Basel 99

Ends Century with a Surge

The International Watch, Clock, and Jewelry Show of Basel, Switzerland, ended the century with one of its most successful fairs ever. During its April 29-May 6 run, it hosted some 80,400 visitors, a 5% gain over 1998’s attendance. And there were significantly more Americans, according to post-show reports.

As officials of the Swiss government and Messe Basel (parent firm of the fair) cut the ribbon opening “Basel 99,” a curtain rose over the entry to its huge new Building 1, which was built in only 10 months. Inside was a mini-metropolis of luxurious watch boutiques. Some 200 of the fair’s 578 watch and clock exhibitors spent $135 million to create spectacular new stands, many two or three levels high, within the new hall.

The show’s vendors (2,315 from 40 countries, including 1,303 in jewelry and 434 in related watch and jewelry branches) enjoyed “a great surge in business,” said Jacques Duchene, president of the exhibitors committee.

Action wasn’t limited to the fair’s busy halls. Some top companies—including Tiffany, Bvlgari of Italy, and Clerc watches—exhibited outside the show in Basel’s hotels (see page 74). In addition, world leaders in jewelry, fashion, music, and science headlined many of the events hosted by watch and jewelry firms and groups. They included astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon (Omega); De Beers’ Anthony Oppenheimer (Collection of Collections diamond jewelry exhibit); opera tenor Jose Carreras (Chopard); top model Claudia Schiffer (Bvlgari); and tennis stars Martina Hingis (Tissot) and Michael Stich (Jörg Schauer).

The trickle of prestigious brands leaving the show for their own events in Geneva is tiny but growing. Messe Basel director Michel Mamie notes, however, that “continued participation of most leading brands and the huge investments in their booths is proof they believe in their industry, their products, and the Basel show. So, we aren’t worried about individual defections.” Reports follow on the watch and jewelry exhibits.

Steely ‘Squares,’ Women’s Watches Grab Spotlight

Geometry, steel, and diamonds ruled new watch designs, and there was renewed focus on timepieces for women. Advances in battery-free watches also debuted at the Swiss trade fair. By William George Shuster, Senior Editor

It’s cool to be square—and rectangular, too. That’s the message of Basel 99, where square “tank”-style watches and those with elongated cases, often integrated with bracelets, were everywhere. Angles defined so many Basel debuts that traditional round watches seemed almost out of place.

There’s some nostalgia in this. Many of the timepieces evoke (and sometimes replicate) watches of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. But these sleek and classic models with their stern lines also are well-fitted to the minimalist styling of both serious and fashion-forward new collections. Among many examples were Michel Herbelin’s Kyudo series, Chopard’s La Strada, ESQ’s Venture, Maurice Lacroix’s Migros line, Cyma’s rectangular Imperium collection, Boucheron’s Reflet watches, and the Coach Mercer series.

The ubiquity of angular designs, though, made creative alternatives more apparent. One standout is Rado’s asymmetrical, two-tone black and metallic gray Cerix, whose circle/square case and ergonomic off-center ceramic bracelet is based on the helix spiral. Other eyecatchers include Ebel’s elegant ladies’ Satya, which combines oval and square into a graceful design; Jean d’Eve’s Felina watches, with small square cases rounded like teardrops; and Bvlgari’s 18k elliptical “Ovale” watches.

Traditional round watches were, of course, well-represented. Among many newcomers were Van Cleef & Arpels’ Roma, with large bezel and blue lacquered dial; Mondaine’s minimalist Bally timepiece; and Longines’ sporty Conquest series. Bertolucci, known for soft lines and “pebble” link bracelets, unveiled “Uomo” (pronounced WHOA-mo), a handsome men’s line with sharp features, flatter surfaces, and traditional styling.

Steel’s strength. White metals continued to reign, with stainless steel—in brushed and gleaming finishes—extending its dominance of high-end timepieces, as it has in less-expensive casual, dress, and sport models. Steel watches are now in every major price category as stand-alones or alternatives to gold models.

Watchmakers and retailers appreciate steel’s resemblance to more expensive metals, such as white gold and platinum. Its affordability makes upscale brands more accessible to consumers while reinforcing the watch’s role as fashion accessory. That role is underscored by the growing number of fashion houses and designers adding steel watches. David Yurman, for one, debuted his Thoroughbred collection of Swiss watches (in 18k, steel, and silver).

