By  on March 31, 2011

BASEL, Switzerland — The crowds thronging the Blancpain stand at the Baselworld watch and jewelry trade fair were probably hoping to catch a glimpse of its talked-about L-evolution Tourbillon Grande Date. The fact that there was a black Lamborghini Gallardo parked in the booth was just icing on the cake.

The sleek road car, closely based on the model featured in the Super Trofeo racing competitions, was evidence of the natural synergy between the worlds of sports and timepieces, which produced another slew of themed or limited edition items at the Swiss event.

“I have always had a love of mechanics,” said Marc Hayek, chief executive officer of high-end brands Blancpain, Breguet and Jaquet Droz and a regular competitor in Super Trofeo events. “I got into motorcycles early. I got my first motorcycle at six, and then I started racing competitively on BMX and motocross from the age of 11. Sport was always something very important for me,” he said.

That passion fed directly into watchmaking, a family business he has joined alongside his mother, Nayla Hayek, a former competitive show jumper who last year took over as chairman of Swatch Group, and his uncle Nick Hayek, the group’s ceo, who likes to pilot helicopters.

“A big part of the link is on the mechanical side, because if you take an engine or a movement, you have the same mechanical problems: heat, oil, friction,” Marc Hayek observed. “Having that concentrated in such a small, small, small space is something I feel passionate about.”

Elsewhere, too, motor racing inspired watchmakers to push the boundaries of their craft. One of the most spectacular introductions was Tag Heuer’s latest concept watch, the Mikrotimer Flying 1000, billed as the watchmaking equivalent of a manned space mission to Mars.

Unveiled at a press conference live-streamed on Facebook, the very high-frequency mechanical chronograph is the first to measure and display 1/1000th of a second — a feat inspired by the digital timer that Jack Heuer created in 1966, kick-starting the brand’s relationship with Formula One. Tag Heuer, which has 12 patent applications pending on the piece, does not expect to put it on the market for several years, but in the meantime, motor-racing fans can pick up a $6,500 limited edition Monza Automatic Chronograph Calibre 36, whose retro look harks back to the Seventies.

The piece was one of several bridging Baselworld’s strongest trends: heritage aesthetics and cutting-edge mechanics. Chopard, for instance, showed new black and white versions of its L.U.C. Engine One Tourbillon, inspired by classic sports cars and limited to 100 pieces.

Less technically ambitious, but hoping to tap into the same kind of fan base, are Tissot’s offerings, which address a range of sports, from hockey to motorcycling, soccer to basketball, with timepieces for under $1,000.

“Out of the male population, there usually is one sport they’re keen on, so we do touch men that way first,” said Sharon Buntain, the brand’s U.S. president. “You get this emotional connection to a brand, not the specific watch.”

Tissot employs the full gamut of sports marketing techniques, from official timekeeping to sponsorship and hiring brand ambassadors like hockey player Steven Stamkos and MotoGP racer Nicky Hayden, who rides for Ducati alongside world champion Valentino Rossi.

“The TV time we get via sports marketing we couldn’t pay for in a million years,” said Buntain.

Though it is also the official timekeeper for the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), Tissot did not have a U.S. presence in the game until it signed Tony Parker, who joined the brand’s roster shortly before announcing his divorce from actress Eva Longoria — an illustration of the pitfalls of celebrity ambassadors. Ads featuring the San Antonio Spurs point guard started running in France late last year, but Buntain waited until March before using them in the U.S. market.

“I wanted to make sure I didn’t have a Tiger Woods on my hands like Tag, with the disaster that was for them. I waited, and it was a nonevent,” she said. “So we’re pleased because we have international appeal, it ties in with our strategy with FIBA, and he’s a classy looking guy.”

Breitling, which recently opened its first directly operated store in New York City and has more in the pipeline, hopes the strategy will allow it to highlight its historic links with aviation.

“You have visuals of our jet team, you have the history of the brand through some aviation adventures, and you find that in the boutique, which is always difficult to translate in the 10 square meters of a retailer that gives you two windows and one case,” said Thierry Prissert, the brand’s new U.S. president.

“The aviation link is genuine. If you know pilots, ask them what they wear — a lot of pilots wear the Aerospace or the Chronospace,” he added.

Marc Hayek probably does not use a Blancpain watch to time his laps, but said his family has come to accept his racing habit despite the potential risks. “You have to have a little bit of fun, I decided,” he said.

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