The 41st Baselworld watch fair

All eyes are on the 41st Baselworld watch fair, as the Chinese appetite for timepieces drives innovation, writes Abid Rahman

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 9:55am

Opening on Thursday, Baselworld has moved from its regular early March slot to accommodate the final touches of a two-year multimillion Swiss franc refit. Central to the facelift is the new 95,000 square metre exhibition hall designed by Herzog & de Meuron, to accommodate the record 1,800 exhibitors, 3,300 journalists and 100,000 visitors over eight days.

Long regarded by watch industry insiders as something of a circus, the army of brand PRs, press people and launch parties that make up Baselworld can make the hype overwhelming.

Despite the blizzard of brand propaganda, it is possible to see some key trends emerging that will dictate watchmaking for not only 2013 but the next few years.

Due to the immensely technical nature of high-end watchmaking, trends take longer to manifest themselves than those in fashion. While colours, the cut, fit and popularity of certain items can vary from season to season, the basic trends are set in motion years before they are revealed at Baselworld.

Some overarching styles also change little from year to year as watchmakers cater to their most lucrative client base, which over the past decade has been China. And not only Chinese buyers on the mainland and in Hong Kong, but also those travelling to Europe and the US.

As at Baselworld 2012, more restrained case sizes and classically-styled dials catering to Chinese tastes are expected to be a driving trend for 2013.

The basic trends are set in motion years before they are showcased at Baselworld

Heritage brands such as Breguet continue to mine a rich seam in China, with consumers attracted to not only the history and story of the brand but dedication to classic design and smaller case sizes. Keeping things simple but elegant can be very lucrative, as watchmakers such as Rolex and Patek Philippe continue to prove.

Another big trend set to continue is ceramic: watchmakers are adopting the material in a big way for cases, bezels and bracelets. It extends a trend that first made waves a few years ago, led by brands like Chanel. The real significance of the ceramic trend is the creeping influence of the fashion maisons on high-end watchmaking.

Often derided and eyed with suspicion by the more traditional watch specialist ateliers, fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior have increased their market share spectacularly in recent years and have done so on the back of solidly made watches with eye-catching designs, colours and materials.

A curious echo from the financial crash of 2008 has been the use of gold in watches. The obsession with hoarding gold as a stable asset of wealth ever since has trickled into luxury watchmaking, and brands are doing their level best to cater to this demand with watches in rose, yellow or white gold. Arnold & Son and Ulysse Nardin are just two among many names now focusing their efforts on crafted gold cases for their timepieces.

Watches with ever more complicated dial faces are jostling for attention at the fair this year. The most keenly followed launch of the week is the latest Opus from Harry Winston, now in its 13th iteration. Harry Winston's flair for the avant-garde is now evident in its main collection of watches, as can be seen with the Histoire de Tourbillon No 4.

More venerable brands such as Chopard and Girard-Perregaux are also pushing the boundaries of technology and legibility. Spurred into action by upstarts like Urwerk and MB&F the larger brands see there are buyers willing to wear "mechanical machines" on their wrists rather than practical tellers of time.

Technology for technology's sake is another thing to watch out for this year, with brands such as HYT hoping to capture the hearts and minds of a sceptical public with what it regards as a revolution in timekeeping. For HYT's H1 time is fluid, literally. It uses liquid capillary action to power a retrograde indicator that may seem gimmicky but undoubtedly takes engineering genius. HYT, along with the long-time industry provocateur Christophe Claret, are great signals of future trends in watchmaking with many of its innovations not likely to be wholly adopted or join the mainstream for several years.

Globally, there has been an indication of a luxury goods slowdown of late, with the likes of Burberry issuing profit warnings and bleak pronouncements on its prospects for this year.

The watch industry, on the other hand, is bucking the trend for austerity in the luxury sector and gambling on the hope that the public retains its appetite for fine watchmaking.