The conversation likely to dominate this year’s Baselworld (21st - 26th March) - the largest, and most lavish trade fair for the watch industry—is whether it is time for the event to reinvent itself.
 
With exhibition and transport costs soaring, fewer people have been making the annual trip to the medieval town in northwest Switzerland. Last year, around 700 companies took space at the show - down half from around 1,400 in 2015 - and the event was two days shorter. In the past, as many as 120,000 guests attended; in 2018, the fair did not release an official attendance figure, saying only that it was about the same as 2017, which drew 106,000.
 
This month’s Baselworld is going ahead without the participation of Swatch Group, which owns 18 watch brands—including Breguet, Blancpain, Harry Winston, Omega and Longines— and which has previously invested more than $50 million to exhibit at Baselworld annually.
 
Swatch has traditionally showcased its latest models in glitzy triplex booths, with private restaurants and grand spaces for museum exhibits. For many regulars, Baselworld without Swatch is like Paris Fashion Week without Chanel, or the Geneva Motor Show without BMW.
 
Explaining the decision in a statement, Swatch CEO Nick Hayek said: “Today everything has become more transparent, fast-moving, and instantaneous. Accordingly, a different rhythm and a different approach is needed. Annual watch fairs, as they exist today, no longer make much sense.”
 
He later suggested that Swatch might explore other options, telling CNBC: “We might do something much more creative with other people out there."
 
One potential partner could be American watch giant Movado, maker of Movado, Coach, Tommy Hilfiger and Rebecca Minkoff watches, which gave Baselworld a swerve last year, choosing instead to host its own four-day summit at the ski-resort Davos, on the eve of the trade show.
 
The Movado summit is far more than a chance for aficionados to coo over glittering baubles behind glass. Here, leading industry figures discuss a range of topics affecting the watch industry, including the ever-shifting global distribution landscape, the empowered consumer and the importance of digital and social media initiatives.
 
Other Swiss luxury watch brands that are giving Baselworld the brush-off this month are Corum—who said it wants to focus on retailers, final customers and journalists—and Raymond Weil, whose CEO Elie Bernheim told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that the high-profile withdrawal of Swatch from the show “reinforced” the company’s decision. Meanwhile, Breitling, has publicly raised doubts over its return. 
 
It is not only Baselworld being forced to confront rapid changes in the global timepiece market though. Luxury watch brands Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet were absent from this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, another prestigious trade fair held in Geneva in January. Both brands explained their withdrawal by saying that in future they want to cultivate direct relationships with customers via intimate boutiques. But although it seems that, in horological circles, big is no longer beautiful, one would be foolish to write off the extravagant watch fair for good.
 
“Having more than a dozen key brands not exhibiting at Baselworld this year is a loss, but it won’t bring the show down,” says Roberta Naas, veteran watch journalist and founder of ATimelyPerspective.com. “When at least a dozen top brands, including Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC left decades ago to start SIHH, everyone feared for Baselworld’s existence. Instead, it adapted”.

According to Naas: “Exhibitors will come and go, but this show has been going for more than 100 years. It has morphed and changed regularly, and will continue to do so”.

Indeed, Swatch’s Hayek has not closed the door completely for a possible return to Baselworld, should the event become more dynamic and creative in future. “They have to reinvent themselves,” he told CNBC. “We are ready to help”.  Will that happen? Only time will tell.


Baselworld 2019 runs from 21st – 26th March in Switzerland. For further details on how to make the best of the restaurants and culture while visiting please contact your lifestyle manager. For an exclusive travel itinerary to suit your tastes, contact our Travel Specialists