Times are changing at Baselworld

The economic slowdown in China and upsurge in smartwatch sales result in new strategies at world’s biggest watch fair

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 12:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 12:12am

Caution rather than confidence was the prevailing mood among attendees and brands at Baselworld. With sales growth in luxury watches stymied by an economic slowdown in China as well as the rise of smartwatches, international watchmakers responded to the downmarket conditions with lower prices, smaller watch cases and a general sense of less-is-more.

Last year’s fair, which attracted upwards of 120,000 people including 3,600 journalists, was dominated by the Apple Watch, the Cupertino-based company’s big play to dominate the watch industry the way it has with mobile phones, tablets and portable music players. Despite the huge fanfare, global marketing and enthusiasm, the Apple Watch hasn’t, quite yet, caught fire in sales terms. Unlike with its other devices, Apple has been conspicuously shy about releasing sales figures for the Apple Watch, but several highly respected tech analysts believe the company has sold about five million watches so far. For Apple, five million is a relatively paltry number but from a standing start, and with no prior watchmaking pedigree, this figure already makes the company one of the world’s biggest watchmakers, and this fact continues to reverberate.

Baselworld this year saw the smartwatch given more prominence, a telling indication of where the industry is shifting its focus. Many traditional Swiss watchmakers are now embracing the smartwatch. A slew of smartwatch launches this year followed the Apple path with timepieces that featured large, tactile touch-screen dials offering features such as calls, texting and health and wellness trackers all of which seem standard now.

Big smartwatch launches came from Tissot and Mondaine and updates and tweaks from companies such as Frederique Constant and Fossil that embraced the shift earlier than others.

One of the more interesting, if not gimmicky, smartwatch launches came from Breitling with the Exospace B55, which managed to link its heritage and competency with aviation watches with a bluetooth-enabled watch that linked to smartphones. Breitling took a fresh approach to the connected watch by putting the smartphone at the service of the watch rather than the other way around. The watch is able to show notifications of texts and messages and appointments but isn’t a mini computer prone to battery drain.

At the higher end of the market, blue chip brands that up until last year were considered recession proof showed a palpable change in strategy to more accessible pricing in some cases and a focus on bestselling icon watches for others. The ever increasing inflation in prices over the past decade has seemingly ground to a halt due to softening demand. Of course, that is not to say the bigger brands would contemplate cutting prices, instead, new iterations and models which featured complications became more accessible. Tourbillons, an age-old complication that attempts to protect the movement from the effects of gravity, were once rare and highly expensive but this year saw some of the cheapest tourbillon watches to hit the market.

Tag Heuer, a brand undergoing a huge restructuring, released the Carrera Calibre Heuer 02T, purportedly the cheapest Swiss-made tourbillon at 14,950 Swiss francs (HK$119,000). Jean Claude Biver, the head of Tag Heuer and the man who made Hublot the major player it is today, is continuing to pursue an aggressive strategy of making his brand first to market with technology (such as he did with the Tag Heuer Connected smartwatch in 2015) and much more desirable and accessible to people looking either to trade down from the blue chip brands or those looking to trade up for brands making sought after complications like the tourbillon.

Rolex and Patek Philippe, seen by many as industry bellwethers, wary perhaps of straying too far from consumers’ expectations, eschewed experimentation to tweak existing popular models. Rolex’s crowd-pleaser was the steel Daytona with black ceramic bezel, a watch that garnered huge amounts of social media and watch press coverage.

Rolex’s sister brand Tudor, also took a popular model, the Black Bay, and put it in a bronze case, offering something familiar but with a twist.

Similarly, Omega launched new iterations of its ever popular Speedmaster range including the Speedmaster CK2998 Limited Edition a shameless remake of one of the earliest Speedmasters and the Speedmaster Master Chronometer Chronograph Moonphase, the addition of a complication to a well-loved design.

Patek Philippe took one of its most iconic complications, the world time complication with 24 time zones, and put it inside a smaller and thinner case.

The 2000s and early 2010s were a golden time for the watch industry, buoyed by exponential demand from newly rich nations such as China and Russia. However, the halcyon days are firmly over, and this year’s Baselworld watchmakers have to recalibrate their offerings for an uncertain future.