At Baselworld, Watch Brands Adjust to the Times

Fine watch brands at Baselworld turn innovative and eye fourth quarter turnaround.

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BASEL, Switzerland — From redefining core values to scaling back collections or weeding out distributors, many players at the Baselworld watch and jewelry fair have pressed the reset button.

This story first appeared in the April 13, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Rolex said it has closed several accounts since 2008, totaling millions of dollars in sales. Doug Meine, the firm’s executive vice president, said the industry’s struggles during the global recession triggered a “shaking out of the tree.” He described the house’s presentation as “somewhat low-key,” in tune with the climate.

“Normally, we would have our trays out, but it’s not the right time to push your partners,” he said. “We’re going to be listening a lot to our customers.”

It’s also a period of opportunity for certain players.

Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, president and chief executive officer of Timex Group, said, “This is a Baselworld that comes after several years of uninterrupted growth. [Brands] are definitely a little bewildered about what to do.”

Hoejsgaard said he’s “actively looking” for acquisitions — and during the event, Swatch Group announced it is to acquire its South African distributor, Swiss Precision (Pty) Ltd.

While the normally high-energy fair was more subdued this time around because of the slowdown in watch sales, hopes of a fourth-quarter turnaround did bubble to the surface.

The event ended its eight-day run April 2, as brands kept the number of introductions to a minimum. Attendance dipped 12 percent to 93,900.

“There’s less novelty; it’s back to basics,” said Andrew Block, executive vice president of Tourneau. “There’s still opportunity that comes from strong cooperation between brands and retailers. We need to continue to put the category in front of the customer.”

Many predicted the coming months leading to the fourth quarter will be pivotal.

Michael Nelson, director of sales and marketing for Swatch Group’s Jaquet Droz brand, said, “The next four to five months will be slow going, but everyone is counting on the fourth quarter being stronger.”

Having prepared himself for a “slow and rather negative Basel,” Fawaz Gruosi, founder of the Swiss jewelry and watch firm de Grisogono, said he found the show positive.

“From the first day of the fair, I realized that the industry was still alive,” Gruosi said. “I believe that by summer — September latest — business will pick up again and slowly start to recover.”

Marc Michel-Amadry, president and creative director of Ebel, said the fair had been vital for strengthening relationships with retailers and the media.

“Our new products, intelligently priced, have been successful in convincing our retail partners to invest in a challenging global economy,” he said.

Introductions by the brand included its limited edition, soccer-themed 1911 Tekton Real Madrid watch, featuring a seamless case construction and a football-shaped oscillating weight.

Clamping down on the brand’s marketing, advertising and events budgets, Gruosi said he had reduced volume and cranked up creativity for the event. For example, a playful bracelet depicting a hippopotamus, its nostrils made of sapphires, was among his offerings.

Key product trends included moon-phase movements, all-black timepieces, metal plating, diamond accents, multiple complications on one watch and oversize volumes, a trend said to be peaking.

Stainless steel lines were among key launches at several houses, including Movado, Ebel, Longines, Bulgari and Gucci. The latest ad campaign from Gucci, to be released in the fourth quarter, features the stainless steel version of its new Marina Chain watch collection, accented with diamond markers. Calvin Klein’s spring campaign for its women’s watches features its new cage-like “Fly” timepiece in stainless steel.

Swatch Group’s Longines announced Steffi Graf as one of its “Ambassadors of Elegance.” The brand already counts Graf’s husband and fellow tennis great Andre Agassi among its ambassadors.

The focus for jewelry was on special pieces. Highlights ranged from Mikimoto’s new Baroque Couture line to the latest offerings from Chopard’s Red Carpet Collection, which included a light blue floral necklace made from heart- and pear-shaped sapphires, as well as Stephen Webster’s dramatic titanium pieces, such as one brooch inspired by Japanese fighting fish.

Jewelry designer Shaun Leane said he had been surprised by the number of titanium pieces at the fair.

“I’ve seen some really beautiful big pieces of jewelry. I think in this climate people need to create pieces that stand out in the crowd, and although titanium is difficult to work with, it’s very light,” said Leane, who in June will stage a retrospective of his most iconic pieces from past decades, ranging from Alexander McQueen catwalk pieces to his one-off necklace for Boucheron.

Leane revealed he also has designed a brooch for De Beers, to be unveiled in April, and is in talks with Daphne Guinness to collaborate on a jewelry line.

Though the number of million-dollar watches at the fair shrank, several manufacturers said they continue to find takers. Breguet, which in June will mount an exhibition of vintage Breguet timepieces at the Louvre museum in Paris that will include a clock on loan from Queen Elizabeth II, showcased its Grand Strike 1907 pocket watch, priced at 850,000 Swiss francs, or around $750,000.

Making the million-dollar mark at Harry Winston, as part of its Jewels That Tell Time collection, was its Tango “toi et moi” diamond cuff in brilliant pear and marquise-shaped diamonds linked by bands of calibrated baguettes. The brand will open its 19th retail location this summer in Singapore’s Ion Orchard shopping center.

Gérald Genta even devised a high-tech safe — fitted with a biometric fingerprint scanner — for its Arena MetaSonic, priced at just under $1 million. An evolution of the brand’s Grand Sonnerie that’s billed as the only watch with a four-hammer chime, the new timepiece is crafted from titanium and a new Magsonic metal alloy developed in-house to improve sound quality. It also features a minute repeater function and a tourbillion.

Christian Dior showcased its most expensive watch ever, priced at $1.3 million. The Dior Christal tourbillion, designed by John Galliano, boasts 66 rare Siam rubies sourced from a closed mine in Thailand.

