Baselworld Mirrors Changing Landscape of Watches Sector


Robb Young | March 29, 2011

Our bi-weekly analysis of the must-read luxury news headlines

Hermès unveiled the Arceau Le Temps suspend (left) and Louis Vuitton launched the Voyagez Tambour automatic chronograph (right)

For the past week, the movers and shakers of the watch and jewellery sectors have been in Basel, Switzerland for the expo that seems to somehow cater to their virtual every whim. As reported in our exclusive interview last week with the event’s managing director Sylvie Ritter, Baselworld is getting bigger and bolder each year while its exhibitors and attendees keep pushing it to be more imaginative and cosmopolitan. In part, it’s in response to the many rapid changes that have been taking place over the past few years in what is one of the most rarefied worlds of the luxury industry.

For one, a number of powerful global fashion brands have been steadily getting in on the action as evidenced by this year’s debut of Louis Vuitton at Baselworld. The Financial Times featured a rather interesting interview with the brand’s director of watches and jewellery, Hamdi Chatti, who alluded to continued heavy investment in the division that has been around for just a decade.

“ Fashion brands like Louis Vuitton still struggle to be taken seriously by some clients who buy exclusively from specialist watchmakers with much longer legacies. ”

Apparently, despite a celebrated atelier in La Chaux-de-Fonds, 20 jewellery craftsmen in Paris and the design services of Lorenz Bäumer, brands like Louis Vuitton still struggle to be taken seriously by some clients who buy exclusively from specialist watchmakers with much longer legacies.

The author reported that Chatti wanted to be officially part of Baselword but somehow be off-site, which meant long negotiations with the organisers. “The Louis Vuitton boat floated into town, to a smart mooring outside Basel’s chic Trois Rois hotel, giving the company its first presence at the world’s premier watch fair,” wrote Avril Groom, from the expo.

“Hence the apparently whimsical notion to refit a traditional Rhine cruise boat in Vuitton style for three days to show its new models at a watch fair aimed mostly at retailers, even though Vuitton sells entirely through its own stores and does not wholesale at all.”

Last year’s centenary watch by Ermenegildo Zegna and Girard-Perregaux (above) has spawned a mini-series of limited editions for particular country markets

Another report in the FT profiled Zegna’s strategy to diversify further into watches after its foray last year marking the company’s 100th anniversary through a joint-venture with Girard-Perregaux. “The collaboration between the two companies has led to two further sets of limited-edition watches this year celebrating Ermenegildo Zegna’s 20th anniversary in both China and Turkey,” wrote the author

“The chronograph watch has a “20 China Anniversary” logo on the back and has an 18-carat, 40mm diameter, pink gold case with a brown alligator wrist band. Only 20 pieces will be produced and distributed in 10 selected Greater China Zegna stores. It will cost Rmb350,000 ($53,365). The Turkey edition of the chronograph watch comes with an 18 carat gold case and alligator wristband and will be sold in Zegna’s Istanbul stores.”

The new Dior VIII model

Another facet of the changing the landscape of the watches and jewellery sector (which is also neatly mirrored in the exhibition halls of Baselworld) is that a small number of increasingly powerful top-tier brands are taking up an ever greater share of the market, squeezing out new brands and start-ups in the process

Ken Kessler of the Wall Street Journal devoted a piece to this very topic a few days ago. “Any brand that can even entertain challenging the first-rank manufacturers will still have pockets deep enough to find a large stand in one of the four other halls. But what happens to the small or medium-sized companies, or the brand-new names eager to make an impression?” he asked.

One answer, it would seem is to simply fight their way up the ladder. "Milan’s Grimoldi, for example, began with a small booth in Hall 4, eventually moving to the more expansive Hall 2….Grimoldi feels it can shine in Hall 2 without being overshadowed by a plethora of other watch brands. The smallest brands can join together under a collective umbrella, such as the Académie Horlogère Des Créateurs Indépendants… In the past it has served as the launch pad for Kari Voutilainen, Peter Speake-Marin, Thomas Prescher and many others who are now counted among the masters of their field.”

However, despite all the challenges faced by smaller niche players, not everyone is as worried as Kessler. In its special report on timepieces, the International Herald Tribune took a contrary view, suggesting that in such a “huge market” there is indeed space for “new players”. In one piece, authors profiled the Hong Kong brand called Chinese Timekeeper as an example and in another the firm Pita Barcelona which has only been around for six years but enjoys both critical acclaim and financial success.

Jewellery | Watches