Expect this flood of steel watches to grow here this year and next. The United States is again the top export market of Swiss and Asian watchmakers, and among new Swiss timepieces, one in every three is steel. (Swiss production of steel watches rose 25% in 1998 but dropped in three categories: gold watches, down 4.2%; gold and steel, down 15.2%; and platinum, down 28%).

But steel isn’t absolute. Many new collections mate it with other materials. Rolex, for example, uses steel and platinum (a combination it calls “Rolesium”) in its new Yacht-Masters, while Guess’s trademarked G3 Steel collection uses steel, titanium, and thermoplastic resin. There is more use, too, of lightweight metals. Titanium is showing up in more watches, including Calvin Klein’s “Icon” chronograph. Bvlgari unveiled watches with aluminum cases, and Universal Genève’s “Senna” watches use steel and carbon fiber. On the heavyweight side, Movado’s new Valor uses tungsten carbide, almost as hard as diamond and with 18k gold’s weight and density.

Color and diamonds. With wide use of steel, titanium, and similar materials, it isn’t surprising that prevailing hues on this year’s watches are gray, black, dark blue, white, and monochromatic tones. (Color, though, still decorates the faces and subdials of a number of sport and fashion watches.)

A counterpoint to steely grays and blacks is wider use of diamonds, including pavé dials and case decorations, and diamond accents on dials and bezels. Delaneu’s “Louka,” set with 2.10 cts. of diamonds on case and attachments, exemplifies the pavé look. Diamond accents are found on Concord’s “Crystale,” whose thin, doubled-tiered case is blocked with north and south bars of diamonds, and on Michel Jordi’s 18k “Sportprestige,” with 12 diamonds on bezel.

Steel and black straps also create some stylish looks: The square case of Raymond Weil’s elegant “Tema” watches is echoed in encircling squares of diamonds on mother-of-pearl dials; Chopard’s white 18k “Ice Cube” has a pavé dial on a black satin strap; and Versace’s distinctive Greek frieze is laser-engraved on the case sides of its new “Fifth.”

Also notable: more all-black watches (a distinct European influence) and scattered use of black rubber straps in mid- and upscale brands (such as Saint-Honoré’s “Speed Boat” line), a style started by Hublot in 1980.

Noteworthy, too, is growing use of new processes that let watchmakers (including Hublot, Cyma, and Raymond Weil) set diamonds in steel, a feat that was impossible until recently. Clerc goes a difficult step further in its “Red, White, and Blue” jewelry watches, using its own patented process to set rubies and sapphires—plus diamonds—in steel.

Features once exclusive to top timepieces, like guilloche dials, stepped cases, deployment buckles, and screwdown crowns, have come into wider use. More collections have interchangeable straps and bracelets, and more cases are curved for wrist comfort. There are also watches for the side of the wrist (for easier reading), such as Hamilton’s “Contour,” a version of its 1930s “Driving” watch; Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Cadenas” jeweled watch (a 1930s update); and André Marquad’s colorful “Sidewatch” for inside the wrist.

Women and fashion. In recent years, watches for women (excluding true jewelry watches) often have been smaller versions of men’s models; sometimes women simply bought the men’s size. Basel 99 changes that. Many brands, including those known for men’s watches, introduced lines designed just for women.

Top luxury brand Patek Philippe, for example, in a bid to become a major player in the ladies’ market, unveiled “Twenty-4,” a steel and diamond update of its classic Gondolo watches. Other new examples are Revue Thommen’s “Airspeed” chronograph and Alfex’s “designer chrono”; Pulsar’s slim solar watches for women; Movado’s “Concerto,” a cuff watch with striated link bracelets; and Hermès’ “Belt,” with interchangeable straps.

Meanwhile, the wristwatch’s role as fashion accessory was spotlighted by edgy, fashion-forward designs. A hot one is Fendi’s Giro, with a red dial in a square reversible case on a black-and-white pony-hair strap. Also popular are watch cases incorporated into the band or bracelet, a motif found in Alfex’s brushed steel “Moments” watches, Nina Ricci’s simple but feminine “N002,” and Fossil’s “Steel Bangles.” Another fashion eyecatcher is Guess’s “Ice” collection, whose patented rhodium PDP coating gives a frosty sheen to the bracelet watches’ pastel dials and self-adjustable “G” links.