Elsewhere, mirroring the fashion world, collaborations on timepieces were rife.

These included: the limited edition Tachoscope, conceived by Audi Design and developed and produced by Chronoswiss; Movado’s series by American artist Kenny Scharf; Rado’s minimalist watch by furniture designer Jasper Morrison; Chopard’s new Elton John watch collection; Blancpain and Lamborghini’s Super Trofeo racing series, and Oris’ limited edition Bob Dylan watch featuring a replica of the singer’s harmonica in its box set. Baccarat also unveiled a limited edition line of chandelier-inspired pieces designed by jeweler Stefano Poletti.

John Galliano unveiled its new timepiece collection based on the traditional pocket watch, in collaboration with Morellato. In a playful mood, Boucheron showcased its new “crazy second” movement, designed by Girard Pirot, including an owl watch with twirling eye sockets marking passing seconds.

Many noted a drop in U.S. retailers at the event. Marc Hruschka, president and ceo of Chopard USA, said he had seen a significant rise in U.S.-based appointments and had extended the brand’s Vegas dates. Timex Group’s Hoejsgaard suggested the earlier positioning of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, which typically kicks off at the end of Baselworld, may have affected attendance.

“One thing’s for sure, American retailers are not going to travel to Switzerland twice a year,” he said.

Hartmut Kraft, the recently appointed ceo of Chronoswiss North America, said, “The climate in the U.S. is no less than devastating. Every retailer knows one or two neighbors that have gone belly up.…Cellini isn’t here, and that says everything.”

Out to redefine the company’s Stateside positioning, Kraft has closed all 60 of its U.S. distribution points with a view to opening 15 exclusive doors by September. Plans are to produce no more than 6,000 timepieces globally.

“Brands are consolidating their core ranges,” said Gurinder Sahni, ceo of JOT Impex, which operates two jewelry stores in Delhi.

Citing no luxury downturn in India, demand is for authentic Swiss watchmaking brands such as Hublot and Breitling.

“If anything, it’s the fashion brands that will suffer,” he said.

“One thing that works today is brands with deep heritage,” said Tourneau’s Block, who named Ebel as one brand that’s back on track.

Block also singled out Ulysse Nardin’s collection as a Baselworld standout, notably its limited edition Moonstruck mechanical wristwatch conceived by Ludwig Oechslin, director of the International Watch Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Featuring a hand-painted rendering of the Earth on its enamel dial, the watch emulates the gravitation of the sun and moon and shows the movement of the tides.

Ulysse Nardin also introduced its Chairman hybrid smart phone at the fair, developed with SCI Innovation. Through the kinetic energy of a built-in mechanical watch rotor, the gadget recharges itself like an automatic watch.

Other highlights included:

• Montres DeWitt’s limited edition Répétition Minutes Tourbillon GMT Antipode: A a twin-faced watch on axles that when activated by the pressing of watch lugs situated at 12 and 6 o’clock, pivots 360 degrees by lateral rotation.

• The Dior Christal Mystérieuse that features the house’s first crystal sapphire mystery movement. Developed by Manufacture Quinting, the project is said to have taken seven years to realize, costing around 10 million Swiss francs, or $8.8 million. The piece features three fixed and three mobile discs, marked with geometric shards of mother-of-pearl that spin to the rhythm of seconds, minutes and days.

• Corum’s Ti-Bridge, starting at $12,900 for a titanium version, features a baguette-shaped case housing a horizontal linear Calibre CO OO7 movement supported by industrial titanium struts.

• Manufacture Contemporaine du Temps, also known as MCT Watches, delivered one of the fair’s buzziest timepieces, conceived by founder Denis Giguet, who has worked on the teams of Rolex and Harry Winston. Dubbed Sequential One, features on the avant-garde watch include a jumping minute-display dial in sapphire crystal and 20 rotating prisms that display the hour in four different locations, while its manual winding movement is made of 471 individual components and 81 ruby bearings.

Representing hefty investments that experts say can run into tens of millions of dollars, several brands inaugurated their own in-house watch movements at the event. The drive behind the phenomenon is said to be an agreement in 2004 by Swatch Group’s ETA with the Swiss Competition Committee that it is to phase out supplying mechanical movement kits to third parties by 2011, further affected by the struggle by independent component suppliers to furnish demand during the industry’s recent boom years.

“It’s important to be credible if our strategy is to be considered a high-end watchmaker,” said Francesco Trapani, ceo of Bulgari, which announced its first movement module ever created and assembled in-house.

The brand’s 125th anniversary Sotirio Bulgari Date Retrograde timepiece will be distributed in more than 250 stores worldwide. The module requires 15 specialized craftsmen to perform the required 165 different operations by hand.

Other brands debuting in-house mechanical chorograph movements included Corum, Chronoswiss and Breitling — its Calibre B01 paves the way for a new era of industrial in-house mechanical chronograph movements for the brand. The firm has developed a cutting-edge industrial production chain concept in its new facility, with the aim of manufacturing up to 50,000 in-house movements a year.

“There are perhaps only one or two other players making in-house movements to that capacity,” said Lisa Roman, Breitling’s marketing director.

Breitling and Bulgari were among the brands celebrating landmark anniversaries at the event and parlaying them as marketing opportunities.

To mark its 125th anniversary, Bulgari in May will open its first retrospective at Rome’s Il Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which will include an entire room dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor.

“It’s a fantastic occasion to talk about the brand and its product,” Trapani said. “We’re one of the few companies with such a long tradition.”


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