By  on April 13, 2009

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.

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.

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