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March 21, 2018

The B side of BaselWorld

I’m often asked if I attend BaselWorld, the annual show that is considered the focal point of the wristwatch world. I think many people imagine BaselWorld as a glamorous showplace where visitors compare Rolexs and exchange fine cigars as they stroll through beautiful displays while sipping premium cognac.

Yes, it’s just like that – if you buy watches by the thousand or have a checking account with a seven or eight figure balance.

I have attended BaselWorld for the last four years, and it is indeed an unforgettable experience. The third largest city in Switzerland, Basel has a historic center that is more beautiful, grand, and interesting than any other city in the country.

The region near Basel is beautiful. I like to extend my stay for a few days because the countryside is the best in the world for biking. Climbing the Alps by bicycle is a challenge, but if you aren’t in the mood (or physical condition) for rigorous mountain pedaling, you can try the easy ride down the road about 20 kilometers to visit fantastic Roman ruins, which are definitely worth the trip.

Basel is usually very quiet but for BaselWorld the hotels are crowded and very expensive - so expensive that many of the exhibitors and staff cross the border to France or Germany to sleep.

During BaselWorld, the whole city is watch crazy. On the street, and in restaurants, bars, and museums, the talk is about watches. Even on the train, your chat with strangers will be all things watches. It’s a little bizarre and a lot of fun. I stay in a hotel that is a 10-minute bike ride from the show. The hotel staff always lends me a bike, which is a rare experience in Switzerland; there, everything comes at a price, and the price is never cheap.

For me, the high point of BaselWorld happens on the Sunday during the show, when every year vintage merchants and collectors get together at the Stadt Casino to chat about the watches that are important to us.

Baselworld is divided into huge pavilions -- at this show, Asian and European manufacturers do not mix. On the ground floor, you will find the most prestigious brands, and there are also pavilions devoted to jewels and jewelers. At BaselWorld, you can bump into an elegant jeweler in addition to the watch geeks and watchmakers.

My day starts with the pavilion for the Asian manufacturers.  I spent a lot of time at the last four years talking with them, and I have visited more than a dozen factories across China.  I now work with the best of them -- all large manufacturers with the latest technology, these Asian manufacturers are there to sell to the European brands; only Europeans buy in the Asian pavilion. At the beginning of the meeting to keep the discretion on the small booths, a cloth curtain is closed as in a massage parlor so anyone who passes can not see who is buying.

These same Chinese companies manufacture cases and dials for most of the Swiss brands we know (some of the models being launched this week in Basel I saw months ago on the production line in China). Chinese cases and dials arrive in Switzerland by the ton, and are assembled with Swiss movements – this way the final pieces receive the “Swiss Made” stamp.  

I get high-quality products from my Chinese manufacturers, but getting to that point with them  is a challenge. The negotiating game is always the same: in Basel they promise you paradise but at the factory you wind up in hell – and three times the original price. Working with manufacturers from China is definitely not a job for amateurs!

But back to BaselWorld.  

At the end of the day, tired of drinking cold coffee and hot water (yes, the Chinese booths serve hot water instead of ice water), I spend the last two hours of the day looking at the Swiss brands.  

Or trying to look at them.  

The emphasis of BaselWorld is on B2B; the manufacturers are there to cater to big wholesale buyers, the rich, and the media. For we who are mere collectors, most of the booths for the big brands like Rolex, Patek, Omega, and Breitling are off limits – far off limits. So if you were thinking of going to BaselWorld to try on the latest pre-release Speedmaster or Breguet, forget it. All we can do is press our noses to the showcase windows, like children looking in a candy store – a very expensive candy store.

baselworld

My exploration of the Swiss brands doesn’t take a lot of time, because the vast majority of the product launches are over-the-top, custom-made “designer timepieces” – those astronomical tourbillon movements, Hublot with ridiculous limited edition names, and diamond watches with six-figure or seven-figure price tags that do not interest me and are frankly horrible. Much of Baselworld is about them.

For the big brands, the vintage collectors are boring, and out of fashion. We are ignored by the brands because we do not buy in retail stores (no profit from us!), and we buy, we do a lot of research – we buy as much with our heads as we do with our hearts. So at BaselWorld, the Swiss brands can forget about impulse buying.

I prefer to arrive for the last three days of the show, because by then most of the press, Petro Dollars, and celebrities are gone, and some of the friendlier brands open their booths to the public. Last year I was treated very well by Seiko and Doxa, but I cannot say the same for about 95% of the brands. You can be persistent, but the reality is that if you don’t have a press credential or a billion to spend, you can participate in only about 20% of the fair.

That’s the main reason I decided not to go to BaselWorld 2018. For the companies at BaselWorld, I am a nobody outside of the Asian pavilion, I am not looking for new manufacturers at the moment, and much of the show is frilly pastry that does not suit my style. This year, I will stay home and follow the news on the blogs.

For many up-and-coming microbrand watch manufacturers, Baselworld is a good place to build meet and greet – to make new business contacts, open distribution channels, and meet publishers of paid magazines and specialized bloggers. But since my company’s growth is now based entirely on my connections to customers and good relationships with watch industry reporters, I am in the fortunate position of not needing to invest the time or money in marketing that would boost the price of my watches.

This year BaselWorld will have about 50% fewer exhibitors and 25% less participants than last year, so I’m passing up Baselworld, and instead focus on what’s important to you and me – the upcoming releases for my brand.

The first new model of the year is coming in August – more to come soon.

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