Over two decades ago the former CEO of Cartier, Alain Dominique Perrin, had the initial idea that grew to become the SIHH, the world’s most prestigious watch fair, and it all began with the smell of sausages. Nick Foulkes explains.
Get an historical perspective from the man who founded the SIHH, Alain Dominque Perrin, plus interviews with the Managing Director Fabienne Lupo and select CEOs of exhibiting brands.
Back in the late 1980s, the watch world was very different to the shiny high production value place it is today. Watches, at least the kind of watches I was interested in, were Swiss and I mean really Swiss. Not some Tyler Brûlé vision of Kunsthalle cool design, all nuclear bunkers equipped with Bauhaus furniture. No, this was hardcore Switzerland.
To give you an idea; about 20 years ago I went to the 125th birthday celebrations of IWC. Alas I cannot find the lapel pin that I was given to mark this momentous event, but the memories of that evening remain with me. The atmosphere was more Bierkeller than ArtBasel and the entertainment was a variety-type evening including a man who tore rolled up newspapers to make bunting, and a Swiss comedian (Swiss-German I think). If it was intended as ironic, postmodern or whatever, then the irony and postmodernity went straight over my head.
Watchmaking was still half folk art, half light industry and the Basel Fair reflected that: a joyous jumble of brands selling their wares as in a giant bazaar. The air filled with the babble of many languages and the smell of many sausages. As far as the majority of the industry was concerned this was the way things were. However for Alain Dominique Perrin the visionary boss of Cartier this was not the way he felt things should be.
Perrin had started working as a young man for Cartier at the end of the 1960s and by the late 1980s he had not just reshaped the French jeweller into one of the first modern superbrands, he was rearranging the face of international luxury, creating the retailscape we know today, and he felt that the smell of sizzling wurst and fried onions was not really what late 20th century luxury was about.
“I wanted Cartier at that time to get out of the kind of watch ghetto we had in Basel, because in Basel, in the eighties, it was a real big fair where everything was mixed Cheap watches, like Swatch, and many other ones were mixed together. We were surrounded by bars and things, with a very strong smell of sausage. And so I went to see the people at Basel Fair. I said, 'Listen we have to change that. And I have asked our architect to think about a different layout for the socalled top brands.' At that time funnily enough, in the watch business they wouldn't speak about luxury really, they were speaking about high watches, high category watches, complications, things like that, but not really luxury.” The proposal Perrin put to the organizing body was simple enough and involved setting the top brands apart from the rest. “'I'll just ask you to accept to spend a bit of money with a nice entrance for limousines and special cars bringing special clients; separate from the rest of Basel and you could charge a little bit more,’ And they said, 'Oh no really you know we don't want to change. This is the Basel Fair. Traditional’”
And so, Perrin left the land of hotdogs for Geneva. His plan was simple enough. He was going to set up a high-class rival to the Basel Fair, which had been doing what it had been doing since early 20th century. At first it must have seemed like Noah building his ark on dry land, and suffering the obloquy of observers. And when the first Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie opened over a modest 4,500 square metres just five brands had made the leap: Cartier, Piaget, Baume et Mercier, Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth, and given that Cartier owned Piaget and Baume it might as well have been three. Nor was 1991 a particularly auspicious year, the boom of the 1980s was going bust and
the First Gulf War had just come to an end.
It may only have been a handful of exhibitors; but just in naming that first salon Perrin had already changed the way watches were viewed. “I invented it overnight, just like that,” he says of the name he gave the nascent fair. ”I was in the horology business, I thought ‘Haute Horlogerie sounds nice, let's go for it.’ I should have registered that name!”
I remember those early salons and the difference between Geneva and Basel could not have been more marked. At the SIHH, Perrin fed his guests foie gras, served wine from his own chateau, he even put on a circus one night and then he laid on a train for those of his guests who wished to go the Basel Fair. The SIHH also witnessed one of the last truly spectacular launch extravaganzas hosted by Cartier, with the debut of the Tank Francaise at a truly lavish party held at a chateau in the country
The SIHH was, nevertheless, a gamble as much as an investment and it was not until the mid 1990s that the number of exhibitors grew…to six. Throughout the 1990s the salon was finding its feet. Weighty keynote speakers such as Helmut Schmidt were tried out to give an intellectual gravitas; independent brands were invited to join (Franck Muller exhibited at SIHH before establishing his own show); there was even something called the Espace Luxe where marques such as Dunhill and Montblanc exhibited (this was before the Hamburg pen maker really got off the ground as a watchmaker).
And then, all of a sudden in its 9th year the number of exhibitors leapt from 10 to 17. The great watch boom of the 21st century had begun.
The SIHH is now sufficiently well established for it to have uncoupled itself from the Basel calendar: the fairs used to overlap, the Geneva fair is now held in January while springtime in Basel sees Baselworld as we are encouraged to call it. And by the way Basel is a much sleeker chicer affair these days.
But perhaps the biggest legacy of the SIHH is the quality of the launch parties. At the time of writing I am going through my invitations for the parties at the Salon and although I am invited to meet all sorts of high profile brand ambassadors and attend all manner of slick parties, there is not a single mention of Swiss standup comedy or the noble art of newspaper tearing.