Gucci's grip watch

BASEL, Switzerland — Reflecting uncertainty in the Swiss watch industry, tensions bubbled under the surface of this year’s subdued edition of the Baselworld fair. Generations mingled, with a number of labels offering fresh takes on classic models while a new crop of managers pushed tentatively into the future, roping in technology to build instruments for sport — handy on the wrist, tied to the smartphone.

Organizers, who are laying the groundwork for a different strategy and have moved the dates next year to coincide with the end of Geneva-based Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie — in a coordinated effort with the rival show — had flagged it as a transitional year.

But transitions tend to be awkward, and ongoing speculation about who will take part in the future cast a cloud over the event, even if this show was anchored by a roster of industry heavyweights — LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton labels Bulgari, Hublot, Zenith and Tag Heuer, along with the sector’s leading brand Rolex, Patek Philippe and Chanel.

baselworld 2019; impression; hall 1.0; central plaza

Baselworld’s central plaza  Courtesy

Crowds were thinner, with visitor numbers down 22 percent to 81,200 and a similar drop in exhibitors to 520, felt by the extra space left by the departure of Swatch Group labels, which in past years had held court in the center of the vast exhibition hall.

Journalists stepped in to fill some of the empty space, afforded a central, open-plan area where the Swatch brand booths sat before. This part was packed for most of the show, even if journalist numbers, too, were down — 12 percent — a decline offset by a rise in activity in digital channels, according to organizers.

Feeding social media were flashes of the event’s traditional pomp, here and there — people flooded to the Chopard stand for a glimpse of Chinese actor Zhu Yilong, while Zenith held a “high frequency” party with a performance from Swizz Beatz to a crowd of more than 800.

The big players formed the backbone of the show, which Hublot kicked off with a surefire hit — the sound of a revving Ferrari motor, a real one.

Baselworld: Hublot's Big Bang Carbon Ferrari Scuderia

Baselworld: Hublot’s Big Bang Carbon Ferrari Scuderia  Courtesy

A longtime partner of Ferrari, Hublot’s key launches drew on the carmaker’s racing team, Scuderia, which marks its 90th anniversary this year.

“We wanted to make something more elegant, for everyday use but also giving the feel of lightness,” said Flavio Manzoni, pointing to the Big Bang Scuderia watch on his wrist. “The central module is floating, completely detached,” he added. Ferrari design teams crafted three styles for Hublot, each linked to the motor. The exercise was refreshing for the car brand, he said.

“It’s always a breath of oxygen, instead of being constantly focused on cars, we can explore creativity in different fields and especially try to transport our way of seeing things,” noting a different approach than watchmakers.

Jean-Claude Biver opened the Hublot press conference by noting this was his 45th Baselworld. The industry veteran stepped down from his operational duties as head of LVMH’s watch division and Tag Heuer late last year following an illness, but has stayed on as a non-executive president of the division.

Speaking to a packed hall dotted with the latest GTC4 Lusso and 488 GTB Ferraris — his successor Stéphane Bianchi seated in the front row, along with Tag Heuer’s strategy and digital director of Frédéric Arnault, the youngest Arnault family member to step into the spotlight — Biver recalled sleeping in a Volkswagen van in his early Baselworld days, while telling clients he and his team were staying at the Hilton.

“We said, ‘We cannot sell a luxury brand like Blancpain and say we are sleeping in a camping bus!’” he said.

Ever-enthusiastic, Biver customarily greets his friend, Hublot chief executive officer Ricardo Guadalupe, with praise, but the recent change of guard at LVMH added resonance.

“For seven years, he has been ceo of Hublot, so I’ve been away for seven years and each of these seven years has been better and better and Ricardo is going from record to record,” he said. “I have enormous admiration for what he’s doing.”

“I can confess to you what is my success in life — in my professional life — I would say my biggest success is Ricardo Guadalupe,” he said, with his trademark flair.

Guadalupe, a globe-trotting executive who acts as a tireless host for a packed brand schedule —hundreds of events a year — told WWD the label’s Ferrari-themed year is part of a broad-sweeping partnership — down to the silver-and-black-striped Hublot safety car that drove onto the floor at the close of his speech.