The alphabet influences a number of other fashion lines as well, with brand names or initial letters incorporated into attachments and bracelets. Fendi cuts its name into the bracelets of its new Stella line. Tissot’s T Collection and Ebel’s E Type integrate those letters into bracelet links, and a squat H frames Hermès’ Heure H watches.

Multifunctional watches. Basel 99 also saw new designs for multifunction watches, especially chronographs, which are traditionally round, large-faced, and cluttered with subdials. Many new models effectively eschew round for angular styles, producing “square chrono” designs like Hamilton’s updated 1955 model, Raymond Weil’s Giovanni, and Gucci model “7705.” One striking creation is Quadarata, a collectors’ watch in steel or gold by veteran German watchmaker Jorg Schauer.

Minimalism, too, is influencing chrono design. This year’s models are smaller, thinner, and reduced to essentials. When its crown is pressed, Hermès’ new “Espace,” for example, digitally displays any function (date, countdown, second item zone, chronograph, alarm, etc.) on its otherwise black analog dial.

Other multifunctional timepieces making a splash at Basel include Citizen’s new Promaster Navitach, an anadigital watch that is the world’s most advanced racing chronograph, and IWC’s titanium GST Deep One, the first diver’s watch with a mechanical depth gauge, maximum depth indicator, and dive timer.

Although there were few watches specifically for the millennium, visitors to the show saw more perpetual calendars and world timers. Examples include Seiko’s new generation of perpetual calendars, Longines’ Conquest VHP, IWC’s Da Vinci Tourbillon (with a rare three century display), and Tissot’s Navigator, with 24 time zones and 24-hour display.

Battery-Free Technology

Basel 99 marked the debut of some exciting breakthroughs for batteryless watches. One, available in the United States this fall, is Seiko’s Kinetic Auto Relay technology, which stops the watch (saving its energy reserve) when it’s not worn and automatically resets it to the correct time when activated by shakes of the wrist—even after four years of quiescence.

Both Seiko and Citizen unveiled watches powered by thermoelectricity—energy from the 5% difference in temperature between a wearer’s wrist and the surrounding air. Although not expected in the United States soon, they’re on sale in Japan, and Seiko officials call the technology tomorrow’s power source for its watches.

Omega introduced a revolutionary coaxial escapement by English watchmaker George Daniels. It’s one of this century’s major watch inventions and the biggest advance in escapements—the heart of mechanical watch movements—since the lever escapement 250 years ago. The fruit of 20 years of research, it drastically cuts friction in a movement, boosting precision and cutting service requirements to every 10 to 15 years, instead of three to five.

Also noteworthy: ETA’s batteryless Autoquartz movement, which combines quartz precision with mechanical reliability (users include Cyma’s Imperium watches); Casio’s new watch with a satellite-controlled system to pinpoint a wearer’s position anywhere on earth; and Ronda’s quartz movements with big date displays, a nod to Baby Boomers’ aging eyes.

Moonmen & Millennia

Basel is always a cornucopia of watch news. Here are this year’s highlights:

  • Jaeger le Coultre’s “Reverso Gran Sport” was named 1999 watch of the year by international weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag and watch magazine Armbanduhren. The company’s “Reverso Geographique” was named best mechanical movement of 1999 by watch magazine Orologi da Polso and its International Wristwatch editions in England, the United States, France, Japan, China, and Portugal.

  • The best electronic watches for 1999, according to Orologi da Polso and its International Wristwatch editions, are, in order, Omega’s Speedmaster Professional X-33, Seiko’s Kinetic Chronograph, and Breitling’s B-1.

  • The “Atmos du Millénaire Atlantis” mechanical clock, also by Jaeger le Coultre, is a technical masterpiece that will run until 3000 without rewinding. Only 50 will be produced annually.

  • Astronaut Gene Cernan, last man on the moon, donated the Omega Speedmaster he wore on his space walk and two historic moon trips to Omega’s museum in Geneva, Switzerland.

