A Work in Progress

Basel 2001, the world’s largest timepiece and jewelry trade show (March 22-29) was a work in progress in many different but apparent ways.

  • Reorganizing. The show is in the third of five years of extensive reorganization and renovation of its watch and jewelry halls. The newest—the redesigned and renovated Hall 2.2 for luxury jewelry exhibitors—was officially opened at the fair.

  • A new show. It will be launched in 2003 in Zurich and held simultaneously with the watch and jewelry show, say Basel Fair officials. The fair’s 300-plus components, equipment, and services exhibitors will be relocated—over many objections—to the new show space, freeing 10,000 square feet for expansion by current (and some new) watch and jewelry exhibitors. The changes are necessary, say fair officials, if the crowded Basel show is to survive, thrive, and hold onto its exhibitors in coming years and remain the most important international show in the industry.

  • Basel vs. Geneva. Some buyers are uneasy about the growing antagonism between the Basel fair and the small (14 brands) luxury-watch SIHH show in Geneva begun in 1990 by the Richemont group, led by Cartier. Three top luxury watch brands recently bought by Richemont—IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Länge&Söhne—announced during Basel 2001 that starting next year they will exhibit at the SIHH show. Basel officials say the departure of the trio is “a pity” but not a surprise.

The shows also are sparring over next year’s fairs. The Basel show will be held two weeks earlier (March 14-21), and SIHH—which usually overlaps Basel—will move to mid-January because of an auto show in early March at the Geneva Convention Center where SIHH is held. Some retailers are already complaining about logistics and travel difficulties in attending both shows. SIHH accuses Basel officials of “depriving” the two shows’ customers of their “mutual advantage [of concurrent operation].” Basel officials say SIHH vendors are welcome to return to the Basel show anytime.

In addition, the new Zurich show and competition from other European shows is beginning to concern some exhibitors and retailers, who worry about the Basel show’s direction and future.

  • Building projects. Visitors to Basel 2001 were confronted by literal “works in progress”—city building projects at Basel’s airport and two major train stations as well as on various streets and main thoroughfares spanning the Rhine. At the Basel fairgrounds itself, redesign of the plaza and construction of a 30-story tower for fair management offices and a new hotel are under way. The show was so surrounded by construction that the city newspaper ran a critical editorial with the headline “Welcome to Construction Site Basel!”

  • Renewal. Among the show’s exhibitors, there were “works in progress” of a different nature. Many watch companies (including Swiss Watch, Bertolucci, Ebel, Dior, Bally, and Universal Geneve) relaunched, renewed, or redefined their operations, image, advertising, or collections—some all at once.

  • Business. There was some uncertainty, at least initially, about the direction of the fair’s business. At the opening of Basel 2001, René Kamm, general manager of the watch and jewelry show, predicted “an excellent show” based on strong watch and jewelry sales in 2000, especially in luxury watches. But some exhibitors—mainly those with clients who didn’t attend because of still-stocked inventories or weak sales in late 2000—thought Kamm’s estimate too optimistic.

In fact, the show opened just as the U.S. economy, the engine of world business, was slowing and European, Asian, and U.S. stock markets were recording significant drops. In addition, despite record sales (and exports) for the Swiss watch industry in 2000, jewelry sales in many areas, including the United States, fell last year—especially during the all-important fourth quarter. As a result, during the show’s first days, buyers were cautious—one Swiss trade spokesperson said there was an “edgy climate among buyers”—especially in the jewelry halls.

By show’s end, however, business in watches—especially higher-priced brands—had picked up significantly. Most high-end Swiss exhibitors had “excellent orders,” said a final report by the industry. Luxury brand Patek Philippe, for example, had “the best sales response at Basel since [the show’s] inauguration,” said a company spokesman. Results were less upbeat for mid- and lower-priced brands: Concerns about the slowing U.S. economy, economic stagnation in Japan, and sluggish European economies produced sales figures that were only satisfactory.

Still, many exhibitors in both jewelry and watches reported numerous new customer contacts. That alone indicated “the likelihood of brisk business after Basel,” said Dr. Alfred Schneider, manager of the German Association of Jewelry, Watches, Silverware, and Related Industries. Among those making important new contacts abroad were Timex, Disney, and Bulova, which is buying back its foreign franchises to expand and control foreign distribution.

  • Attendance. The show ended on an upbeat note. Because of economic slowdowns and constant rain, show officials expected a slight drop in attendance. Instead, there was what even the official show report calls an “unanticipated” slight increase. Some 86,700 visitors—a 2% edge over 2000—from 100 countries attended the eight-day show in the little Swiss city on the Rhine. Half of that gain (about 800 people) came from the United States, which provides about 5% of Basel’s total annual attendance.

There were some 2,300 exhibitors from 40 countries (two-thirds of them, in descending order, from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Hong Kong). About 95 were from the United States. Together, they occupied 91,858 square feet of stand space, the largest Basel show yet.