“We do over 200 events with Ferrari in the world during the year: it could be the launching of a car at a dealership in Austin in the U.S. or could be something bigger, linked to the 90th anniversary of Scuderia, for example,” he said, holding out his wrist to show the new watch — with softer angles than usual for the brand. “It’s very light, we don’t want to repeat tradition.”

The executive recently took a spin in a Ferrari on a frozen lake in Lapland in Finland — equipped with studded tires — slipping off of the GPS-drawn track as a professional driver told him how to negotiate the turns while skidding.

He had brought clients with him — part of what he calls a “money can buy experience.”

“There were bigger fans than me — who didn’t want to stop,” he chuckled.

Following strong growth in 2018, the company has a more conservative forecast for the coming year, in the single digits.

“The beginning of the year was a bit challenging, notably with this tension between China and the U.S., we feel like the Chinese are traveling less, which impacts sales around the world, notably in the U.S. In Las Vegas, for example, we really had a drop in footfall in store traffic — as for others,” he said.

Making his first public appearance since taking over management of LVMH’s watch division and Tag Heuer just a few months ago, Bianchi said he would only speak about the watch brand at the show.

Baselworld: Tag Heuer's connected golf watch

Baselworld: Tag Heuer’s connected golf watch  Courtesy

The label is tackling two efforts at once: traditional watchmaking — helped by a new hire, Guy Bove, known for his design work at Breitling and IWC Schaffhausen — and connected watches, as it continues to invest in digital channels; retail, as well as research and development and marketing. China is also a priority for the brand.

“We have to stay agile — every year we are producing hundreds of thousands of watches per year…so we have to stay agile, otherwise we will get into trouble,” he said.

Joining Bianchi on the stage was Arnault, who presented the label’s connected golf watch along with a new application — which can be used without the watch — and broader ambitions for the brand.

“There were…in the past some theories of disruption written on Tag Heuer and you can expect some further disruption to come in the future…we really wish to continue pushing the boundaries in the watch world, but also in other industries,” said the youthful executive.

“We’re not today announcing an ambassador or a new sponsoring deal in golf, but really coming with a product for athletes, for players — and it’s a very complete product,” added Arnault. The technology maps out most of the golf courses around the world — 99 percent of them, according to the company — showing how far the next hole is as well as ‘hazards’ such as trees or water, and measures distances of golfing shots through a built-in GPS system.

Matthieu Soudan, who joined the company a year and a half ago, fresh from the elite Paris engineering school École des Mines, said the project was born from feedback from customers asking what golf applications the connected Tag Heuer watch had.

“They were asking for golf applications…not asking us to develop one, but what is available in the store — and this is when we discovered there was a huge opportunity,” he said.

Part of a team of 25 engineers, based in a WeWork space in Paris, the executive said the product was forged through a mix of internal technology and partnerships. The toughest part of the project was a tight delivery date, he said.

Zenith, which is LVMH’s recent turnaround story, has clocked fast growth — at a double-digit rate last year and into the first three months of this year, said ceo Julien Tornare. In an uncertain economic environment — with crises including Brexit and yellow-vest protests in France — the label plans to double down on marketing, with an eye to Japan, greater China and the U.S. The company has been working on the brand platform and is positioning itself to appeal to people who push limits, he explained, pointing to a new advertising image with a rocket ship and a star that figured prominently — an emblem of the brand.

Biver and Bianchi liked the concept, he said, noting a “good sense of marketing” from his new boss.

The brand brought the new Defy 21 in carbon — built with thin layers of carbon making each watch original.

LVMH executives were listening carefully to plans for the Baselworld show as well as thoughts from retailers as they consider whether to stick with the fair, he explained.

“If the project is really interesting and the costs are reduced and there’s a real vision to make Baselworld something international and activities around the show more — it remains a magnificent show and why would we leave?” he said. Tornare predicted that if ever Baselworld and SIHH were to disappear, labels would likely regroup and coordinate timing for events.

Like Zenith, Bulgari has been considering its roots and clarifying what the brand stands for, according to ceo Jean-Christophe Babin. Spanning across a broader range of products than many other companies at the show — with fragrance, jewelry and handbags — products are always inspired by jewelry or Rome.

“It’s about communication, what you convey through retail, the style of the store. With Peter Marino, we have brought Rome into the equation, for the product and logo and hospitality, to be a true Roman experience not just about marble and architecture but about dolce vita, the warm sense of hospitality, familiarity and sophistication,” he said.