  • Boucheron, the Parisian jeweler that made the first jewelry wristwatches for women in 1890, is bringing its elegant timepieces to the United States this year.

  • Several brands announced major new U.S. ad campaigns to support new watches or strengthen image, including Patek Philippe, Bertolucci, Tissot, Longines, and Raymond Weil.

  • Exquisite examples of the watchmaker’s and the jeweler’s arts in De Beers’ “Collection of Collections” (see p. 78) included Concord’s white 18k “La Scale Grade Universal,” glittering with 196 invisibly set princess-cut baguettes and 292 brilliant-cut diamonds; Universal Genève’s platinum “Eternelle,” with 12.7 cts. of baguette diamonds, 22.11 cts. of full-cut diamonds, and 0.44 cts. of yellow diamonds; and Harry Winston’s platinum “Sunflower,” with 120 canary diamonds, each .03 ct., on the dial and 225 white and canary diamonds totaling 58 cts. on the bracelet.

  • Kern, a German firm, displayed one of the most unusual products at the show: falcon watches. Made for the Arabian market, each watch face comprises a portion of a tail feather laser-cut from a falcon. The wholesale price: $6,000 to $17,000.

  • Also unusual was an exhibit at the Reuge Music booth of antique erotic watches. Made by Blancpain, the watches were stolen in 1994 from a Munich museum. They were recovered in 1998 and are now for sale.

Basel’s Collectibles

The Basel fair is always a collector’s delight. Among this year’s offerings:

  • Omega (official watch of the U.S. space program) celebrates the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing with the Speedmaster Professional Apollo 11 chronograph. Engraved on its case back are Apollo 11’s insignia, Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon, and the date and time of man’s first steps on the moon. Limit: 9,999.

  • The St. Petersburg Collection of handmade 18k and platinum Swiss watches designed by Theo Fabergé, grandson of the great Russian jeweler Carl Fabergé, uses a specially created egg-shaped movement. Limit: 12 styles, four of 250 each and eight of 25 each.

  • Gübelin Horologerie unveiled two 18k handmade masterpieces: Sunspot Clock, a perpetual calendar, has most functions (minutes, 12 and 24 hours, day of the week, sun symbols, date, month, leap year, and sunspot cycle) in the center; on the Icarus watch, Icarus’ wings point to the hours (on left) and minutes (right). Limit: seven each.

  • Concord’s platinum “Impresario Maestro” has a perpetual calendar, chronograph, and tourbillon with minute repeater on black crocodile strap. Limit: one.

  • Montega Genève’s R9 mechanical chronograph, named for Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo and his team number, is the firm’s entry into upscale watches. Limit: 199 in platinum, 1,999 in gold, and 19,999 in steel.

  • IWC’s Da Vinci tourbillon puts a flying tourbillon, chronograph movement, and perpetual calendar with rare three-century year display into a Da Vinci gold or platinum case. Limit: 250, plus 20 with solid gold, hand-engraved dials.

Watch Time in Switzerland

Springtime has become watch show time in Switzerland. While the Basel fair is the largest and best known, a small but growing number of high-end brands—mostly former Basel exhibitors—now hold events in Geneva around the time of the Basel show. Here are two:

  • The nine-year-old Salon International de la Haute Horologerie (SIHH), started by Cartier, this year showcased 17 brands—including Audemars Piguet, Baume & Mercier, Breguet, Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Gérald Genta, Girard Perregaux, Montblanc, Piaget, Daniel Roth, and Vacheron Constantin—which represent 25% of business in top-end Swiss watches.

Attendance was up 10%, to more than 5,000 visitors (distributors, retailers, importers, and journalists), one in six from the Americas. Special events included SIHH’s donation of 100,000 Swiss francs (about $72,000) to the Red Cross for Balkan War refugees.

Steel watches dominated SIHH as they did Basel 99. Debuts included Cartier’s all-steel “Panthère Ruban” bracelet watches with mother-of-pearl dials, Breguet’s curved tonneau 18k “Héritage” chronograph, and Gérald Genta’s “Backtimer,” programmed to count down to Dec. 31, 1999.

