Upbeat BaselWorld caps seven-year makeover with more focus on gemstones

BaselWorld 2005, the world’s biggest watch and jewelry show, opened to crisp, sunny weather March 30; upbeat optimism about business despite the weak dollar; and with a big sigh of relief from its operators at the successful end to a $668 million multiyear makeover of the trade fair.

The fair, held in the Swiss city on the Rhine, opens to the public March 31 and runs to April 7, and is a bellwether of the economic health of the global watch and jewelry industries.

Almost 90,000 visitors from 100 countries were expected—the highest attendance in a decade—as well as 2,197 exhibitors from 44 countries, a “who’s who” in the global watch and jewelry businesses. About 5% (106) are North American, the fifth-largest national group after Switzerland (412), Italy (368), Hong Kong (363), and Germany (292). Spokesmen for the large European and Hong Kong groups all cited upward trends that forecast a healthy business at Basel this year.

The only serious concern, said Sylvie Ritter, BaselWorld’s first female show director, was the possible effects of the weak U.S. dollar on the amount of orders placed during the show by U.S. buyers—“They may hold back,” she told local newspapers—and even on their attendance. “A slight decline” in U.S. visitors (usually 6–8% of attendees) was possible, she noted.

Seven-year overhaul. This year’s edition of BaselWorld 2005 marks the completion of a seven-year project of extensive renovation, reorganization, image makeover, and expansion in which the show and its exhibitors invested at least 800 million Swiss francs ($668 million). One result, ironically, is that BaselWorld—now at 160,000 square meters—has no room for more exhibitors. Instead, BaselWorld will focus on “quality, not quantity,” said Jacques Duchene, chairman of the exhibitors’ committee, and use any new available space (if or when an exhibitor leaves) for the overall ambience and spaces of current exhibitors.

The seven-year project has “been like putting together a giant puzzle and now the final big piece is in place,” said Rene Kamm, chief executive officer of MCH Swiss Exhibition, which owns and operates BaselWorld. That last piece is the completely redesigned and furbished Hall of Elements (Hall 3), home to the show’s diamond, gem, and pearl exhibitors—“a suitably sumptuous showcase for products that embody refinement,” says Ritter.

The much-improved hall is also a major bid to make BaselWorld a bigger magnet for the globe’s gem dealers and buyers … to be “the epicenter of the global diamonds, precious stones, and pearl trade” annually, as one of its press releases put it, as it is for watches and, to a lesser extent, jewelry.

“The precious-stones and pearls sector is of increasing prominence at BaselWorld,” said Kamm. “The world’s leading suppliers and dealers are presenting in Basel.”

The new Hall of Elements—which, like the watch sector, now has multilevel exhibitor stands—opened at noon on the show’s first day with formal ceremonies, that included Swiss government dignitaries and show officials. “After seven years of continuous restructuring and enhancements, it’s very satisfying to finish,” said Kamm.

Satisfaction. Indeed a sense of satisfaction has affected the entire show. In the final hours before the show’s events began, the effects of the massive effort of actually putting together the annual show—the construction alone takes six weeks, and requires hundreds of workers and the coordination of 7,000 trucks!—began to show and people looked tired. But on opening day, with preparations done and no major problems, like the impact of 2003’s SARS epidemic on Asian exhibitors, Ritter noted that, “With the curtain about to go up, there’s a wonderful sense of enthusiasm in the air.” Indeed, Kamm joked with reporters, “Everything is prepared for a good show. We’ve ordered up sunny weather!”

Overall, the massive seven-year reorganization and renovation of the 33-year old international watch and jewelry show cost MCH about 400 million Swiss francs ($334 million), Kamm told JCK and BaselWorld’s exhibitors.

The project—much of it’s focus on the show’s core watch sector—began in 1998 with the demolition of old show buildings to make room for a new glass-walled football field–size Hall 1 for major watch brands and their dazzling, multistory exhibition stands. Next came the reorganization and refurbishing of the prestigious jewelry halls (2001); further upgrades in the watch sector, with new stand design concepts and a new gallery in Hall 5, a site with many, smaller deluxe brands (2002); creating a section for the most exclusive watch brands in the completely redesigned and made-over Hall 4 (2003); and the construction of a football field–size Hall 6 for the fair’s 29 national pavilions on the site of a former adjoining railroad yard (2004). Along the way, the show management has reorganized its operation and marketing, renamed the show and its sectors, launched some ambitious endeavors that faded (including a simultaneous show for national pavilions in Zurich), and built a 20-story tower (Switzerland’s highest) on MCH’s redesigned and rebuilt fairground plaza.

One grim note on the upbeat, sunny opening morning was a peaceful demonstration—the first many could remember happening at the show—in front of the entrance to the main watch hall of the fair by several dozen people who put up banners and passed out fliers. They called for international jewelry-industry support and financial aid for mainland Chinese workers in Hong Kong jewelry factories who have contracted pneumoconiosis from allegedly unsafe working conditions, especially large amounts of powdery dust. A similar call was made in March to CIBJO by a coalition of Hong Kong Christian and labor groups.