This means training staff, whether they are in Japan or America, to treat clients to a “visit to Rome more than a visit to a jewelry brand,” he said. The executive aims to double its size in the next five to seven years, targeting steady growth rather than spikes and falling out of trend.

Rolex also conveyed steadiness, noting this year was more about extensions than launches.

Piero Braga, who heads Gucci’s timepieces and jewelry division, showed the label’s Grip quartz line alongside the automatic G-Timeless line in a towering glass pop-up space covered in plants.

Baselworld: Gucci’s automatic G-timeless watch  Courtesy/Fabio Pianigiani

“It was important for us to make a statement, we’re happy we took this decision,” he said, looking up at the glass ceiling. “I like that it’s transparent, while everyone else is hiding inside a fortress — we let people see what we do.”

Having realigned the aesthetic of the label, the company has focused on building pillars for the brand that will take it into the future.

“The fact that we do things with a fashion angle doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to inject newness every season,” he said.

The idea is to manufacture and offer products with a different angle without changing the entire range every season, he added.

Frédéric Grangié, president of the watches and fine jewelry division at Chanel, said he had a very positive impression of the fair and applauded the organizers for their management of traffic flows in the space and the new journalist center.

“It’s a very selective club, we are very happy to be part of it as long as we are here with other members we feel close to,” he said, citing Patek Philippe, Rolex and Chopard. Chanel brought the new version of its ceramic J12 watch in black and white as well as the slim Première watch, that retails for just under 4,000 euros, with a velvetlike strap.

Baselworld: Chanel's Premiere watch

Baselworld: Chanel’s Premiere watch  Courtesy

“The expectation is to make the experience probably even more exclusive and hopefully bring back some of the true masters of watchmaking who might be small independent companies, but participate so much in what watchmaking is about — to me that would make a big difference,” he said, referring to smaller players that are pushing boundaries.

Peter Stas, president of Frédérique Constant, a label he established with his wife Aletta Stas-Bax and later sold to Citizen, was a bit skeptical of the new format, noting organizers had referred to private planes, conferences and exhibits while he thought few people come to the fair in private planes or to listen to people talk about the industry.

“We’re here to really find new things, new products, new brands and they’re still not encouraging so what you used to have with the small booths, you would browse,” he said, adding it took him an hour to browse most of the booths.

Baselworld: Rolex booth

Baselworld: Rolex booth  Courtesy

The timing of the calendar change could also prove problematic, he said.

“It’s too late in April — customers want to place their orders earlier in the year so they can start the production, you already have the production running but you usually get more orders in Basel and then you either expand the model product or reduce it — you balance it. You can only do this by early May,” said Stas.

“We would like to stay, we are well-positioned with the three brands,” he added.

Caroline Scheufele of Chopard also struck a positive note. “I am very happy, I cannot imagine not going to Baselworld. I think they’ve done a great job…it looks much more luxurious and the spirit is very good, we have more press appointments than ever, 15 percent more than last year, and enough client appointments as we are trying to streamline our distribution,” she said.

The jeweler plans to open a new store in London on Bond Street in June, with a “personalized concept for London,” she said.

“We want to give clients the feel of London in the London shop and Paris in the Paris shop, not just duplicate the boutique” around the world, she said.

Valerie Messika, who plans to open her first two stores in the U.S. this year, was also positive about the fair.

“It works well because the ones that are here are of good quality,” she said, citing Rolex and Patek Philippe.

“There’s less traffic,” however, she noted.

“We’re finding the fair very strong,” said Jeffrey Cohen, president of Citizen’s American operations, noting that between the Bulova and Citizen labels, the company has the number-one and number-two brands in North America in the $50 to $1,500 price point, grabbing market share as smaller brands falter.

“The pie’s not growing, we’re just getting a much bigger piece of the pie,” he said.

“We’re not into gadgets,” he added, noting a lot of labels have gone “off-brand” in his view.

In closing remarks, Baselworld director Michel Loris-Melikoff stressed the importance of helping exhibitors to do good business.

“We believe in the live marketing and live trade-show experience. We want to deliver a live experience that is digitally enhanced. The live experience is at the core of what we do,” he said.