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Watch fair news: Geneva to become the new world watchmaking capital?

Basel about to be overtaken by Geneva? Just as SIHH 2018 has closed its doors, it's the question on everyone's lips. Come June, around 700 to 900 watchmaking exhibitors will also be taking over the halls of Palexpo!

By Joël A. Grandjean

In the beginning, there was just one important date in the world watchmaking calendar, the Basel Fair, now known as Baselworld. For the first time in over 100 years, the watchmaking world, together with its brands and fellow contractors, is moving over to Geneva. It's 2018, a historic year!

2017: the centenary of watchmaking in Basel

It's a historical tradition, the century-old Basel Fair was for many years the pinnacle event on the watchmaking landscape for all the latest industry innovations. A Mecca dedicated to watchmaking groups, when they were just the watchmaker's signature, yet to become a brand. A convergence point for all kinds of buyer, whatever their place of provenance on the world map. The fair's conception dates from a time when mountain farmers in search of a manual activity to while away the long hard winters, were holed up in their farms, busy cobbling together pure marvels of micromechanical genius, which they hoped would generate some income come first snowmelt. Such inventiveness, such patience! So they came down from the Jurassic arc and the Neuchâtel mountains and they headed for Basel where a kind of grand "Domestic arts fair" was held.

Thierry Stern, the current president of Patek Philippe, once confided to me that he could still picture his grandfather on his way to the Basel Fair with a big upturned table strapped to the roof of his car, on which he would exhibit his wares. That's right... before becoming the Rolls Royce of world watchmaking events, before the stand belonging to the major Geneva brand, Rolex, covered no less than three floors of one of the most sought-after exhibition spaces on the planet, the 'Basel Fair' was a multidisciplinary event into which the bucolic watchmakers all but disappeared amid the sea of kitchen utensils and furniture salesmen. They then formed a unit and became, together with the jewellers of the region, the heart and lungs of a sector destined to become the third largest segment of the Swiss economy.

Suddenly, in 1991, the SIHH was born

In the beginning, there were five dissidents who felt watchmaking deserved a little more respect and ceremony and consequently rolled out the metaphorical red carpet. A host of professionals and connoisseurs respectful of its clientele soon followed. An oasis of calm developed away from the processions of families and weekenders who turned Saturdays and Sundays into a human tide of visitors bringing commotion and children in its wake! Nostrils were filled with the smell of grilled sausages, and the fragrant whiff of saveloys and mustard soon reached the noses of a handful of visionaries, driven by the expansionist ambitions of what is now the estimable Richemont Group. Men such as Alain-Dominique Perrin and Franco Cologni were full of vision and hope, and luckily for us all, the desire to sanctify a branch of industry that deserved exceptional VIP treatment. They would ensure that its international clientele could be received in a proper and fitting manner.

Parallel events

Like a comet in orbit, the SIHH became a magnetic force. It began to attract a long line of brands, sometimes renting exhibition space in Geneva's high-end hotel foyers, or even suites and rooms, sometimes regrouping at alternative events. Well before the SIWP currently hosted at Geneva's Casino du Lac, a parallel fair was taking shape at La Praille, followed by the memorable Geneva Time Exhibition, which, together with around thirty brands, gravitated towards to the Espace Hippomène.

The desire to stand out from the crowd being the supreme driving force, two main trends emerged in the watchmaking landscape: individual initiatives and collective efforts. In the case of the former, before the advent of the mighty LVMH group and before even the Swatch Group opened its Cité du Temps in the heart of Geneva, the unmissable Rudis Sylva grand soirée was held within the century-old walls of the Château du Grand Saconnex, there was the obligatory detour to the Manufacture F.-P. Journe on the left bank, or, afterwards, a courtesy call to Maximilian Busser's M.A.D. Gallery, alias MB&F. This year, it will be noted, Yvan Arpa has secured 1000 square metres of exhibition space in the Private Clients’ area at the UBS bank's vast headquarters in the Centre des Acacias. 

Collective efforts include the SIWP, or Swiss Independent Watchmaking Pavilion, which is gaining legitimacy, mainly due to its conference programmes and round tables, but also to its internationalisation, following its several forays into the biggest cities in China and across Asia. The Pavilion is the work of Amarildo Pilo, founder of the eponymous brand, and a great believer in the principle that strength lies in numbers and that complementary positionings are useful to global balance. For the inevitable critics (there are always a few), we recall the fact that Geneva's Casino du Lac, the customary venue for the event, is just a stone's throw from the SIHH, there are no parking problems, it's easily accessible if travelling by air and there's a security guard who scans your passport at the entrance. This latter point is always reassuring for those who might inadvertently leave any valuables lying around the casino's gaming machines.

