Business slips but there’s still many new products at revamped Basel show

Sunny skies finally appeared over Basel this week, although temperatures remained very cold—an apt simile for the fluctuating mood and business at the 2003 Basel Watch and Jewelry Show, the world’s largest watch and jewelry trade fair.

The government’s ouster of the hundreds of Southeast Asian exhibitors in a SARS-preventive action, and the angry walkout by Hong Kong watch and jewelry vendors—the show’s largest group—cast a pall over the show’s first days. So, too, did the Iraqi war and stalled economies in Europe and elsewhere. Concerns about all three issues kept buyers and visitors away, leading to lower-than-expected attendance.

The situation at the Basel Show’s Zurich exhibition center, where the two dozen national pavilions—including the ousted Asians—are located, was grim. With Hong Kong gone, the number of show buyers and visitors taking the daily one-hour shuttles to Zurich was so reduced that the Basel Fair waived the admission fee for all visitors going there and had shuttles leaving as late as 10:30 p.m. in both directions. Still, on April 7 (the show’s third day), the Taiwan delegation actually stationed people outside the Basel show halls to hand out leaflets urging people to visit their pavilion in Zurich.

In Basel, business and traffic picked up a bit by the weekend, though some exhibitions in the prestige jewelry building complained as late as Sunday about the low number of appointments they had and the absence of many American buyers. Both show officials and a number of watch and jewelry exhibitors said they expected a lower volume of business and buyers at this year’s show.

But business aside, Basel is always a newsmaker for the trade, and Basel 2003 was no different. A few of the many announcements:

* Diamond company Rosy Blue announced a deal with American designer Vera Wang, to design a new jewelry line.
* Guess Watches is going into the jewelry business, and aiming at jewelers, with a new jewelry line called “Touchstones,” designed by popular London designer Stephen Webster.
* American watch and jewelry designer David Yurman has opened his own watchmaking facility in Switzerland to support his Yurman timepieces—the first step in expanding the company’s European business and making Yurman watches a global brand.
* Bulova was in Basel actively cultivating its new European operation, headquartered in Fribourg, Switzerland.
* Co-branding partnerships were announced by a number of companies, including Timex, which debuted the new Reebok watch line, and Brietling, which unveiled its impressive Breitling Bentley chronograph in cooperation with Bentley Motors.

The show hosted some 40 first-time or returning prestigious watch names, and added a third watch hall for additional watch brands. The most impressive and largest exhibit—with not one but two grand staircases sweeping down and up—was Bulgari, which was the only exhibitor to have its name on one of the fair’s buildings, at the entrance.

In terms of both style and substance, the watch firms are doing big business at Basel. The watch halls could more accurately be termed “timepiece cities,” given the impressive three-story stands resembling stores and buildings rather than exhibition “booths.” And the trend toward larger watches now seems to be settling into a niche, with many companies adding stylish bigger timepieces in the 42-mm to 48-mm range. “We’re simply responding to market demand,” said one watchmaker better known for women’s watches.

Noteworthy this year is the growing number of digital timepieces in the fine-watch category, and the use of materials other than stainless steel to strap watches to the wrist. Also notable is the number of timepieces using grainy sharkskin straps—such as Bertolucci’s striking new Doppia watch line—and the increasing use of black straps or rubber-like synthetics such as polyurethane. In fact, because of the increased use of leather, the overall colors of the show’s new watches were more muted than last year, with numerous browns, blacks, tans, and some blues.