Welcome to Baselworld, the most important annual fair for the luxury watch industry held each March in Basel, Switzerland. It's like the Cannes Film Festival for chronographs, where huge brands meet for the unveiling of intricate 'novelties' – headline-grabbing timepiece to be released in the year ahead – and do serious business with international watch retailers and commentators.
The main hall is like the Birdcage at the Melbourne Cup meets an airport shopping centre, with enormous temporary activations – or 'booths' – erected for each brand.
Luxury powerhouse LVMH is at the top of the track, with TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith the first addresses on the main thoroughfare, followed by Rolex and Tudor, Patek Philippe, Blancpain, Omega and Longines. Further back, there is a maze of shimmering structures carefully reflecting a brand's DNA: Breitling's booth is the picture of masculine cool in marble, wood and steel, while Chanel glimmers like a lacquered black jewellery box.
It's a who's who of wildly expensive watch makers, but there are several players missing from luxury group Richemont, which holds its own rival fair, SIHH, in Geneva each January proffering Cartier, IWC, Panerai and more.
"There is a split between Geneva and Basel, in the beginning everything was together," says Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe. This is his 23rd Baselworld. "I don't think [the fair] has changed enough. That's the problem of Baselworld: they should do more. Give more access to the public for instance, it needs to be more accessible … The challenge is to maintain the excitement."
The norm is boring … Personalisation is a cornerstone of the future of watchmaking.George Bamford
Fairfax watch editor Bani McSpedden agress the fair has its flaws. "The tease of the giant Baselworld fair is that despite the attendance of some 650 brands it's the last place in the world to buy a watch," he says. "Yes, attending distributors and retailers can order them for delivery in the coming months, but nothing is available for a visitor to purchase. Given there are more than 100,000 watch lovers passing through the fair's doors, this must be a giant missed opportunity."
The word is that SIHH has the edge with a more glamorous, less trade-focused event. This year, Baselworld lost around half of its exhibitors – 700 compared to 1300 in 2017 – and reduced the duration by two days. Nonetheless, while overall watch sales fell last year, more expensive watches are on the up. Swiss watch exports increased 12.8 per cent in the first two months of the year, with the Chinese market rising around 30 per cent.
"The Chinese are the biggest luxury consumers in the world by far, not only in watches but in other products," says Guadalupe. "For Hublot there's been maybe a 40 or 50 per cent growth in the business [in Asia], which is eight per cent of our total business."
Leave it to Biver
Hublot is arguably one of the most disruptive brands in Swiss watchmaking, and has been an agitator for over 30 years, says LVMH's watch and jewellery CEO, Jean-Claude Biver. Mr Biver is a legend at Baselworld, like the Richard Branson of the watch business. The ex-hippy reinvented Hublot, then was handed the keys to TAG Heuer and Zenith, where he has made massive inroads in recent years.
"I believe very much in disruption, it's always part of the future," Mr Biver tells Executive Style. "When a new generation comes, they always disrupt the old one. The hippies disrupted the old generation, the rappers have disrupted the music, street painters have disrupted impressionists. Every new generation brings a disruption, and that's how they go into the future. It doesn't mean that the past will not remain, the past keeps its value. But disruption is the only way to move to the future."
At a press conference inside TAG Heuer's impressive booth, which has been ruptured down the middle as if by an earthquake to reflect the brand's catch phrase #dontcrackunderpressure, Biver spontaneously bursts into a rendition of the Beatles' Yesterday. He is 'yesterday', he says, while young people are the future. "If I was 20 years old I would not need to work with young people," he says. "Because I am 69, I need to learn. I cannot be onto the trends like the young. They are doing the trends, I am watching the trends."
This is no doubt why Mr Biver secured the services of the young-ish George Bamford, arch disruptor of the modern watch industry. The story goes that the 36-year-old Brit was given a Rolex by his father for his 16th birthday – his father happens to be billionaire Sir Anthony Bamford – but was dismayed to find his school friends already had the exact same watch. A desire for difference spawned his own enterprise, Bamford Watch Department, which customises high end timepieces with one-of-a-kind materials, from glowing numbers to engraved bracelets.
"People were mad at him because he was painting steel in black. But that's wrong with that?" says Mr Biver. "He is born as a disruptor, and he has been the enemy. People say 'oh we don't like him, he is changing my watch'. So what? It's like painting a car in military green. Maybe the brands say that is not their colour, but if the the customer wants this colour, you don't fight it."
Bamford has collaborated with TAG Heuer for a limited edition Monaco customised with carbon fibre case, a full black dial and aqua blue chronometers, limited to only 500 pieces priced at a $10,600.
It's a dream come true for Bamford, who grew up wearing the brand on his wrist. "My first ever watch was a cheap Formula 1 with a plastic bezel and a luminous dial," he says. "I used to love how that luminous dial worked at night, it just exploded. I thought 'this is cool', but I feel very sad about it now because I gave it to my ex-girlfriend and I've been trying to get it back ever since."
Feeding the frenzy
The charismatic Bamford is spearheading a new appetite for customised luxury, where individuality is key – something many brands don't appreciate as much as TAG Heuer (Rolex reportedly blacklisted him). "You have to always disrupt to make something different, to make something exciting," Bamford says. "I used to hate the word disruption but now I think of it as changing the norm, and the norm is becoming a bit more like George Orwell's 1984. The norm is becoming very normal. We're becoming clones."
Bamford is astonished at how technology has changed the way we consume luxury. "A lot of people are becoming very knowledgeable in a very short period of time," he says. "I think personalisation and disruption is a big part of that … Personalisation is a cornerstone of the future of watchmaking and making the customer right is going to be the key."
Hublot boss Guadalupe agrees that individuality is paramount when his customers are willing to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a watch. "The round watch with two hands has less of a future for me," he says. "I believe you must have a piece of art on your wrist, it must be a spectacle. There must be a show on your wrist."
The art of time
Guadalupe enlisted French artist Richard Orlinsky to create a series of watches. The bestselling French sculptor and musician was in Basel promoting his Classic Fusion Aerofusion Chronograph, limited to 400 pieces and selling for $48,800 in gold or $24,300 in black ceramic.
Orlinsky insists his creation is about far more than telling the time. "You can see the hour on your phone," he says. "But this is the only jewellery a man can wear, generally speaking. We have no jewellery for men in the mainstream, we only have the watch, so it's a very important piece."
He gazes at the intricate timepiece on his writes.
"I didn't want to do a watch, I wanted to do a sculpture which reflects something of my work," he explains. "The watch business is really like the art business."
The writer travelled to Basel with assistance from LVMH.