Sign in / Join
1699

Keeping time

Press, celebrities and watch aficionados gather in Switzerland to get the goods on the year’s most novel and notable designs at the Baselworld International Watch and Jewelry Show.

Baselworld, the pinnacle of the industry’s annual calendar, is where thousands of watch fans gather to talk shop, drink champagne and ogle the world’s most expensive timepieces. Jeremy Freed reports on the covetable styles and curious moments on display

The Baselworld International Watch and Jewelry Show will strain just about any metaphor you attempt to pin on it. Taking over the Swiss town of Basel every March, it has the labyrinthine, hermetic feel of a casino, but no one is gambling. It’s a luxury mall lined with gilded pavilions of the world’s fanciest brands, but no one is shopping. It’s a trade show, sure, but calling it that seems diminutive – it’s not like any other trade show you’ve ever seen.

The 12 halls of the Congress Centre Basel, arrayed around a central pavilion designed by Herzog & de Meuron, are divided into hundreds of exhibitor booths, though “booths” doesn’t do them justice. These are architectural creations of three and four storeys with water features, spiral staircases, bars, restaurants, lounges, conference rooms and offices, the size and lavishness of which vary according to each brand’s style and budget. For the 2017 edition – Baselworld’s 100th outing – which ran from March 23 to 30, Breitling, one of the largest Swiss watchmakers, built its booth around a 10-metre-long aquarium where 400 milky white jellyfish swam in hypnotic circles. The tank, a representative told me, was custom built in Japan, and the jellyfish flown in from Malaysia along with a marine biologist chaperone. I asked her if there’s a connection between Breitling, which is famous for aviation watches, and these creatures of the deep. She shrugged. Fair enough.

Rolex at Baselworld.

At an event dedicated to the promotion of a product that is practically obsolete, you quickly learn that asking why is rarely a fruitful line of questioning – spectacle exists here for its own sake. The real-world value of a mechanical watch has been dubious since the advent of cheaper, more reliable quartz timepieces in the 1970s, a quandary that has become more persistent in the smartphone era. But like diamonds, Birkin bags or Damian Hirst sculptures, neither practicality nor necessity have much to do with demand. You want one because you want one, and like the watches themselves, the displays and lavish parties of Baselworld exist as achievements of art, engineering and largesse, simply because they can.

Hermès L’Heure Impatiente.

The fair is open to the public, but access to the booths of top-tier brands is highly restricted. While the masses must content themselves with gazing at the watches in brightly lit display windows, journalists, retailers and select high-rolling VIPs are invited inside by pre-arranged appointment to fondle the wares while wearing black silk gloves.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sky-Dweller.

The nicer booths tend to feel like high-end hotels, except there are no children anywhere and the food and drinks are both free-flowing and complimentary. Arriving at the Rolex booth, I’m ushered in by a phalanx of smiling, uniformed women with the statuesque teutonic bearing of Helmut Newton uberfraus. I’m offered a beverage, which appears moments later borne by a white jacketed waiter on a thick, Rolex-branded coaster.

Montblanc.

Despite the lavish parties ( Depeche Mode plays at one for Hublot, while Breitling’s bash features exotic dancers and a Gipsy Kings cover band), celebrity appearances (Patrick Dempsey at Tag Heuer, Swizz Beatz at Zenith) and endlessly proffered boxes of branded Swiss chocolate, one comes to Baselworld primarily to look at watches. Each of the brands here has a new achievement to crow about.

Seiko.

Hermès flaunted its “L’Heure Impatiente,” a 12-hour countdown timer in rose gold created to mark the anticipation of special occasions, while Bulgari displayed its Octo Finissimo Automatique, which at just 5.15-mm is the thinnest mechanical timepiece ever made. Archival pieces were everywhere, too, among them Seiko’s Prospex Diver SLA017, a faithful recreation of its first dive watch, and Longines’ Heritage 1945, a beautiful example of 1940s austerity.

Tudor Black Bay Chrono.

Tudor, which is known for Rolex-like quality at a more accessible price point, released several fetching versions of its Heritage Black Bay, a rugged midcentury diver, to much buzz.

Movado.

While most of the talk at the fair was devoted to new mechanical movements and high-tech scratch-resistant alloys, the tide of 21st-century technology crept in from the edges, with smart watches on prominent display at TAG Heuer, Movado and Montblanc, among many others. While they can do fun things like run Google Maps and track your steps, watches that have screens instead of dials are controversial among the faithful here. Publicity spin aside, one gets the sense that, like uninvited in-laws, these interlopers are tolerated, but grudgingly so.

The show runs for a week, but pretty much everything important happens during the first three days. After that, the thousands of journalists and jewellers begin to board their planes back to Tokyo and Johannesburg, and a few days later, thousands of watches are packed away in their velvet-lined cases for the return trip to Geneva, Fleurier and La Chaux-de-Fonds. The jellyfish, too, will be slurped into another tank for their flight home to Malaysia, oblivious to their role, metaphorical or otherwise, in the spectacle.

Jeremy Freed travelled to Baselworld as a guest of Rolex. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.

Omega unveils latest high-tech dive watch – with a hand from James Bond

Seamaster Planet Ocean 600m Co-Axial Master Chronometer GMT.

First, I’m told, absolutely no pictures. There will be a photo op later in the evening, but pointing a phone at Daniel Craig at any time is strictly forbidden. Second, do not mention Bond. “He’s very private,” says a representative for Omega, where Craig has been a brand ambassador since taking on the role of the world’s favourite secret agent in 2006. Whether or not Craig will star in Bond 25, due out late next year, has been the subject of much speculation, and he will clearly not be breaking his silence this evening.

The Beekman Hotel’s underground event space is dominated by exposed brick walls and industrial lighting, as masculine and refined as the $14,000 dive watch I’ve been invited here to see. Pale upholstered sectionals are arrayed about the room facing low glass tables artfully decorated with seashells and bits of coral cast in candlelight. Servers circulate with trays of baked potato bites topped with osetra caviar and lobster salad canapes. In addition to a handful of journalists who cover watches, Omega has flown in its most important customers for a first glimpse at the brand’s newest launch, and the opportunity to meet (but not speak of) James Bond.

“ Seamaster is one of the most iconic names in the watch industry and we are here to celebrate that tonight,” says Omega CEO Raynald Aeschlimann from the small stage at one end of the room. Launched in 1957, the Seamaster’s combination of tough construction and suit-friendly aesthetics has made it one of the world’s most popular watches. Tonight’s reveal, the Seamaster Planet Ocean 600m Co-Axial Master Chronometer GMT (or Big Blue for short) is its latest iteration. The combination of a chunky blue and blaze-orange ceramic case, water resistance to 600 metres and 18-karat white gold hands maintains the model’s balance of luxury and resilience, while an upgraded movement adds just enough newness to tickle customers’ buying bones. Perhaps it’s a bit flashy for a spy, but a lot of other people will surely love it.

“You all look very glamorous tonight,” Craig says, making his entrance through the crowd and taking a seat on the stage. He looks exactly how you’d want him to: compact and muscular in a trim blue tweed suit, with a brush of silver stubble covering his chin. He talks for a few minutes with Aeschlimann about his collection of Omegas, and answers softball questions about watches from the audience. Craig is relaxed, charming, flirtatious. A woman in a sequined dress in the front row laughs at everything he says. Or maybe that was me – who can remember? A photo op follows, in which Craig shakes hands and poses for a few frames with each of us, working through the entire crowd with startling efficiency. We then adjourn to dinner where Craig sits, flanked by watch executives, in front of a display of Seamasters, each a picture of rugged refinement.