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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact international watch exhibitions – the question is, how will the industry respond?
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact international watch exhibitions – the question is, how will the industry respond?

Watching the watch industry in a lockdown world

As a reincarnated Baselworld draws closer, MARTIN FOSTER explores the complications of the international watch industry since the onset of the global COVID pandemic and looks toward 2022.

Since organiser MCH Group confirmed in June that it was ditching its HourUniverse concept, developed in July 2020, in order to resurrect the Baselworld brand, a great deal has changed – and a lot hasn’t!

With the first Baselworld ‘pop-up’ show is scheduled for 30 August–4 September in Geneva, the international watch industry remains in disarray as traditional exhibition events are announced, only to be cancelled or postponed.

‘Normal’ was already under considerable stress before COVID-19 focused the world’s attention on hot-spot trade fairs; then, even our concept of ‘the new normal’ changed as the current Delta strain has further disrupted lives and livelihoods.

“When Watches & Wonders announced its dates for a physical show in 2022, Geneva’s most prestigious hotels immediately doubled the price for available bookings during the event. Will they never understand the history lessons of Baselworld?”

The year began in April with the successful Watches & Wonders Geneva online edition, which was the first event promising a return to the regular annual releases from the major watch brands.

Yet the Swiss watch industry was already in disarray well before the global pandemic, with uncontained costs of the regular trade fairs, and now more than two years have passed since the watch industry last gathered en masse.

Today, patching up this disarray is not helped by the unpredictability of COVID-19.

The World Health Organisation states that the world remains largely susceptible to infection, including new variants, citing the inappropriate relaxation of public health and social policy, together with political failure of health measures that we know prevent infections.

According to some experts, the situation is not helped by the uneven and hugely inequitable distribution of vaccines.

Swiss return

The latest trade show to announce its return for 2021 is Geneva Watch Days, which has laid out a schedule for a ‘phygital’ hybrid event, with exhibitions taking place across Geneva from 30 August–3 September, along with a worldwide digital presentation.

This 2021 edition will include the ‘founding brands’ such as Bulgari, Breitling, De Bethune, Gerald Genta, Girard-Perregaux, H. Moser & Cie., MB&F, Ulysse Nardin and Urwerk.

The associated brands include Arnold & Son, Czapek, Doxa, Ferdinand Berthoud, Frederique Constant Group, Maurice Lacroix, Oris and Reuge.

While many retail buyers and media will be unable to visit the physical fair due to existing travel restrictions in certain countries, its availability online will ensure that no-one should miss out on previewing new collections.

Historically, the preferred date for the annual watch industry release of new products is around March and April. Complicating the issue for potential exhibitors and media coverage is news of a third exhibition called Time to Watches.

With a launch date of 30 March–5 April 2022 – concurrent with Watches & Wonders Geneva – it will be located at the Geneva University of Art & Design, just a few minutes away from the Palexpo centre hosting Watches & Wonders.

The organiser appears determined to provide an event for watch brands that cannot gain access into the main Watches & Wonders exhibition but feels that Baselworld is unlikely to have the ‘pulling power’ to attract trade and press visitors away from Geneva.

“Complicating the issue for potential exhibitors and media coverage is news of a third exhibition called Time to Watches, with a launch date of 30 March–5 April 2022.”

Certainly Baselworld will need to confront this issue – particularly in terms of media coverage – given its new, shorter fair dates and location at the opposite end of Switzerland, 250km away.

It’s clear the industry is certainly attempting to re-establish face-to-face fairs.

WatchPro’s Robin Swithinbank expressed it beautifully: “Not having a watch fair has highlighted just how valuable watch fairs can be. After a year staring at wishy-washy watches on Zoom, no-one truly believes digital tools are a like-for-like replacement for the real thing.”

Interestingly, COVID-chaos notwithstanding, the annual and highly regarded Only Watch auction has gone from strength to strength; and in a time of uncertain exposure for the big brands, it provides a useful distraction.

Only Watch is a biennial charity auction of luxury, one-off timepieces created for the event by leading brands that dedicate the proceeds to research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

It was founded by Luc Pettavino and is organised by Association Monégasque contre les Myopathies. It has raised more than €70 million ($AU112 million) since the first auction in 2005.

There are 54 watch brands participating this year and, with the possible exception of Rolex – though well-represented by its ‘sister brand’ Tudor – all the big names are represented and each dedicates a one-off special model for the auction.

This year’s event is scheduled for 6 November 2021 and, in the weeks preceding, the watches will be presented to the public, media, and horological aficionados during a promotional tour that begins on 22 September in Monaco and then moves on to Dubai, Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong, ending in Geneva on auction day.

Presented below are a few examples of the very fine entrants to the Only Watch auction and note that sale/value indications are included; however, the figures are entirely speculative, and the outcomes could be very different on the day.

Many more brands can be researched online.

While charity has brought the at times disparate watch industry together, it must nevertheless confront the global realities of the pandemic.

For the year ahead, it is not sufficient that the Swiss industry settles its unity issues in isolation. Country-specific entry regulations often mean external and international coverage can only occur online until the political and pandemic issues find a workable balance.

Above: Bell Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull Sapphire
Above: MemoriginAbove: Breguet Type XX

 

Uncertain and unpredictable

Just as the industry announces prospective exhibition dates, new COVID-19 variants pop-up, old political rivalries resurface, and corporate avarice re-emerges as a powerful negative force.

For example, when Watches & Wonders announced its dates for a physical show in 2022, Geneva’s most prestigious hotels immediately doubled the price for available bookings during the event.

Will they never understand the history lessons of Baselworld?

In terms of the next major international watch show on the calendar, the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair (HKWCF) is scheduled for a special online edition from 8–19 September coupled with a ‘physical’ event to take place for 8–12 September.

“‘Normal’ was already under considerable stress before COVID-19 focused the world’s attention on hot-spot trade fairs; then, even our concept of ‘the new normal’ changed as the current Delta strain has further disrupted lives and livelihoods.”

However, at the time of publication there is little or no development of the promotional plans beyond the announcement of dates.

The HKWCF was the largest of the watch and clock fairs and although not prone to the ‘Swiss Disease’ of price-gouging exhibitors, it has come under a political cloud emanating from Mainland China – compounded by global travel insecurities.

There can be little doubt the special online edition will proceed in one form or another but the future of the traditional face-to-face show may be in doubt.

Most of the predictions about the return to ‘freedom of the skies’ – widespread international travel – have turned out to be a distant dream.

Furthermore, travellers face the possibility that rapidly-forming variants may suddenly lock them away at – or from – home for unpredictable periods.

In addition, there is the added cost of flights with restricted seating; some airfares have increased five-fold compared with pre-COVID times.

In 2018, Hong Kong was the world's largest importer of completed watches, as measured by sales in value, as well as the second-largest exporter of completed watches and third-largest exporter of clocks.

However, total exports of watches and clocks from Hong Kong declined by 28 per cent in 2020.

For watch and clock professionals, we must wait for further announcements about the HKWCF show.

 

Above: Mont Blanc
Above: Bell Ross BR 01 Cyber Skull SapphireAbove: Patek Philippe desk clock

 











ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Martin Foster

Martin Foster is a freelance journalist and Jeweller’s resident watch ‘guru’. Based in Sydney, Martin attends major international exhibitions covering the watch and timepieces categories.

Duraflex Group Australia
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