Could this be the dawn of a new era in the world of luxury watches and high jewellery? On the surface, there appears to have been a shift, with independent brands making their presence felt, while international exhibitions are evolving to cater to the industry’s changes.

Take last month’s prestigious jewellery, art and antique fair, the Biennale des Antiquaires, in Paris. Organisers describe the event as one for “art lovers from across the world. The Biennale des Antiquaires has been a must-attend event for more than half a century and quintessentially representative of the French art de vivre”.

Indian jewellery house Nirav Modi exhibited at Biennale for the first time, but Chanel, Bulgari and Boucheron took a break.

Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin says: “We know from experience that it’s better [to] display a collection earlier [in the year].”

Babin adds that the brand prefers to launch new products at a time of its choosing instead of waiting for a trade fair. The brand organised exclusive soirees to unveil their latest high jewellery and watch complications at VIP events across the globe.

Luxury conglomerates are not the only ones bailing from the fair. Celebrated independent jewellery artist Wallace Chan, the first Asian to be invited to the Biennale years ago, says there may be several reasons for the withdrawal of high-end brands from luxury fairs, including the market status or changes in the exhibition’s policy that upset previous participants.

Chan did not exhibit this year after two previous appearances as he wanted to explore alternate platforms through which his works would be showcased alongside Monet and Picasso masterpieces.

This is neither the first time, nor the last, Swiss watchmakers have faced a slowdown, and fairs haven’t disappeared because of it
Fabienne Lupo, chairwoman and managing director of the FHH

This upheaval is not an isolated occurrence. At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) exhibition, organised by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) in January, nine independent watchmakers took part for the first time. The exclusive industry event is opening its doors to the public on the last day of next year’s fair.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based Watches and Wonders has transformed from an annual event into a biennial exhibition.

“This is neither the first time, nor the last, Swiss watchmakers have faced a slowdown, and fairs haven’t disappeared because of it,” says Fabienne Lupo, chairwoman and managing director of the FHH, the organisation responsible for SIHH and Watches and Wonders. “New fairs are opening all around the globe.”

She says the time has come for trade fairs, such as SIHH, to play a leading role.

“Trade fairs have a vital role to play when the economy is slowing, because they are precisely that: for the trade,” she says, adding that the strategy “is a legitimate and entirely logical development”.

“Logical, because these brands are present in Geneva during the SIHH week anyway. And legitimate because they are representative of what’s known as ‘new watchmaking’, a generation of creators who contribute their vision of the profession. Their presence strengthens the aura of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, which perhaps has never lived up to its name so well.”

With SIHH opening its door to independent brands under the Carré des Horlogers series, the move was viewed as a crucial step for the watch industry. The Carré des Horlogers is a collection of nine artisan-creators and independent workshops that are viewed as ‘new watchmaking’.

Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie, agrees that the move will be mutually beneficial. “I think we benefit from each other. We’re bringing creativity, dynamism,” he says.

“We try [new] things. It’s rare for a big brand to be a trendsetter. You cannot challenge the norm that easily because you have such a huge heritage. If we make a mistake, we’re not going to lose thousands of customers. So we’re daring”.

Figures coming out of Switzerland do not bode well for the luxury watch sector.

In the first quarter, exports fell 8.9 per cent compared to the previous year, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Many in the industry blame the slump on the fallout from the continuing anticorruption drive in China and the strong Swiss franc.

According to industry figures, watch sales in mainland China fell about 30 per cent, while watch exports from Switzerland to Hong Kong slumped more than 30 per cent this year, compared with 2015.

Hong Kong was previously the biggest export market for Swiss watches. But retail sales in the city have taken a beating for several months, which some believe is the result of mainland Chinese customers staying away because of political unrest.

Some pundits are confident that the market will rise because of improving sentiment in the United States.

The jewellery industry has also suffered this year. Some feel that adversity is not to be feared, but taken advantage of.

“I see it as an opportunity to do my own [thing] without any pressure,” says Taiwanese jewellery artist Cindy Chao whose eponymous brand was invited to exhibit at last month’s Biennale des Antiquaires for the first time.

Chao says trade fairs are a platform to show what she has to offer and “a reminder to keep challenging myself creatively”.

“When it comes to international exhibitions, each fair serves its own purpose and caters to unique groups, but all have high visibility on a global scale. They provide platforms for our works to be seen by the right crowd, and that is the most important.”

Additional Reporting Vivian Chen (Edited by Deen Nawaz)

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