  • The World Presentation of Haute Horologerie was started in 1998 by luxury watchmaker Franck Muller. Some 3,000 visitors, including Swiss and Geneva government officials, attended. Highlights included Muller’s sporty “Transatlantica” line and “2000 Limited Edition Grande Date Cintrée Curvex.” There was also a groundbreaking ceremony for Muller’s “Watchland” project—watch workshops open to the public.

Jewelry at Basel: Nothing Really New, But It Didn’t Matter

Watches may have had the most spectacular displays at Basel, but much of the giant show was actually given over to aisle after aisle of dazzling jewelry. While no hot new trends were evident, there was plenty to attract American buyers.

By Hedda T. Schupak, Senior Editor

Jewelers who went to Basel to restock their inventories with pretty, saleable jewelry in popular designs had a tremendous bounty from which to choose. Similarly, jewelers who were a little anxious when they first bought heavily into pearls, diamond pavé, or white, lacy looks were relieved to see they were right on target and that all are still in vogue. But retailers who went to Basel in hopes of previewing The Next Big Trend returned home disappointed. (Watches were an exception; see our report on page 67.)

“Did you see anything new?” was a familiar refrain in the conversations of many American buyers attending the the 1999 World Watch, Clock, and Jewelry Fair. “I’ll usually never say there’s nothing new. I can almost always find something that’s new, but this year, there’s really nothing!” said Helene Fortunoff of the New York chain of the same name. Andy Johnson of the Johnson Family Diamond Cellar in Columbus, Ohio, echoed Fortunoff’s sentiments, summing up his search with one sentence: “Everything I bought last year is fine!” He did note a pleasing drop in prices for both big yellow diamonds and South Seas pearls, but as a result warns jewelers who currently have large inventories of these categories to try to turn them faster.

While certainly individual companies exhibiting in Basel did introduce new pieces or new collections, these tended to be largely based on evolutions of past themes. For example, the white metal/colored gemstone trend was one of the major looks at the fair, but the newest interpretations have square gemstones in square bezels instead of round.

Evolution is not necessarily a bad thing, however. Darrell Ross, president of both the Ross-Simons catalog and of Geary’s of Beverly Hills, noticed the progression of the popular microwire looks from styles with one charm element to styles with three. He also observed that the popularity of pink in apparel design has been reflected in jewelry, and he thinks it could be a strong seller.

Some product introductions of note included the debut of David Yurman’s new Thoroughbred luxury watch collection. Yurman previously offered a few timepieces as part of his cable jewelry collection, but the Thoroughbred line is a separate product group. Designer Henry Dunay introduced a collection of jewelry using the Perle Utopia branded South Seas pearls. The branded pearls were introduced in Europe last year, but Dunay is the first American to use them in a jewelry collection.

Other European brands that in Basel announced plans to either enter or increase their presence in the American market included:

  • Boucheron, the luxury jeweler based on Place Vendôme in Paris, which plans to distribute a line of watches through a select network of 20 to 30 top American jewelers. The collection will retail from $1,800 to $35,000.

  • Carrera y Carrera, one of Spain’s leading luxury jewelry manufacturers, is on an aggressive growth track. Earlier this year, two investor groups purchased 85% of the firm from Carrera family members. Manuel Carrera remains as co-president, with Louis Urvois, formerly a managing director at cosmetics conglomerate Estée Lauder, and also of the Spanish luxury leather-goods company Loewe.

Carrera y Carrera’s goal is to double its current $22 million in annual sales. It plans to debut two new product lines each year, the first of which were the new Milenio and Noe diamond and gold jewelry collections introduced at the fair. These marked the firm’s first foray into white gold, as its signature style is sensual designs in 18k yellow gold. The Milenio and Noe collections follow the general Carrera look but are “designed to appeal to a larger market, to women familiar with fashion trends,” explained new general manager Maria Girón. The firm also announced plans to open at least five new shops by 2005. Two are planned for the United States, in New York and Los Angeles.

  • Hermès, the Paris-based luxury retailer best known for its leather goods and accessories, is actively expanding its watch business in the United States and worldwide. Watches currently account for 10% of Hermès’ business; the firm wants to boost that figure to 25%. The firm currently sells its watches in the United States through 15 Hermès boutiques, Hermès corners in Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus stores, and a network of 50 fine jewelers. The firm’s plans are to increase its jeweler network to 125, still keeping one per market.

