Here’s What People Will Be Talking About at Baselworld

This Thursday, March 19 marks the start of Baselworld, the luxury watch and jewelry fair that draws 100,000 visitors to the historic Swiss city of Basel every spring. It will be my 14th year in attendance, and while I have something of a love/hate relationship with the fair, I’m looking forward to this week because there is, for once, a lot of “newness” to contemplate.

Here are the topics expected to dominate conversations in Basel:

Smartwatches Are the New Quartz

The advent of smartwatches, and the Apple Watch in particular, marks a whole new era in watchmaking. Not since the invention of quartz timepieces in the 1960s has the traditional Swiss watch industry been this shaken up by a new technology.

I probably don’t have to tell you that Apple staged its own take on Baselworld in Cupertino last week, when the company announced the pricing of its luxury line of Apple Watch Edition timepieces (up to $17,000) and the date they’ll be available in stores (April 24).

Expect to see a number of Swiss firms parry Apple’s much-ballyhooed introduction with smart versions of their own timepieces. A couple weeks ago, senior editor Jennifer Heebner attended the unveiling of the MotionX Horological Smartwatch Open Platform in San Francisco, where Peter Stas, the founder of the Frédérique Constant and Alpina brands, and his partners at Fullpower Technologies in Silicon Valley, introduced their smart new platform, which they hope to see other watchmakers take advantage of.

But that’s not all. TAG Heuer is reportedly working on a smartwatch. Kenneth Cole is promoting its new smartwatch, Kenneth Cole Connect. And who knows what other smart devices await us in Basel? Will their Swiss pedigrees be enough to counter the appeal of the world’s foremost brand and its shiny new gold-encased luxury watch? It’s no exaggeration to suggest that millions of investment dollars and the Swiss watch industry’s fate are riding on it.

Metal Mania

Last week, news director Rob Bates reported on the gold that Apple is using on its Apple Watch Edition: a custom alloy of 18k yellow or 18k rose gold with silver, copper, and palladium. According to Apple’s slick new promotional video, “the result is gold that is elegant yet uncompromisingly durable.”

But Apple, which claims its alloy is “up to twice as hard as standard gold,” is far from the first watchmaker to play the metallurgical one-upmanship game. Hublot and Omega, have been promoting their competitive alloys, Magic Gold and Ceragold, respectively, for years, and this week expect to see another throwdown.

Hublot is introducing what it’s calling “the most scratch-resistant massive gold watch ever created.” Make way for the Big Bang Unico Full Magic Gold, rendered in Hublot’s proprietary 18k gold alloy, developed four years ago and said to boast a hardness of 1,000 Vickers (compare that with platinum, which has a hardness on the Vickers scale of about 230, or to diamond, which has a Vickers hardness of 10,000).

Photo by Fred Merz, courtesy Hublot

A metallurgist cooking up Hublot’s Magic Gold alloy in the lab

In the past, I’ve never paid too much attention to the metallurgical properties of a watch, and I’m guessing most people are like me. Now that Apple is making such a big to-do over its gold, however, I’d suggest we all take a little time to get schooled on alloys and metals so we know the difference between ceramic, zirconium, Harry Winston’s Zalium—hell, Cartier once made a concept watch whose case was fashioned from titanium and niobium. The topic just got a lot sexier.

When Is the Price Right?

Pricing has always been a sensitive subject in the watch business—and this year it’s more sensitive than ever. First there was that whole Swiss currency debacle back in January, when the Swiss National Bank abruptly eliminated the 3-year-old cap that pegged the franc to the euro, sending the franc (and Swiss watch prices) soaring.

That focused people’s attention on how Swiss watches are priced, how those prices relate to margins, and when it’s appropriate to raise or decrease prices. (Patek Philippe’s controversial decision to lower prices in the United States by 7 percent this year was mostly seen as a savvy strategy to prevent a surge of gray market watches from entering the market.)

In any case, at least one brand in Basel is planning to sidestep the conversation entirely. Jacob & Co. has teamed up with the Italian entrepreneur Flavio Briatore “to introduce a one-of-a-kind, record-breaking high-jewelry timepiece that epitomizes the luxury lifestyle in tangible, wearable form.”

Named “Billionaire,” the watch—a one-off timepiece of which Briatore’s company, Billionaire Lifestyle, is the official licensor—boasts a case and bracelet set with 260 carats of GIA-certified, emerald-cut diamonds; some gems weigh up to 3 cts. each. At 18 million Swiss francs, it’s being billed as one of the most expensive watches ever made—perhaps the most. Blindingly blingy and blind to the concerns of the hoi polloi, Jacob & Co.’s outrageous watch is an unapologetic rejoinder to the pricing discussion: If you have to ask how much the piece costs in dollars or euros, you can’t afford it!

Courtesy Jacob & Co.

Making its debut at Baselworld this week, the new Billionaire watch from Jacob & Co. boasts 260 cts. t.w. diamonds and a price tag of 18 million CHF.