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.

Plaza Watch International - - Contents - WO RD S NICK FOULKES

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.

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