Low-grade fever. Millennium fever was surprisingly low-key in Basel. Many companies featured some variety of commemorative jewelry, ranging from a single engraved ring to an entire collection, but apart from De Beers’ aggressive Millennium Diamond promotion and its diamond jewelry Collection of Collections (see p. 78), relatively few latched onto the turn of the century as a major promotion. Still, the event will hardly pass unnoticed in jewelry circles. Elke Barnhofer of the Platinum Guild International’s German office says jewelers in Europe expect about a 15% increase in weddings during the year 2000. PGI Germany is running a special campaign to highlight platinum wedding rings, featuring such manufacturers as Johann Kaiser, Christian Bauer, and Neissing, among others who’ve created millennium-dated wedding bands.

Europeans may not be overly busy chasing millennium memorabilia, but they are busy keeping a close eye on the fighting in Kosovo. PGI’s Barnhofer says, “Lots of people are anxious. The war is only one hour away by plane, and the German people are anxious that it could come to them.” However, Kosovo hasn’t yet affected consumer spending there, she says.

It’s quite a different story in Italy, according to Kathy Stocco of the Gemological Institute of America’s office in Vicenza. Stocco’s husband, Fred, is GIA’s European director.

“It’s been terrible for the Italian economy. There is no overland access to factories [some companies have] built in Eastern Europe. Couriers such as DHL that used Belgrade as a main depot for Eastern Europe are trying to move their distribution centers, even temporarily. It’s also affected tourism; lots of people have canceled vacations and cruises along the Adriatic coast.”

Stocco says GIA went to Belgrade just last year. It’s been very interested in jewelry developments in Eastern Europe, but she thinks the war will have a devastating effect on the fledgling industry.

“You’ve had 50 years of communism, and [the people] were just starting to really build a jewelry business before this.”

De Beers Debuts Collection of Collections

Opera star Fiorenza Cedolins, known as the “Diamond Diva” for the clarity and warmth of her voice, unveiled the De Beers Collection of Collections, a group of 40 special watch and jewelry designs to celebrate the coming of the new millennium. The singer performed three numbers for an audience of journalists and retailers gathered to view this spectacular collection, brought together for one day only during the Basel Fair.

De Beers, which has been aggressively promoting the idea of buying a diamond to mark the millennium, used this gala presentation to remind jewelers of the tremendous sales opportunities afforded by the big calendar change.

Anthony Oppenheimer, director of De Beers and president of the Central Selling Organisation, said, “We estimate there will be 28 million marriages, 69 million births, and 880 million anniversaries in the year 2000, not to mention informal commemorative occasions. Only a diamond creates the symbolic and emotional link between past, present, and future that matches the importance of this unique moment in time.”

Style That Sells

White has gone beyond the bounds of trend and is fast approaching status as a new jewelry wardrobe basic. Here is a recap of the popular looks at Basel that remain strong for 1999:

  • White metal paired with diamonds, pearls, or—newest—colored gemstones. Of particular note are the mixture of warm tones like citrine with cool white metal.

  • Pearls of all varieties and colors.

  • Delicate, lacy, feminine styles of jewelry, many with drop elements or briolette-cut gemstones.

  • Nature motifs.

  • Square shapes.

  • Microwire necklaces.

  • Signs of a gradual resurgence of yellow gold.

  • Jewelry companies introducing watches.

  • Continuation of Edwardian, art deco, and art nouveau influences.

  • A JCK hint: The next period to inspire jewelry designers may be the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Demand for vintage apparel and furniture from these periods has soared. Those who can’t hunt out (or afford) the genuine article head to stores like Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn for reproductions of everything from classic Americana to 1950s Danish Modern. For those handy with a needle, Vogue Patterns has reissued many of its original patterns from the 1940s. On the jewelry side, pins, which have been languishing in the dusty back of many jewelers’ safes, are beginning to catch on again, and a few popular jewelry motifs of the period, such as bows and ribbons, were spotted in Basel.

Why? Baby Boomer nostalgia is big business. Quite simply, this is what the postwar generation grew up with—it’s what Mom and Dad had in the living room.