Watch Notes From BaselWorld 2008

BaselWorld is always a world of fascinating collection of debuts, economic trends, social festivities, innovations, and celebrities. Here are a few watch notes from BaselWorld 2008:

* BaselWorld is not only a stage for watch and jewelry debuts, it’s also a stage for the world’s celebrities, like beautiful Valérie Bégue, Miss France 2008, the new brand spokesperson for luxury Swiss watch Bertolucci, who graced the brand’s stand. However, the main spotlight at this year’s BaselWorld was on internationally known fashion designers, rather than A-list actors or top models. Salvatore Ferragamo, Valentino, Donatello Versace (all three debuting their watch brands), and Marc Eckô all came in person to BaselWorld, all for the first time—but not the last, each said.

* Recession, what recession? You can’t prove it here in Basel. While some European and Asian watch vendors said there seemed to be slightly less American buyers, especially new ones, most regulars came, undeterred by the uncertain economy back home or Switzerland’s high prices, thanks to the weak dollar. (One exception was the last-minute cancelled attendance of a well-known national jewelry chain, due to some top management changes, not the economy.) While some Americans said they were being conservative in this year’s buying, most seemed undeterred by economic concerns in their local home markets. “There’s no sense of pessimism here,” said Stuart Zuckerman, senior vice president of Citizen Watch of America, a leader in the $500 to $800 category. “[Retailers] just tell us, they’ll have to work harder to make the second half of the year successful.” Still, most Swiss watch brands, both mid- and upscale, have raised their prices at least once in recent months by 10 – 15 percent, and such far more, due to the gold’s rising price and the weak dollar/Swiss franc ratio (about 0.97 cents to 1 Sfr during the show), causing sticker stock even for long-time BaselWorld attendees. “A luxury watch $24,000 two years ago, now costs me $45,000 today,” one amazed western jeweler told JCK.

* Omega watch can lay claim to putting its watch on the wrist of the first man on the moon, but Seiko Watch Corp., one of the world’s biggest watchmakers and leading watch brands, can lay claim to the first private citizen to walk in space. The Tokyo-based watchmaker introduced its Seiko Spring Drive Spacewalk watch, designed specifically for American multi-millionaire Richard Garriott, an online games creator, who is scheduled to be the first private citizen to walk in space this fall. Spring Drive was chosen for the project because of its “extreme accuracy,” three-times greater than mechanical watches, says the company. (Battery-operated watches are unusable in space.) The titanium 44mm Spacewalk watch is especially designed for use with a spacesuit’s large gloves in the vacuum, radiation, extreme conditions and temperatures of outer space. Seiko is also making a more down-to-earth version. A limited edition of 300 for the world market will be available in December.

* Nicolas Hayek, Sr., chairman of the Swatch Group, is not only a great businessman, he’s also a great showman. At BaselWorld, Hayek on behalf of Breguet—the two-century-old luxury watch brand owned by Swatch Group—presented to a packed press conference of several hundred people, a new identical version of the famous watch. It is based on pictures and documents of the original, made for ill-fated French Queen Marie Antoinette by famed French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. “Would you like to see it,” he impishly asked the crowd. Then, wearing gloves and holding the precious one-only timepiece aloft, he moved slowly into and through the swirling, turbulent crowd of photographers, journalists, and show visitors.

Though the new version is handcrafted like the original, the advance of time and technology has speeded up the process: the first was finished 44 years after being ordered—the French Revolution causing some delay—while the second took just 44 months to make. Hayek said no more than or two a year will be made, depending on interest.

* BaselWorld’s prides itself on being “Where the world meets,” but for BaselWorld 2008, a more approach tagline could be, “Vroom!” At times, there seemed to be as many high-profile cars and sleek motorcycles on display as there were watches. A BMW even graced one of the walkways into the show’s main watch building. At upscale Swiss sport watch TAG-Heuer, for example, there was the K.O.7, a $150,000 futuristic “concept car” by Japanese car designer Ken Okuyama, inspired by the watch brand’s Grand Carrera Calibre 36 (with place of prominence in the dashboard), while a sleek, red Duacati motorcycle dominated a show window at Italy’s Binda Group’s Ducati/Ducati Corse stand.

* Party! For at least a few days, little Basel is the social center of the global watch and jewelry industry. Parties and galas abound the first few days of Basel World. Here are a few:

Bertolucci, for example, hosted an elegant invitation-only dinner, with new spokesperson Miss France as special guest.

Maurice Lacroix launched its unique Memoire 1, the first mechanical watch with memory, with a gala at Basel’s large, glass-walled Voltahalle.

Hublot also debuted its Euro 2008 Big Bang watch (for the European soccer championship this summer, with all quarterfinals played in Basel) with a gala. Hublot, a major Euro 2008 sponsor, is devoting all its billboard space at the games to the Fight against Racism group.

Movado held its traditional BaselWorld cocktail reception at Basel’s historic, five-star luxury Les Trois Rois Hotel (Three Kings Hotel).

Bulgari’s chief executive officer Francesco Trapani hosted an invitation-only elegant dinner, with a special menu designed by Chef Elio Sironi, of the Bulgari Hotel in Milan, Italy.

– Not to be outdone, jewelry designer and watchmaker Philippe Charriol celebrated his brand’s 25th anniversary with an elegant event called “A Journey through Time” for invited guests—in Geneva. The company provided round trip transportation from Basel to Geneva, where the event was held in the Hotel le Richemond’s Jardin Brunswick.

* BaselWorld is so large, with hundreds of watch brands, that it’s easy to forget that many of these, some very well known, are owned by a few watch conglomerates, some of them far less well-known to the public or who keep a low profile, preferring the brands to get the spotlight. Among the many:

– The Timex Group is the parent firm or licensee for Valentino, Salvatori Ferregamo, Versace, Callanen International (Nautica, Mark Eckô), Sequel International (Guess, Guess Collection), Texas—and of course Timex.

– Italy’s Sector & Morellato Group owns or licensee for Sector No Limit watches, Roberto Cavalli Timewear, Just Cavalli, Miss Sixty, Morellato, Philip Watch, John Galliano, PZero Tempo.

– The Movado Group makes and distributes Movado, Concord, Ebel, Esq Swiss, Coach watches, Hugo Boss watches, Lacoste watches, Juicy Couture watches and Tommy Hilfiger watches.