Jewels & Time 2020: The Changing Face of Watch Trade Fairs
As the Covid-19 pandemic swept its way through the world earlier this year, it knocked over giants and dominoes of all kinds; stores were shut, planes grounded, and events in the flesh all unceremoniously cancelled. The Watches & Wonders Geneva (formerly SIHH) and Baselworld watch fairs were, unfortunately, no exception. Their cancellation was particularly tragic this year, given that it would have been the first year that the two rival fairs coordinated to occur simultaneously in the spring.
Patrick Pruniaux, the chief executive officer of Girard-Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin, put it most aptly: “The cancellation of the two biggest trade events this year was an incredible shockwave.”
But even though the two fairs were first cancelled in late February, the bigger shockwave would come later in the year, with news that could mean Baselworld’s complete collapse.
Basel Boom and Bust
Under the uncertainty of the pandemic, Baselworld organisers MCH Basel announced its high-handed plan to postpone—yes, postpone—the fair to 2021. But only a portion of the fees paid for 2020 would be carried over; the rest would disappear into MCH’s pockets to cover overheads for Baselworld 2020 that would never take place.
This led major exhibitors Rolex, Tudor, Chopard, Chanel, and Patek Philippe to sound the death knell for Baselworld, withdrawing from the fair and creating a new as-yet-named watch fair to run alongside Watches & Wonders in April 2021. A week later, LVMH Group’s brands announced a similar withdrawal.
According to Su Jiaxian, a well-known industry insider who was among the first to report on the fairs’ developments on his platform watchesbySJX.com, the frustration with MCH had been brewing for quite some time. “I didn’t find [the brands’ withdrawal] surprising, given the way negotiations between the brands and fair organisers were going, where there was a huge mismatch of expectations.
"It’s highly likely Baselworld is finished. There is a small chance it could survive in a vastly-changed form. Perhaps smaller, and with an entirely new name, so it won’t really be Baselworld anymore.”
Dash To Digital
Amid the news of Baselworld’s implosion, rival Watches & Wonders was trying to solve the problem of its own cancellation—and succeeded. In April, it was announced that the fair would go digital, with attendees gaining access to online videos and other materials through a custom-built new digital platform. It was probably not an exaggeration to say that accelerated digital transformation finally came to the watch industry courtesy of Covid-19.
“The Watch & Wonders online platform has been a great opportunity to continue and to still present our novelties, to the press, to our partners, and to our clients,” said Vacheron Constantin’s chief marketing officer Laurent Perves. “We’re proud that we are able to keep going forward.”
However, not all the brands slated for Watches & Wonders felt bullish about a digital watch fair—of 30 brands, only 19 chose to release news about their novelties for the year.
Pruniaux felt that “we didn’t really need to activate a digital PR platform when many of us were still in the middle of this crisis. Not only was this due to the timing not feeling appropriate, but also we would not have been able to deliver the products to our markets anyway”.
Fortunately, it does not seem as though the watch fair is dead just yet. Perves and Pruniaux both expressed the desire and need for a physical watch fair. “I remain convinced that we, as human beings, still need to connect in person,” said Pruniaux “and unique timepieces must be touched and tried on in order for one to fully appreciate them.”
China’s rapid recovery from the pandemic also presented a new opportunity for the horological world to capitalise on their largest market. Watches & Wonders mushroomed up in rapid order in early September at the West Bund Art Centre in Shanghai, with 11 brands being represented. Later that month, Watches & Wonders Sanya was also underway in the city known as China’s hometown Hawaii. Presumably, the target is on local Chinese tourists who have now resorted to exploring their home countries as a substitute to international travel.
The new Watches & Wonders “fairs” in China also conveniently answer the major question at the heart of this conversation about trade watch fairs: should collectors even care?
Su notes, “There is no value for the majority of watch buyers, since they never attend the fair anyway. The value is only for industry insiders—retailers, media, brands—to see the products in person, but also to meet and talk. It’s the only time everyone can be in the same place.”
But the new slate of fairs, should they prove successful, might become case studies on how brands can use the fairs to engage the end consumer more directly. They are, after all, the end beneficiaries of the retailer meetings and journalist interviews that usually go on at trade fairs.
One thing is for sure, however. Whatever form the watch fairs take in the future—digital, physical, or phygital—they won’t quite ever be the same again.
(Related: Editor's Note: High Watchmaking is Not Dead in 2020)