Basel watch fair opens amid uncertain times
The world's biggest watch fair is set to open this week in Basel, offering an industry showcase for the world's most extravagant, rare and complex timepieces.
The 42nd edition of Baselworld, which opens in the northern Swiss city to the media on Wednesday and a day later to the public, is expected to draw some 100,000 visitors.
Nearly 1,500 exhibitors, including leading watch brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breguet and Omega, will be there, offering up different styles for every budget.
From affordable plastic sports watches to intricately detailed mechanic time pieces that can be priced well above the one-million-franc ($1.1-million) mark.
Hublot, a brand belonging to French luxury group LVMH, told AFP it would unveil a watch with a face made of osmium crystal, a new material.
Like other prestige brands, Hublot is in a race to offer collectors exclusive models not dangling from every wrist.
It has teamed up with a Swiss scientific team to develop a new way to work with osminum — a rare metal in the platinum family which when crystallized has a rare shine to it, the brand said.
At Baselworld — also devoted to jewellery — exhibitors also indulge in cut-throat competition on the marketing front to grab attention for their new offerings amid the multitude of sparkling gems and flashing lights.
With the Easter holidays fast approaching, Geneva jeweller Shawish is thus set to present its own version of hollowed-out chocolate egg surprises popular among children, with a very adult twist.
Inside the fine, Swiss milk chocolate shell is not a plastic toy, but one of Shawish's latest jewel creations.
Less than three months from the start of the World Cup in Brazil, Baselworld will also be showcasing its share of football related themes.
Swiss watchmaker Jeanrichard, which recently partnered with British club Arsenal FC, plans to bring in French football great Robert Pires to unveil the limited editions it has created for the club.
Baselworld is the most important event of the year for the global watch industry, with retailers making the lion share of their annual orders there.
Retro trend harks back to 1970s
And marketplace observers descend on the fair for guidance on the hottest trends for the coming year.
Jérôme Bloch, head of men's fashion at Parisian trend agency NellyRodi, expects to see a resurgence of 1970s looks.
Until recently, the retro side of watch fashion was mainly inspired by the 1950s, but Bloch said the inspiration was moving forward a few decades as those born in the 1970s hit their 40s.
"They want their father's watch, but with some upgrades to make it a bit more modern," he told AFP.
Financial analysts too follow the hustle and bustle at Baselworld closely as they attempt to decipher the health of the global luxury market.
"From a demand perspective, this edition of Baselworld is probably going to be one of the most uncertain since the collapse of 2009, because of the drop in China," Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Jon Cox told AFP.
In 2013, Swiss watch exports edged up 1.9 percent in 2013 to a record 21.8 billion Swiss francs ($24.1 billion, 17.8 billion euros).
That marked a new record high, but also a significant slowdown in growth, after exports a year earlier swelled nearly 11 percent.
Swiss watchmakers, especially in the high-end segment, have been hard-hit by a drop in demand in China, one of their biggest markets, which has driven breathtaking growth in the industry for several years.
But the bonanza came to a screeching halt last year as Beijing attempted to rein in corruption, including bans on extravagant gifts in business settings.
The new, more austere reality for the luxury brands should leave its mark not only on corporate finance but also on watch designs.
"I would very be surprised to see a resurgence of the bling-bling era," Cox said.
The analyst nonetheless expects to see industry growth of around eight percent this year, as exports to Swiss watchmakers' biggest market Hong Kong appeared set to stabilize.