Baselworld, a steady migration

The very first migration dates from the 2000s. After the listed Basel-based MCH group having taken over the historic exhibition attempted to reorganise the existing infrastructures, most subcontracting exhibitors, who had made an effort to stay close to their brands and production centres, decided to desert to Baselworld. In its astonishing ignorance of the sensibilities involved within the branch, the general management of MCH, in order to accommodate the Hong Kong-based watchmaking brands a little more ceremoniously, had attempted to relocate the subcontractors temporarily in Zurich. It was a bit like a waiter attempting to relocate his restaurant's head chef. It was a fatal blunder, a shot in the foot! Gradually after 2002, the behind-the-scenes players headed for Lausanne, then Geneva. Bringing together 93 exhibitors for its first edition, the EPHJ-EPMT-SMT is now the most important Swiss professional event held annually, all sectors taken into consideration, with over 850 exhibitors.

In 2017, Baselworld suffered another harsh blow. Exhibitors formed a united front to challenge the duration of the event, negotiating with the organisers  the withdrawal of two seemingly pointless and extremely costly days. They won their case. On the downside, the drain in 2018 is estimated at between 500 and 600 exhibitors, although this could be a calculated commercial decision given that supply now exceeds demand. Half the exhibitors will thus be absent, given the organisers' desire to focus on the so-called strong players. Could this be lack of interest, a refusal to adapt prices to the economic climate? MCH, incidentally the new owner of Art Basel and Le Comptoir Suisse, also now has a 64% share in Masterpiece London, an event for art collectors, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with watchmaking. This diversification is perceived by some as a snubbing of the cultural and historical importance of watchmaking in Basel and its rich and promising legacy.

2018, a turning point in watchmaking history: Geneva takes over from Basel

Admittedly, there is still heavy support for Baselworld in that Rolex, Patek Philippe, the LVMH and Swatch groups do not appear willing to leave the Rhine's shores any time soon… But will Hall 1 remain as desirable if the other Halls gradually continue to empty? Until this year, when even the media were according an equal amount of importance to both, it was not considered professional to compare Baselworld to SIHH. We'll let you be the judge, over a thousand exhibitors as against twenty, even thirty, if we include peripheral events? 

However, in March 2018, 700 exhibitors will be expected to attend at Basel (it recorded a total of 1300 brands and subcontractors in 2017) compared to the 35 brands assembled at SIHH. The latter fair no doubt received a boost from the opening of the 'Carré des Horlogers' in 2016, a space-within-a-space of independent watchmakers, as well as from its weekend opening to the public introduced in 2017. Except that, if we factor in the 900 or so exhibitors at EPHJ-EPMT-SMT in June, a category that has always been included, like-for-like, in the Baselwold  statistics, the date will almost certainly be an historic one: for the first time after 100 years of Basel's domination, Geneva is now the world watchmaking exhibition capital!

New diamond fair for Geneva in May

And now in what is perhaps the final parting gesture, the breaking news is that a new diamond fair will be opening at Palexpo in May 2018. Geneva will see the arrival of a hundred or so additional players linked to the sector, companies who should have continued to swell the ranks at Basel. 2018 will be a historic year indeed!

Historical brands appearing at SIHH (18)
A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Girard-Perregaux, Greubel Forsey, Hermès, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Panerai, Parmigiani Fleurier, Piaget, Richard Mille, Roger Dubuis, Ulysse Nardin, Vacheron Constantin, Van Cleef & Arpels


Brands appearing at SIHH in the Carré des Horlogers (17)

Armin Strom, Christophe Claret, Chronométrie Ferdinand Berthoud, DeWitt, Élégante by F.P.Journe, Grönefeld, H. Moser & Cie, Hautlence, HYT, Kari Voutilainen, Laurent Ferrier, MB&F, Ressence, Romain Gauthier, RJ-Romain Jerome, Speake-Marin, Urwerk

Some individualists (Hotels and Public Spaces)

Schwarz-Etienne, Hublot, Zenith, TAG Heuer, Bulgari

Brands appearing at SIWP (9)

Ludovic Ballouard, Greco Geneve, L. Kendall, Moya, Pilo & Co Geneve, Ollivier Savéo, David Van Heim, WatchE, Y. Monnet


Rolex, Tudor, Patek Philippe, Chopard Genève, etc…

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