The number of orders we received made BaselWorld 2004 a very positive event,” he said.

“Positive” was the word many watch vendors used to describe the attitude of their U.S. retail clients. “There’s a good feeling about this year’s show,” said Stuart Zuckerman, vice president of Citizen Watch Co. of America. “The attitude of the retailers is upbeat,” he noted, adding that retailers’ orders are an indication of their confidence in business and the economy in the second half of 2004. “They’re willing to look at not only the usual things but a lot of alternatives and innovations,” said another exhibitor. “People are here in a big way this year,” said Lisa Roman, a spokesperson for Breitling USA, “and we’re way ahead of last year.”

Some exhibitors even called it their best-ever show—a significant turn-around from 2003, which many had called disappointing. Cindy Livingston, chief executive officer of Callanan International, which produces Guess and Nautica watches, said, “For us, the show was simply fantastic.” Philippe Dufour, speaking for the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (an association of independent, high-end watchmakers), said results for his group were “excellent.”

Among noteworthy watch trends at this year’s show was the popularity and staying power of “big” or “oversized” watches, underscored by bigger watches unveiled by such high-end bellwethers as Patek Philippe and mid-price leaders like Seiko. The show was awash in color, a tie-in with fall 2004 and winter 2005 fashion—especially orange, pink and red, counterbalanced with black and white—in straps, stitching, and dial treatments. The use of tonneau, east/west horizontal, cushion-, and screen-shape cases also continues to spread, while a growing trend is the growing use of wide leather strap-on-cuff watches.

The market of fine mechanical watches with complications for women, already strong last year, continued to grow this year. “Research shows that more and more women are wearing gents-sized watches and that the mechanics of a watch is as important to them as its design,” said Olivier Bernheim, chief executive officer of Raymond Weil, which unveiled a new automatic for women—the Don Giovanni, with diamonds and two time zones. “Precious stones and a mother-of-pearl dial are no longer enough for today’s women,” he said. “They want watches that reflect today’s watchmaking skills and craftsmanship.”

Speaking of mechanical movements, there was much to attract the interest of watch enthusiasts. There are a growing number of tourbillons, a once-rare function that is becoming surprisingly commonplace among fine watches. Standouts included first-ever tourbillions from luxury brands Daniel Roth and Zenith, and Jorg Hysek’s limited-edition XX-Ray, a metal cuff watch with dual tourbillons in adjoining bezels. Notable debuts included TAG Heuer’s breakthrough re-thinking of the mechanical movement in its Monaco V4; advances in mechanical watchmaking by Frederique Constant and Technotime; and Dubey & Schandenbrand’s Spiral VIP, an ambidextrous chronograph with operational push pieces on the right and left of the case.

At times, BaselWorld 2004 resembled a car show more than a watch fair. Oris, Frederique Constant, and Breitling, among others, displayed at their stands new models of the car brands they sponsor in rallies or are co-branded with in timepieces. Others, such as Citizen, feature prominent car racing champions in their marketing or watches whose styling is influenced by car designs and dashboards.

A number of brands also mark anniversaries this year and announced timepieces or projects celebrating that fact. They include Timex (150 years), Oris (100 years), Swiza (Switzerland’s largest clockmaker, 100 years), Korloff Joaillerie-Montres (25), Guess Watches (20), and Breitling Chronomat (20).

A major attraction at this year’s show was the new Hall 6. Covering approximately 28,000 square meters on a former railroad yard, the impressive facility housed the non-branded vendors of 27 national pavilions. Though a constant stream of shuttle vans took visitors every few minutes from the main show buildings to Hall 6, a few blocks away, there still were long lines of visitors waiting to come and go. Many were those who hadn’t attended last year or didn’t get to see Hong Kong and other Asian exhibitors: Last year, the Swiss government banned the Asian contingent at the last minute due to the SARS scare.

The massive Hong Kong delegation (332 companies) literally took center stage (and much of the space) in the new hall. But Hong Kong officials weren’t the only ones happy to be “returning” to Basel. Other Asian exhibitors were, too. BaselWorld is “extremely important for us,” said Nandor von der Luehe, managing director and owner of Thailand Metropolitan Jewellery Manufacturing. “No other show offers such opportunities for international networking and sales. This year’s show was a complete success as far as we’re concerned.”

BaselWorld 2005 will be held March 31 to April 7, 2005.

A full report on the Swiss watch shows–BaselWorld, the SIHH in Geneva, and the Franck Muller Watchland show, just outside Geneva–will appear in the July issue of JCK.