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Feature Stories, Watches

The recent Watches & Wonders Geneva and Shanghai events provide an opportunity to reflect on the current state of the Swiss watch fairs, and what a return to physical shows could entail.
The recent Watches & Wonders Geneva and Shanghai events provide an opportunity to reflect on the current state of the Swiss watch fairs, and what a return to physical shows could entail.

Watching the Clock

The hybrid Watches & Wonders trade event – presented digitally in Geneva followed by a physical Shanghai show – has rekindled optimism for the Swiss watch industry, reports MARTIN FOSTER.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic focused the world’s attention on large trade fair gatherings, declaring them off-limits for health and safety reasons. Yet even before this, what those within the watch industry regarded as ‘normal’ was already facing considerable challenge.

As we know, the previous annual cycle of trade fairs – Baselworld, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), Inhorgenta Münich, the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair, et al – was already in disarray, primarily related to uncontained costs.

The history of defections from Baselworld and, to a lesser extent, SIHH reached a crisis point two years ago, and was a result of ever-higher exhibitor costs and fair management intransigence.

The history of the decaying Swiss industry loyalty is well chronicled and does not need further exposure or examination, but it has informed the current state of affairs.

In late 2019, SIHH was re-branded as Watches & Wonders (W&W) Geneva, with a new format incorporating a new experiential ‘In The City’ component that was intended to promote the culture and lifestyle of Geneva.

W&W was then converted into a digital platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and considered a success – within the limitations of an online event.

However, an organised week-long online presentation such as W&W is not a trade fair and to be perfectly frank, there is quite simply no comparison.

Experienced journalists reporting digital presentations are degraded to ‘influencers’ by removing any possibility of genuine review.

Handling the actual product in the company of the brand and other industry journalists is a very different scenario to sitting in the office staring at a computer screen while studio images cruise by with a smooth brand commentary.

For the press, which has provided decades of reader and buyer access to new products and informed, in-depth industry coverage, constructing a reliable review with only digital imagery adds a considerable degree of difficulty.

Of course, the highly developed physical trade fair format primarily incorporates brand presentations and commentary, and also digital components – but it is not reliant on these.

Physical shows also provide the benefit of footfall to the newer and smaller exhibitors – it should be noted that such exhibitors were conspicuously absent for the seven days of the digital W&W, and their selling platform was simply non-existent.

For the 2021 edition, W&W was split into two parts, starting with a digital format in Geneva, then over to Shanghai for an in-person salon.

Thus, for more than 10 days, the eyes of the world were on the creativity and expertise of the most prestigious names in watchmaking.

The Geneva digital component focused on a well-organised succession of brand and discussion forums during the second week of April.

There were approximately 500 press conferences, more than 40 keynote addresses, a daily live Morning Show, six expert-led panels and a wealth of exceptional horological creations revealed by the 38 prestigious participating brands.

Industry heavyweights, including those that deserted Baselworld, participated. Some new brands have recently joined, such as the LVMH Group’s watchmaking division, as well as Oris, Carl F. Bucherer, Maurice Lacroix and Nomos.

Most of the historic brands which were part of the SIHH – and are largely owned by luxury conglomerate Richemont – were still present, together with the big, well-established independents Rolex, Tudor, Patek Philippe, Chopard and Chanel.

Overall, 38 brands presented at the Geneva W&W via the digital platform. A few days later, 19 brands exhibited in a physical format at the invitation-only Shanghai show.

Media representatives, retailers, and selected watch enthusiasts were able to handle watches presented at W&W Geneva, as well as new models created especially for the Chinese market, and coveted heritage pieces.

The list included new models from Rolex, Tudor, Chopard, Baume & Mercier and Ulysse Nardin.

In addition, the dedicated auditorium space saw expert panels discussing topics including digitalisation in business, the impact of the secondary market in China, 2021 trends, iconic watches and watchmaking’s grand complications. The panels were also live- streamed and broadcast via social media.

Building more anticipation and excitement for the event, attendees were teased with the promise of celebrity ambassadors, influencers, and a 15,000-drone light show on the closing evening.

Left to Right: Watches & Wonders Geneva was immediately followed by Watches & Wonders Shanghai

Above: Baume & Mercier

Above: Rolex

Above: Chopard


Swatch Group digs in

Matthias Breschan, who was appointed CEO of Longines in July 2020, recently reaffirmed that Swatch Group will not be returning to the normal form of trade fair, such as HourUniverse, successor to the now-defunct Baselworld.

The former CEO of Rado told UK-based industry publication WatchPro, “The whole way Baselworld was conducted was obsolete.

“We need new ways to present novelties throughout the year and in different countries. We need to be flexible.”

”Watches & Wonders was split into two parts, starting with a digital format in Geneva, then over to Shanghai for an in-person salon.”

While it is assuredly true that it is beneficial for watch brands to present their innovations throughout the year and in different countries, Breschan’s Baselworld assertion is simplistic nonsense.

Baselworld certainly had its problems, but those problems had nothing whatever to do with obsolescence.

A primary release and presentation at a physical event creates opportunities for media, suppliers, retailers, and the public to interact with the new products and build relationships with the brand, as well as networking with other industry players.

As has been noted by other analysts, a single release is more cost-effective for smaller brands which may lack the resources to hold several presentations in different locations throughout each year.

In a statement released in February, Michel Loris-Melikoff, managing director HourUniverse, said, “Our ongoing discussions with industry stakeholders have clearly demonstrated that the demand from the wider community for a large annual gathering in Switzerland, in the heart of Europe, is now stronger than ever.

Above: A Lange & Söhne movement

“We are working to make HourUniverse not only the best business platform, but also a superb experience for our visitors.”

He added, “The pleasure of all being together, seeing clients and the press again, discovering and creating new opportunities, facilitating transparency, openness and conviviality are at the heart of our endeavours.”

For its part, the organiser of HourUniverse – the Switzerland-based MCH Group – says the entire on-site reception structure has been redesigned to address exhibitor concerns.

The pricing policy has been drastically adjusted to allow exhibitors a better return on their investment, adapted to their business’ size, scope, expectations and needs.

Similarly, the accommodation offered for exhibitors, media representatives, and visitors alike will be at guaranteed competitive prices.

Outdoor catering and public entertainment areas are also planned; these are promising steps in the right direction.

In February, MCH Group published a statement confirming the show – initially scheduled for April, to coincide with Geneva W&W – would instead be postponed to the Northern Hemisphere summer (June to August).

It remains to be seen if the new Swiss show can live up to the Baselworld trade fair legacy, but the industry exhibitors should at least give it a try.



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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.

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