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A short history of Swiss watch fairs – and why the digital-only Watches and Wonders might just be the best yet

By Bill Prince   |   4 minute read

Watches and Wonders Geneva

As with so much else in European history, the story of the Swiss watch fair is a tale of two rivers. On the banks of the Rhine sits Basel, seat of learning, home to Big Pharma and, since 1917 a clearing house for all things horological, thanks to its annual watch and jewellery fair.

Further west, where the Rhone empties out of Lac Leman, sits Geneva, site of the second largest annual Swiss fair, Watches and Wonders, (formerly known as the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH) and, since its inception in 1991, home to Richemont brands including Cartier, IWC, Jaeger Le-Coultre and Roger Dubuis – alongside a growing cadre of independent dial names.

As such, SIHH was conceived as a more rarefied redoubt from the ultimately trade focused Basel Fair, with its numerous halls of tool-making machinery and galleried suites of diamond merchants. Nevertheless, both fairs served as a single entry point to the vast Swiss watch-making enterprise – at least they did until 2009 when Geneva opted to move back from its annual March date contiguous with Basel’s, to January. Otherwise, disregarding occasional bumps in the road such as the SARS crisis of 2003 (when clients from Asia were all but absent) and the sudden depegging of the Swiss franc from the Euro in 2015, the twice-yearly trek to Basel and Geneva became an essential, if uneventful moment in any watch buyer’s calendar.

Watches and Wonders

All that changed in 2018, when the Swatch Group, bristling at the rising cost of showing its 18 brands at Baselworld (incurred by the multi-million CHF remodelling of the Messe Basel venue), announced it would be leaving the fair. The following year, keystone exhibitors Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille announced they would depart the renamed Watches and Wonders, citing the changing digital landscape.

Suddenly, exhibition organisers on the Rhine and the Rhone were facing a wholesale disruption to decades-old marketing strategies as brands sought to achieve greater standout. Notwithstanding Basel’s decision to reunite with Watches and Wonders around an April date in 2020, the LVMH group of brands was the first to go it alone, hosting its inaugural Watch Week in Dubai in January. However, a second edition of the Swatch Group’s new Time To Move initiative due to take place two months later in Zurich was cancelled. By which time, the looming Covid crisis had directly impacted on the likely delivery of both Swiss fairs.

In short order, Watches and Wonders announced it would go ‘digital’ around its originally planned April 2020 dates, while Baselworld chose to postpone until January 2021, thereby holding back in the form of deposits funds that brands felt might usefully be returned to them. The ensuing furore led to five of its most significant exhibitors announcing their decision to quit, forcing Basel to cancel its plans and, ultimately rebrand as HourUniverse ahead of any future confirmed showcase.

Which is how Watches and Wonders 2021, once again digital-only due to the ongoing crisis, has come to number nearly 40 participating brands, including, for the first time in its 30-year history, the Geneva houses of Rolex, Tudor and Patek Philippe, alongside Chopard, Chanel and the aforementioned LVMH-owned Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith.

Comprising two separate digital events, a Shanghai fair featuring 19 brands runs over five days from April 14, preceded by the 40-strong Geneva event which gets underway on April 7. It promises to be a heady affair, with day-long programmes of keynote addresses, product launches and panel discussions. Although invitation-only to industry participants, there is a “Morning Show” live stream, recapping on the major announcements, accessible to all through the Watches and Wonders website.

Granted, from a watch commentator’s point of view, it’s a long way from talking shop in a packed bierkeller beside the Rhine or attending a celebrity-packed launch in one of the glitzy boutiques that line Geneva’s Rue Du Rhone. After all, there’s really no substitute for being able to hold and on occasion hear the novelties ‘IRL’. But as next-best-things go, Watches and Wonders’ digital-only product launches offer the first chance to gain virtual access to the models we’ll be coveting most in 2021 – all of which you can find on the Watches of Switzerland Group’s websites.

While the Swiss watch industry has known moments of crisis before (not least the advent of quartz movements in the Seventies) Covid, together with the ongoing digital disruption has felt more like the perfect storm for a business centred on craft and the valuing of prestige. Which is why the heightened sense of corps d’esprit reflected in its most emblematic players convening around a new, global opportunity to display their wares makes this latest iteration of Watches and Wonders the most welcome of all.

Bill Prince is a writer, editor and mens’ style expert at Telegraph Luxury. Bill writes regularly on watches for Vanity Fair On Time and Telegraph Time.

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