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.
“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.”
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.