A cham­pagne-soaked week­end at the world’s big­gest watch fair

Sharp - - SHARP WATCH - By Jeremy Freed

THE CHOPPERS AP­PEAR, thun­der­ing to­ward us out of the night sky and stop, hov­er­ing in front of the win­dows, spot­lights ablaze. Sud­denly an or­ange Lam­borgh­ini Hu­racán con­vert­ible screeches out of nowhere across the fore­ground. The driver is a man in black-tie; his pas­sen­ger, a stat­uesque blonde. A cur­tain rises and two more cars ap­pear on a stage nearby as Tom Jones’s “She’s a Lady” be­gins to play. En­ter a quar­tet of women in jump­suits who gy­rate to a loosely chore­ographed dance rou­tine while strip­ping down to shiny biki­nis.

It’s 8 p.m., and the pageantry is still in its early stages. At this point in the evening, I have al­ready watched a Gypsy Kings cover band, the Macarena, and fla­menco dancers. In an hour, the whole place will turn into a disco where hun­dreds of jewellers and watch ex­ec­u­tives will dance into the wee hours. If you’re won­der­ing what any of this has to do with watches the an­swer is noth­ing — and also ev­ery­thing.

Ev­ery year in March, the watch in­dus­try con­verges on a small Swiss city oth­er­wise known for its mu­se­ums and uni­ver­si­ties to com­pete for the at­ten­tion of thou­sands of buy­ers, col­lec­tors, and re­porters. It’s a trade show of sorts, but the scale of it is al­most unimag­in­able — 1,500 booths spread across 12 halls, at­tract­ing some 145,000 peo­ple from across the globe. The fair guide is a glossy 500-page tome, and there are two sep­a­rate smart­phone apps ded­i­cated just to nav­i­gat­ing it all. Gift bags over­flow with branded Swiss choco­lates and com­mem­o­ra­tive tchotchkes. In its 100th year, Basel­world — once a place where watch com­pa­nies gath­ered to sim­ply show off their wares — has be­come part won­der­land, part mar­ket­ing bat­tle­ground.

Swiss watches are fac­ing a chal­lenge right now, thanks in part to com­pa­nies like Ap­ple and Fit­bit, com­pa­nies that be­lieve watches should be more than just jew­ellery that tells time. It’s never been more im­por­tant for the watch in­dus­try to demon­strate that lux­ury, ex­clu­siv­ity, and pre­ci­sion re­main as valu­able as ever in the age of ac­tiv­ity track­ers and speech-to-text. Basel­world has be­come the stage on which to do this.

Rolex, in char­ac­ter­is­tic fash­ion, launches its new Deep Sea dive watch in a pri­vate villa, com­plete with a harpist and lob­ster canapés. Hublot en­lists Depeche Mode to fete their re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tion with the brand by de­liv­er­ing an in­ti­mate per­for­mance. And Bre­itling, for its part, or­ga­nized those he­li­copter the­atrics and dancers — ul­ti­mately just two mi­nor as­pects of a party ru­moured to cost a mil­lion dol­lars a night.

Were you to ar­rive at the gates of Basel­world know­ing noth­ing about the hi­er­ar­chy of the watch world, your con­fu­sion wouldn’t last long: the big­ger, more or­nate and more im­me­di­ate a booth, the higher its brand’s po­si­tion in the in­dus­try’s peck­ing or­der. Patek Philippe’s glow­ing glass box, for in­stance, is a short dis­tance from the en­trance, all pale in­di­rect light­ing and cool sur­faces. TAG Heuer decked out their nearby in­stal­la­tion with VR race car sim­u­la­tors, then flew in Pa­trick Dempsey to draw a crowd of his own. Rolex’s booth (across the aisle from Patek) had the feel of a high-end Lon­don ho­tel, with

plush car­pet­ing, dark wood, and a full-ser­vice restau­rant. Bre­itling’s booth, in the mid­dle of the main hall, had four sto­ries, a bar staffed by white-jack­eted bar­tenders, and a 16-tonne tank filled with 400 live jel­ly­fish.

