Geneva Watch Events Are Mushrooming

A fascinating fact about Swiss-watch trade shows—besides their timepieces—is that they are growing in number in Geneva, making it increasingly an international showcase for very high-end watches.

More watch brands, primarily luxury ones, are holding small shows or events in spring at the same time as, but independent from, BaselWorld (the globe’s biggest watch trade show) in Basel, Switzerland, and Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the well-known luxury-watch fair in Geneva.

“This inflation of shows is difficult to understand,” Sylvia Ritter, BaselWorld show director, told JCK. “It’s not customer-friendly to force buyers and visitors to run around the country in such a short time.” However, she said the parallel events “didn’t really affect us, because they’re in Geneva, not Basel.”

SIHH management has mixed feelings about the situation. “The multiplication of such initiatives raises a number of questions,” said Franco Cologni, chairman of the SIHH supervisory board. While it won’t “deny [their] right to exist,” he said at SIHH’s opening ceremony in April, he seemed to resent their encroachment. “We invented this vision of fine watches and gave it a unique form in this city,” he said of SIHH’s organizers. “We have created and developed [it]—and, incidentally, have protected it by law and will defend its intellectual property rights.”

Anne Biéler, SIHH spokesperson, was more upbeat. SIHH, now in its 15th year and in new, larger quarters in Geneva’s PALEXPO convention center, “has had some success in attracting professional visitors and media to Geneva, and that apparently has given the same idea to other brands,” she told JCK.

Organizers of the more recent events cite dissatisfaction with the two better-known fairs (including no room for new exhibitors) as well as good timing as their raisons d’être.

For U.S. fine-watch retailers, though, more Swiss-watch events at the same time and place offer more opportunities to find new or unique high-end watches to sell in the lucrative U.S. luxury market and to set themselves apart from competitors. The watch companies, especially smaller ones, want that, too. As one Geneva-watch-event spokesperson told JCK, “We’re all looking for exclusive retail clients around the world.”

Riding Coattails. BaselWorld—the oldest, biggest and best-known international trade fair for watches from mass market to luxury price—is held eight days each spring (March 31–April 7 this year), attracting almost 90,000 visitors and hundreds of journalists. Working closely with Basel city and hotel authorities, BaselWorld and its exhibitor groups have successfully blocked any similar, simultaneous shows in the Rhine river city. While a few brands do exhibit individually in Basel during BaselWorld (such as this year’s new luxury brands Jean Dunand and Enila in nearby hotels, or luxury brand De Bethune on a Rhine cruise ship), BaselWorld is basically free of competition from rival trade events.

Still, BaselWorld and its exhibitors “don’t appreciate” the growing number of same-time events in Geneva, Ritter told JCK. “They’re benefiting from our worldwide marketing efforts and those of our exhibitors to bring people here at this time.”

That, of course, is the idea. Other watch fairs ride Basel’s coattails by operating in the same time period. SIHH began it in 1990, when Cartier (now owned by Richemont) left Basel to start its own luxury-watch show in Geneva, overlapping Basel. (Most of SIHH’s 16 exhibitors are Richemont-owned.)

“The concomitant dates allow visitors to go from Basel to Geneva,” says Biéler. “It’s in the interest of both cities to take advantage of a large international professional audience, and a real benefit for the watch industry, with no negative influence on participation of clients and media in either important event.”

Eight years ago, innovative luxury brand Franck Muller Geneve began its annual World Presentation of Haute Horlogerie at its Genthold headquarters near Geneva, during the same week as SIHH, to promote its high-end watches (including Pierre Kunz, European Company Watch, and the newly acquired Rodolphe and Alexis Barthelay brands). Three years ago, high-end watchmaker F.P. Journe began holding annual expositions of his watches, coinciding with SIHH.

Gaining Velocity. This year, the ball really got rolling. In addition to the other events, Geneva saw:

  • The debut of Time Evolution, an eight-day show of 11 mid- and high-end brands of small firms, nine from Geneva;

  • A new joint presentation by Geneva luxury watchmaker Antoine Preziuso and Tiret New York, a young U.S. luxury watch (2003), including Tiret’s $350,000 limited-edition tourbillon (only four), with movement created by Preziuso;

  • Invitation-only, weeklong “salons” for Bovet, Michel Jordi, and Delaneau;

  • The launch of several new luxury brands at various locations in Geneva. They included HD3, from three designers, including well-known watch designer Jorg Hysek; Jean Dunand, named for a famous Swiss art-deco designer; and Cvstos, presented by Sassoun Sirmakes (son of Franck Muller Group CEO Vartan Sirmakes) and designer Antonio Terranova (who has worked for Cartier, Piaget, TAG Heuer, and Zenith). Cvstos’s U.S. distributor, Hratch Kaprielian, also handles Franck Muller.

Why are there evermore watch events in Geneva aimed at fine retailers, independent of SIHH, all at the same time? One reason is locale: Geneva is a traditional center of Swiss luxury watchmaking. “It’s the perfect place to launch and present prestigious models and one-of-a-kind watches,” says Sonya Goldberg, Tiret’s director of marketing. “Basel is more of a trade fair. In Geneva, we can cater to the exclusive buyers and luxury press.”

Adds Biéler, “Geneva has developed in recent years a significant role in welcoming congresses and exhibitions, and it’s becoming a more important place for the watch industry.”

Another reason is space—BaselWorld and SIHH, despite recent renovations, don’t have room for new exhibitors, say its spokespersons. Timing and visibility count, too. “It’s natural to hold these when SIHH happens, because SIHH brings all these visitors and journalists from around the world to Geneva,” says Christine Johner, who with her husband, watchmaker and jeweler Cédric Johner, helped organize Time Evolution.

‘Small’ Discontent. However, another reason is some watchmakers’ discontent with SIHH and BaselWorld. SIHH is “too expensive for smaller brands, and not really open to them,” says Johner, while “Basel doesn’t seem to want small watch companies.” She contends BaselWorld now focuses on well-known watch and jewelry brands and groups with large marketing budgets—”like SIHH does”—and less on smaller ones. Her husband’s company (Cédric Johner Geneve, which crafts 300 luxury watches annually) was in BaselWorld’s prestigious Watch Hall 1.1, but told last year to relocate back to Watch Hall 5 with other small luxury brands. “We were there seven years, and didn’t want to move, so we left,” she says.

Ritter has had similar complaints from other small watchmakers but says, “They didn’t understand our marketing strategy. Buyers want to compare similar products, and to do that, we had to regroup those in the same categories, but in different sectors, into the same areas.”

Cédric Johner Geneve originally planned a solo Geneva exposition, until “we discovered other small brands really needed a show, too,” says Christine Johner. They soon had more applicants than space. Those that got into Time Evolution included established brands like Cédric Johner or Oliver Roux (which also left Basel), new ones like Burgond or Jean-Pierre Lépine, and at least one (Waltham) also exhibiting in BaselWorld.

Time Evolution’s organizers will do it again next year, at the same time as SIHH and Basel, but in larger quarters and with up to five additional exhibitors. That would make it as big as SIHH.