Products, Price Points, and Parties: Highlights From Baselworld 2013

Where to begin? In the past week, I’ve seen more cool jewels, talked about more timepieces, met more interesting people, and drank more champagne than in all the months of 2013 combined.

The LINK Jewelry Summit I attended in Vienna on April 22–23 deserves a full blog post of its own, so I’ll save the highlights for next week’s blog—but suffice it to say that it was one of the more well organized jewelry events I’ve attended in my dozen-plus years covering jewelry. The panel I moderated at the conference—which included such stellar panelists as Ippolita CEO Joe Cavalcante, Crislu president and CEO Bryan Crisfield, and Trollbeads founder Lise Aagaard—was a smashing success.

When the panel was over, I was so relieved I hadn’t flubbed things that I was able to truly enjoy the black tie gala Swarovski, the summit’s sponsor, had organized at the Palais Liechtenstein, one of Europe’s grandest properties and home to a private collection of Old Masters that would make any museum curator dizzy with envy.

The black-tie crowd arrives at Vienna’s Palais Liechtenstein to celebrate the LINK Jewelry Summit.

On Wednesday, it was off to Switzerland for the start of the 2013 Baselworld fair. The much-anticipated unveiling of the convention center’s sleek new redesign, spearheaded by the celebrated Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, was impressive and truly modern—but the lack of reliable Wi-Fi access and sufficient signage, not to mention the overwhelming crowds, made navigating the halls an exercise in frustration.

My other big beef with the show was the result of terrible planning on my part: I booked 40 appointments across three days, on half-hour intervals, in different halls. The result was that I was about 20 minutes late to each one—though I missed only one appointment, which seems like a tiny miracle all its own.

Here’s the unvarnished truth about the product I saw at the fair (my focus was timepieces, though I did see a few jewelers): It was underwhelming. There were lots of line extensions and new dial colors, but very few things that I would define as innovative. The thing that really stood out was watchmakers’ collective focus on entry-priced models and affordability.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the refrain about value. It came from brands specifically focused on “filling a niche in the market for Swiss-made brands at an affordable price point”—in the words of the marketing director at 88 Rue du Rhone, a stylish quartz line from the grandsons of Raymond Weil—as well as from executives at companies that have long played in the medium- to high-priced range such as Zenith and Maurice Lacroix.

Geneva-based 88 Rue du Rhone prides itself on producing affordable Swiss-made (quartz) timepieces.

At Maurice Lacroix, president Hartmut Kraft (whom many of you will remember from his days at Chronoswiss), told me about the brand’s reintroduction of quartz watches. “We really want to lure entry-level buyers—the graduate who doesn’t want to spend $4,000 on a watch,” he said. “Then he can move on to our next collection, Pontos.”

At that, Kraft lifted up one of the brand’s new Pontos models, which retails for $3,600. “I still don’t understand how they did it,” he said, admiring the watch’s well-priced craftsmanship. “We used to be core competitors with Baume & Mercier, Raymond Weil, Bucherer on the high end, TAG, and Longines. All these competitors have left us with this void between $2,000 and $5,000.”

The more I thought about the Swiss industry’s embrace of price-point pieces, the more I wondered what was driving it. And then it hit me: It takes at least three to five years to develop a new movement. Backtrack that long and you arrive at 2008–2010, the height of the worst financial crisis in recent history. The decisions brands made during the darkest days of the recession are playing out now, in a slew of sober styles designed to appeal to buyers who consider value a guiding principle.

Other trends that I noted in the men’s category included a plethora of two-tone styles in stainless steel and yellow gold, lots (and lots) of gorgeous blue dials, black on black combinations and, at the risk of tooting our own horn, all the other trends we highlighted in our April watch coverage.

As for the ladies category, I saw plenty of miniature timepieces with case sizes as small as 26 mm, some intriguing double-strap watches, more mother-of-pearl than I ever knew existed, and pops of gemstone accents (especially amethyst). The other big development I saw in this category defies the price point trend mentioned above: The number of complicated watches designed expressly for women proves that men are no longer the watch industry’s only serious customers.

The intense pace of Baselworld is tough on my psyche, but running around a giant luxury fair for three days is worth it when I connect with people and products that remind me why this business is endlessly fascinating.

One of those moments took place on day one of the fair, when I had the good fortune of meeting Tom Kartsotis, the founder of Fossil watches, at the booth of his newest venture, Shinola. If you haven’t checked out the brand’s American-made watches, proudly assembled in Detroit using Swiss parts, I urge you to do so. The merchandising alone will make you want to reserve a case for them.

The display of watches at the Shinola booth set the merchandising standard.

A highlight of day two of the show was meeting Peter Thum, founder of Fonderie 47, a company in New York City that uses mangled steel from weapons seized in African war zones to create jewels and rarefied objects. He showed me the product of two years’ worth of development: Fonderie 47’s new watch, a stunning tourbillon called Inversion Principle. At $350,000, the watch is pricey, but the cause it supports (very stylishly, I might add) is interesting and meaningful.

I took hundreds of pictures at the show and when I pore over my Basel album, here are a few that stand out:

Geneva-based DeLaneau makes enamel watches that redefine the meaning of artistry, like these incredible timepieces from its new Flower Fields Creation collection.

This magnificent ruby cuff from Chopard’s standout Red Carpet haute joiallerie collection earned many a “like” when I posted it on Instagram.

Snakes on the brain, part 1: Graff’s diamond-encrusted, million-dollar, serpent-style secret watch (the dial is hidden in the snake’s head)

Snakes on the brain, part 2: the updated Bestiario collection from Spanish jeweler Carrera y Carrera.

The parties that take place each night in Basel help mitigate the stressful days. This year, the W dinner at Villa Nova, a spectacular private residence temporarily commandeered by the celebrity Swiss chef André Jaeger, exemplified the chic sophistication for which our editorial partner has long been known.

This Murano glass chandelier was one of many beautiful pieces that distinguished the W party at Villa Nova.

Every Basel, I have dinner with Betsy Kroll, the gracious public relations manager at TechnoMarine, and this year’s Friday night fondue feast will go down as one of my favorites, while the evening I spent at the outstanding Fondation Beyeler, surrounded by world-class art, courtesy of Hearst publications, followed by a few hours of dancing at the Campari Bar and late-night drinks at the historic Three Kings Hotel, reminded me why, despite the manic schedule, I won’t ever pass up the opportunity to attend Baselworld.

This shot, taken at the bar at the historic Three Kings Hotel, is pure hilarity. That’s me with (from left) GIA’s Craig Danforth, Le Vian’s Eddie LeVian, and an unidentified photo bomber.

Last but not least, my absolute favorite part of Basel is spending time with old friends. Special shout-outs go to Katie Kinsella cofounder of Kinney & Kinsella, everyone’s favorite publicist; Lars Parker-Myers, manager of strategic accounts at JCK Events, without whom my Basel experience would be incomplete; Alissa Goren, with the Rapaport Group, whose wit and wisdom I value more than she knows; and Randi Molofsky, the U.S. marketing director for Gemfields and my longtime partner in crime. Looking forward to seeing all of you for round two in Las Vegas!

For more coverage from Baselworld 2013, check out: