Base; ’95: Creativity & Caution

The new name of the giant trade fair in Basel, Switzerland – The World Watch, Clock and Jewellery Show – didn’t drastically alter its makeup. But it did better reflect the nature of the timepiece and jewelry business as a global concern that for years has reached well beyond the Swiss Alps and Europe.

This year, global concern meant more than a world of interested buyers and appreciative observers. The harsh realities of economic change, including lingering recessions in Europe and currency fluctuations, distracted buyers and exhibitors more used to concentrating on the nuances of handcrafted tourbillons and the design of fine jewelry.

The value of the Swiss franc had increased about 23% against the U.S. dollar since the 1994 fair. While about half a dozen major watch companies already had raised prices before this year’s event, the rest were expected to follow suit soon Jewelry manufacturers, meanwhile, responded with lighter, smaller pieces and proven sellers.

Still, the economy didn’t steal the entire spotlight from watch and jewelry manufacturers and designers. Raymond Weil, chairman of the Basel ’95 exhibitor committee and a well-known watchmaker, said the economic challenges stimulated creativity. “Generally speaking, our industries have faced up to the economic situation with a dynamic and dedicated attitude,” he said.

Here’s a closer look at the trends in the watch and jewelry sectors at Basel ’95.

MOST WATCHED IN BASEL

Timepiece manufacturers hope new models will draw attention and build profits

Many of the nearly 600 exhibitors in the watch and clock pavilions responded to economic challenges with creative new products, ranging from one-of-a kind handcrafted marvels to mass-produced horological wizardry.

Concord, for example, unveiled Exor, a platinum and diamond timepiece valued at $2 million. Omega displayed its technical prowess with the world’s first wristwatch featuring a centrally positioned tourbillon. Perrelet launched Dipteros, the world’s first twin-rotor self-winding wristwatch.

High-tech introductions included Movado’s Sunergy and Citizen’s Eco-Drive – solar-powered watches minus the solar panels.

Here are some of the trends spotted during the fair:

  • Mechanicals have made a comeback among manufacturers of sport and luxury dress watches. Primarily automatics and automatic chronographs, the mechanical watches were introduced to round out existing lines or expand a formerly quartz-only line. New at Basel were more mechanicals for women and, thanks to technological advances, more mechanicals in popularly priced lines.

  • Automatic or quartz, the odds were good that Basel introductions had a stainless steel case, bracelet or both. Steel is a design element in sport models and often combines with gold or goldplate in luxury models. Brushed, machined or highly polished, steel serves as strong contrast to the richly colored dials seen at the show.

  • High-tech titanium emerged from specialty use to encompass complete lines of high-visibility brands, notably from Tissot, Seiko and Citizen. Titanium is strong, lightweight and has the added bonus of being non-allergenic. Expect more next year.

  • Many companies strayed from classic round cases and added tonneau (barrel), rectangular and other non-round cases to stir buyer interest. Among many others, Oris, Girard-Perregaux, Ebel and Chopard showed new tonneau models. Many of the tonneau cases were for women.

  • Upgrades in sport watches included greater water resistance and a liberal use of screw-down crowns and cases. Unidirectional or bidirectional bezels replaced many non-functioning bezels. And more models displayed sports-specific features; a golf stroke counter, an altimeter, a yacht race timer and an emergency location watch were among the standouts.

  • Options most in evidence at the show included easy-to-change straps, bracelets and bezels, moving a successful feature of fashion watches into the jewelers’ market. Among them were models from Gucci and Nina Ricci.Economic conservatism has led to creation of more women’s gold watches with straps instead of gold bracelets. Fashion also played a role, with an array of strap textures, colors and patterns. Concord, for example, introduced straps as an option in its high-end Renaissance Collection for women.

  • Officially designated chronometers were seen more often within popularly priced sport and sport/dress watches. Examples included Tiffany’s new Atlas watches and Vuarnet’s first two chronometers.

  • Brilliant, colorful dials, most notably deep blue, were evident. From major sports watch vendors to conservative high-end brands, blue was hot. Many others added metallic colors for a gloss seen more often in higher priced lines. Also, the numerals on many new watch faces were slightly larger than in years past.

  • Several companies announced they would enter the U.S. market or enhance their distribution here. Among them were Nina Ricci, Titan, Andr Le Marquand and Kelek.

Automatics & chronographs: Swiss mechanical watch exports increased 8.6% last year, putting hard figures to the notion that new automatic watches are being seen everywhere. The demand for mechanical watches, particularly automatics and automatic chronographs, was apparent at Basel as companies previously known for sport or sport-dress watches introduced them.

Some retailers said the trend was most visible in women’s watches. “Three years ago, other than Blancpain and Rolex, you couldn’t find anything but a quartz watch for ladies,” said Douglas Schubot, owner of Jules R. Schubot, Troy, Mich. “Now we are finding more and more.” (See sidebar on a “Basel Comes to Michigan” promotion Schubot recently ran.)

New automatics seen at Basel:

  • Vuarnet showed its first-ever automatic, the Squaw Valley Automatique. The watch features a steel case, transparent mineral glass back and tritium dial so it can be seen in the dark.

  • TAG Heuer’s first automatic chronograph, part of the Sports Elegance collection. “It rounds out our selection,” said Carol Shainswit, the company’s U.S. marketing director.

  • Ebel launched Sportwave Meridian, an automatic movement with time-zone indicators using the three-letter aeronautical-code abbreviations of 24 major world cities. The case back lists the cities, and the dial is decorated with a world map. Ebel also redesigned its Le Modulor sports automatic chronograph as an official chronometer.

  • Delma’s Rialto Sport line added a new men’s watch in two versions – one automatic, one quartz. The movement in the automatic is visible through the case back. The watch has a two-tone steel case and band (leather band optional).

  • Two new models in Alfred Dunhill’s Londinium Collection are automatics and certified chronometers. One model, the Londinium GMT, features a transparent case back.

Color & cases: U.S. retailers who have the currency exchange rate blues soon may be smiling at sales of watches with blue dials. Trend or fad, dials with brilliant blue, green and even red are generating good sales, according to companies that have already introduced them to U.S. buyers.

TAG Heuer reported success with its blue-dialed watches from the midpriced 1500 Series. The color was doing so well, in fact, the company added blue to its high-end 6000 Series chronometers.

Blue dials also were seen on the Rialto sport watch from Delma, the high-end women’s “superlines” from Concord (coming to U.S. showcases this year) and the opulent San Marco limited-edition platinum watch from Ulysse Nardin. Three of Breitling’s 10 major introductions have blue dials, Rolex’s Tudor Monarch line has several blue-dialed chronographs with contrasting white subdials and an eye-catching Tudor has a blue dial with copper subdials.

MHR of Geneva, Switzerland, created a colorful display with its Red Devil automatic (red from strap to face), a copper-faced chronograph and an automatic watch with rose dial and large black numerals or forest green dial with rich orange numerals. The company’s watches are sold through Asprey stores in the U.S.

Mondaine, maker of the Swiss Railway watch, showed its newest Aragon skindiver watch made with blue or white dial; green, blue or black rotating bezel; and case made of recycled PNP plated brass with a steel back. This model may be available in the U.S. next year.

As already noted, a large number of watches were tonneau shaped. “It’s everywhere,” said Martha Appel, a former New Yorker who is now a watchmaker in Switzerland for IWC. Appel confirmed that automatic chronographs are all the rage – in all price ranges – and said a machine-tooled face like that mastered by Breguet is appearing in a wide variety of lines.

Oris introduced a new automatic regulator as a tonneau (a round version is available) with the center hand showing minutes while subdials show hours and seconds.

In addition, Patek Philippe introduced a full collection of Art Deco-inspired Gondolo watches with tonneau or rectangular cases for men and women. Two of Ebel’s three new Beluga women’s watches are not round. And Raymond Weil’s Fantasia women’s watch combines blue lacquer designs on an oval case with a blue leather strap.

Technology & titanium: Watchmakers were hard at work during the past year. Several major Swiss watch houses introduced intricate handcrafted timepieces as limited editions or as showcases of their expertise. Vacheron Constantin celebrated its 240th anniversary with the limited-edition 240, a refined version of a watch it made in the 1940s that includes a circular calendar and a seconds subdial. It also introduced a limited-edition Mercator with a to-and-fro time display.

Audemars Piguet created the Monnaie, a thin mechanical movement in a rare $20 coin. Daniel Roth’s elaborate front-and-back tourbillon chronometer shows hours, minutes and seconds on the front and has a calendar and power reserve indicator on the back. Gerald Genta celebrated 25 years of watchmaking with its Grande Sonnerie, which it dubbed the world’s most intricate wristwatch. Five years in the making, the eight-sided, 1,000-piece complication uses every timepiece function imaginable.

Girard-Perregaux created a tonneau tourbillon with three gold bridges and a transparent face. Concord created a buzz at the start of the show with its $2 million Saratoga Exor, a single timepiece made of platinum, 118 D-color diamonds and a .50-ct. custom-cut diamond crown.

Not all the work shown at Basel originated in a watchmaker’s tool chest. Numerous high-tech advances developed elsewhere were incorporated into a number of new watch designs. Citizen, for example, launched Eco-Drive, which is powered by solar cells incorporated into the face. The cells convert daylight or artificial light into energy that can be stored for up to 60 days, even in the dark. (If the watch has been stored for a long period in the dark, it can be made fully operational when placed in good light for one minute. If the light is less than favorable, charging will take 15 minutes.) The premier model in the Eco-Drive line is a titanium chronograph.

For the European market, Citizen added to its radio-controlled technology with the new Space Master Chronograph, a radio-controlled watch with chronograph functions in analog display. The watch resets itself once a day using time signals from an atomic clock in Germany. The signals, captured with an antenna in the case, are decoded through a microcomputer in the watch. The watch also offers adjustable local time measure with a separate quartz function that works independently of the radio control. The top models are made with titanium. The watch isn’t made for the U.S. because radio transmission here is so dispersed.

Seiko’s Kinetic has been enhanced thanks to miniaturization technology. The watch is now available in a one-piece case model, eliminating the chance of damage from opening it to change a battery. Seiko also has added liberal use of its LumiBrite on Kinetic models.

And Movado now uses the sun for more than inspiration for its famous Museum Watch. The company’s Sunergy is a solar-powered watch that integrates solar cells into the dial. It’s powered for days with 10 minutes of direct sunlight or 40 minutes of artificial light.

Other attractions: Here are some other highlights from the watch sector of the fair:

  • Mondaine added the Click-Clock line to the Swiss Railway line it already distributes in the U.S. The Danish Click-Clocks are whimsical do-it-yourself kits with 40 pieces the buyer uses to create a custom watch. Expect it in the U.S. this year at $79-$100 retail.

  • Meteorites hit Basel. Two companies displayed watches featuring meteorite slivers on the face. One is the Genuine Meteorite line by Sundancer Jewelry of Albuquerque, N.M., which retails for about $110. The other, made by luxury watchmaker Corum and distributed in the U.S. by North American Watch Corp. of Lyndhurst, N.J., is a limited-edition watch. It retails for $8,500 to $13,900 (platinum) and features an 18k gold flange inscribed with a minute circle that frames a dial carved from a piece of the Agpalilik meteorite that fell on Greenland thousands of years ago. The coordinates of the meteorite’s position are engraved on the back of the solid gold case.

  • Wittnauer of New Rochelle, N.Y., made its Basel debut this year by showcasing its International Collection and ultrathin Wisp models. Wittnauer was located next to Universal Geneve, for which it recently became sole U.S distributor. Wittnauer also distributes Zodiac, a Swiss sports watch also exhibiting at Basel.

  • Andr Le Marquand showed its flagship Meteor Line featuring a patented interchangeable bracelet system. The company, based in Geneva, Switzerland, distributes in the U.S. through its office in Dallas. Hal Wilensky, former Seiko executive vice president, is executive vice president of the company. The line will retail in the U.S. starting at $1,000 in steel, more for gold and jeweled versions. The company also offers a steel diver watch, steel dress watch with automatic movement, a chronometer, the jeweled Ruby line and others.

  • AKTEO is the new name for the watch company featuring watches by French designer J.C. Mareschal. Formerly known as AKTO, the company added an “E” after a small clock manufacturer in Europe named ATO claimed name infringement. Rather than battle in court, AKTO decided to change its name slightly. To announce the change, Mareschal designed a watch with a seconds hand with the letter “E” that ticks into place every minute as it moves around the dial. AKTEO’s U.S. distributor, Raphael Cohen of Universal Watch, Framingham, Mass., said his customers didn’t mind the name change. The company introduced 12 square-cased models called Kubic at Basel, a women’s small size, a watch with two movements (one on each side) and many additions to its colorful designs.

  • Titan International, the London-based office of the India-based conglomerate Tata, entered the European market with 450 watch styles. Its high-end watches (up to about $800 retail) are designed in Switzerland and France and use quartz movements the company makes in India. Most of the watches feature metal and goldplated bracelets or Hirsch sharkskin leather straps and sapphire cases. The company plans to spend $10 million to advertise the brand in Europe this year, about half of its international ad budget. Its entrance into the U.S. market started officially last month in Las Vegas.

  • Seiko’s Lorus brand made its first appearance at Basel with moderately priced designs, including a popular Disney character series and a series of sporty-casual models.

  • At its first Basel show, Surrisi Timepieces of Albuquerque, N.M., drew interest with its limited-edition 18k gold watch designed by Amado Maurilio Pena Jr., an artist known for his portrayals of the Southwest and American Indians. The watches feature an automatic ETA movement visible through the case back and a design by Pena on the dial.

  • From behind the Jeep and in front of the U.S. flag at his booth, John Marshall of EC Pacific, distributor of U.S. Army brand watches, said he opened eight new distributorships in Europe during the Basel fair. His company’s watches are assembled in the Virgin Islands with Swiss ETA movements.

  • Vacheron Constantin celebrated its 240th anniversary with several limited-edition watches, an elaborate dinner for guests and a stern “no” regarding a rumored sale of the Geneva-based firm, the world’s oldest. It also detailed a bolstered advertising program called “Global Communications Concept” that features print ads with larger product pictures, greater body copy and the headline “With a Master’s Touch and the Test of Time.”

BASEL COMES TO MICHIGAN

Douglas Schubot, owner of Jules R. Schubot Jewelers, Troy, Mich., brought home more than watches when he returned from Basel ’95.

He brought a copy of the ticket for the fair to use as an invitation to his store’s first-ever “Basel Comes to Michigan” watch promotion just before Mother’s Day. For the event, Schubot turned his entire showroom into “a watch bazaar.”

In addition to the invitation, he used replicas of the ticket as an entry form for a raffle. During each day of the promotion, a consumer who wrote his or her name on a replica of the ticket was eligible to win a Swiss watch.

In addition, Schobot calls a local radio program from Basel each year and is interviewed as a store promotion. “That’s why I think people here understand what Basel is,” he says, adding that consumer interest in fine watches has been “tremendous.”

UPDATING THE WINNERS

Jewelry manufacturers and designers played it safe at Basel with variations on proven sellers

Basel, Day 1

While traffic seems heavy in the watch pavilions of Basel ’95 – The World Watch, Clock and Jewellery Show – it’s far less so in the jewelry pavilions.

Lingering economic problems throughout much of Europe and unfavorable exchange rates for U.S. buyers create a challenge for vendors. In fact, U.S. buyers used to getting 1.4 or 1.5 Swiss francs to their dollar are greeted rudely with an exchange rate of almost 1:1, taking a bite out of their open-to-buy budgets and making the trip itself more expensive.

And, naturally, it’s raining. This is Basel.

Basel, Day 3

Three days into the fair, traffic is very light. Even without any official attendance figures, it’s easy to see the aisles look like U.S. jewelry shows during the recession of 1990-’91. [While traffic was rumored to be down as much as 20% from 1994, show management later said total attendance was “on a par” with last year’s.]

Wilma Vigano, director of the Platinum Guild International’s Italian office, hasn’t seen any Italian retailers at the fair. She blames the weak lira, which is good for Italian manufacturers who sell to foreign buyers, but very tough on Italian retailers.

German and Swiss manufacturers have a particularly tough time because exchange rates have priced their merchandise out of reach for many buyers.

It’s still raining.

Basel, Day 5

Many people ask me what’s new. I have to answer “not much.” What’s here is elegant, sophisticated and beautifully made – as always. But there are very few new directions in design. Like their U.S. counterparts did five years ago, European manufacturers are playing it safe with designs they know will sell. Most of the favored design advances simply add a twist to a proven seller – be it a touch of texture, a different color, a smaller size.

Agreeing there’s not much new in design are experienced buyers such as Andy Johnson of the Johnson Family Diamond Cellars in Columbus, Ohio; Harold Tivol of Tivol in Kansas City, Mo.; Douglas Schubot of Jules R. Schubot Jewelers in Troy, Mich.; and Joel Goldberg of Joaillier Lou Goldberg in Westmount, Quebec, Canada. Tivol does note some interesting innovation in the very high end market, but not much in pieces under $5,000.

Here’s what I see:

  • An emphasis on three-dimensional design. In chains, handmade ropes and meshes or puffy links are prominent. In pendants, favorite themes include animals, flowers, whimsical motifs and especially puffed hearts.

  • Cutouts, especially on three-dimensional puffed hearts.

  • Greater blurring of cultural lines, especially between German and Italian design, the two biggest contingents at the fair. Typically, Italian design is flowing, soft and rounded; German design tends to be more angular, geometric and technical. But a softening of German design last year continues this year. And many Italian companies offer more metal-intensive looks and clean lines. In addition, French manufacturers – long noted for conservative, classic looks – now offer some bolder designs, often with cabochon-cut stones.

  • Continued interest in tricolor gold and texture. Rose gold is tremendously popular. Dr. Christopher Corti of the World Gold Council says color goes in cycles. “Color cycles are true of all industries: jewelry, automobiles, even bathroom fixtures,” he says, adding that color cycles in jewelry more and more fit those in apparel. He also says new technology, including better control of alloys, allows more vivid colors of gold. “Technology and design go hand in hand,” he says. “They stimulate one another or they restrain one another.”

  • Lighter weights and smaller dimensions to keep down costs without sacrificing design integrity.

  • Interchangeable and convertible designs, especially in rings.

Basel, Day 7

Neither rain nor dampened economies seem to affect the social scene. This show is traditionally the one time of year all the movers and shakers of the European industry get together, and they mean to have a time of it. Receptions and cocktails, dinners and discos, this show offers it all. There’s no lack of champagne and caviar.

Here are some of the highlights planned for today and other times during the fair:

  • A gala dinner by Vacheron Constantin, a traditional cocktail event at the Three Kings Hotel by North American Watch Co., an evening at one of Basel’s history museums by Seiko and a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Tiffany & Co.

  • The Antwerp World Diamond Center hosts a luncheon and a cocktail reception at the Hotel Le Plaza.

  • The Prix Golay Buchel is awarded.

  • The World Gold Council, De Beers and W magazine host a reception at the Kunstmuseum for the American contingent visiting the fair.

  • The new luxury pavilion holds a cocktail reception. The pavilion includes U.S. designers Henry Dunay, Jose Hess and David Yurman, all from New York, and Martin Gruber Designs /Nova Stylings, Van Nuys, Cal.

  • Lapponia Jewelry OY, the Finnish design firm, hosts a dinner and disco party at Jazz Club Atlantis.

  • JCK holds a reception for European buyers who plan to attend the JCK International Jewelry Show in Las Vegas in June. (The Basel Fair management, in turn, hosted a reception at the JCK show.)

Basel, Day 8

It’s time to go home. Everyone’s exhausted, but looking forward to the upcoming U.S. fairs where, they hope, business will be much better for the jewelry sector.

And guess what? The sun came out today!