There are booths with foun­tains and booths with casi­nos, mas­sive shim­mer­ing chan­de­liers, and a sul­tan’s wed­ding’s worth of flow­ers in bou­quets. The fur­ther you de­scend into the depths of the Basel Congress Cen­ter, how­ever, the less im­pres­sive the dis­plays be­come, un­til, faced with a booth from a brand you’ve never heard of con­tain­ing only a few Eames chairs and a bowl of candy, you re­mem­ber the pur­pose of the whole en­deav­our: watches.

For jew­ellery buy­ers, jour­nal­ists, and a hand­ful of high-rolling col­lec­tors, the real busi­ness of Basel­world takes place by means of pre­ar­ranged ap­point­ment. In each booth’s in­ner sanc­tum, you’re not just per­mit­ted to gaze upon Switzer­land’s lat­est horo­log­i­cal achieve­ments ahead of ev­ery­one else, but to ex­am­ine them in de­tail, feel­ing their sur­pris­ing heft and as­ton­ish­ing light­ness, fid­dling with crowns and push­ers, and mar­vel­ling at the im­pos­si­bly com­plex work­ings within.

Each brand presents any­where from a hand­ful to dozens of new mod­els. At Hublot it’s the Big Bang Unico Sap­phire, a trans­par­ent candy-coloured cre­ation that looks like it’s made of Plex­i­glass but is ac­tu­ally carved out of a sin­gle block of sap­phire. At Rolex it’s the new Cos­mo­graph Day­tona, whose con­trast­ing black ce­ramic bezel and elas­tomer Oys­ter­flex bracelet pro­vide the per­fect coun­ter­point to its op­u­lent solid gold case. At TAG Heuer it’s the new Au­tavia, a long-awaited re­boot of one of the brand’s most beloved chrono­graphs, com­plete with black and white “re­verse panda” dial.

You’re of­fered a pair of silk gloves, and some­times a loupe, but you don’t need the lat­ter; a watch tends to look its best from the dis­tance of your wrist, and the choic­est ones in­evitably end up there. This is the real dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing out­side and within: it’s one thing to ad­mire a watch from a dis­tance, but once you put it on your wrist, the ex­pe­ri­ence be­comes a per­sonal one — and a dis­tinct dan­ger for any­one prone to buy­ing watches. The same joke is over­heard in booth af­ter booth: “Mind if I keep this one?” (Strained smiles en­sue. The Swiss don’t really do hu­mour.) If you re­turn from Basel with­out a list of at least a dozen new de­signs you’d like to own — cost be­ing no ob­ject, of course — you prob­a­bly don’t like watches all that much.

Around 5 p.m. each af­ter­noon, the plaza be­tween the two main con­ven­tion halls fills with show­go­ers in suits and heels, drink­ing cham­pagne un­der a cloud of cig­a­rette smoke. A wed­ding band strikes up a ren­di­tion “Bil­lie Jean” or “Mus­tang Sally,” the singer’s soul­ful pleas barely com­pet­ing with the louden­ing cho­rus of en­thu­si­as­tic voices re­hash­ing the high­lights of the day. Across the street, a crowd of Brits is 10 deep, down­ing pints of lager and pack­ets of crisps out­side the Fish Inn, af­fec­tion­ately known around the show as “the Bri­tish em­bassy.” On the other side of the Rhine, a short tram ride away, is the ho­tel Les Trois Rois, where rooms are booked years in ad­vance and the bar is el­bow to el­bow with CEOS un­til the wee hours of the morn­ing.

The day’s ap­point­ments and pre­sen­ta­tions com­plete, the show now shifts to its next or­der of busi­ness: re­mind­ing the world that the Swiss aren’t just the best in the world at watches — they also know how to throw a party.

“It’s never been more im­por­tant for the watch in­dus­try to demon­strate that lux­ury, ex­clu­siv­ity, and pre­ci­sion re­main as valu­able as ever in the age of ac­tiv­ity track­ers and speech-to­text.”

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