The scene was set for BaselWorld 2016 even before the eight-day trade fair opened last Thursday 17 March. Kicking off the show was a media conference – held annually one day prior to the main event – that presented the Swiss watch industry’s trading results over the past year and set a gloomy outlook for 2016.
To be fair, no one expected positive results, and the Swiss are also traditionally open about industry challenges, so it came as no surprise when it was reported that Swiss watch exports had fallen more than 3 per cent to CHF21.5 billion (AU$29.2 billion) in 2015.
BaselWorld managing director Sylvie Ritter acknowledged that some of the “small and medium” exhibiting businesses had felt the “uncertainty” of the current economic and political climate.
Despite this, she said that almost all those who had exhibited at BaselWorld 2015 – about 1,500 suppliers – had returned this year, reaffirming her confidence in the industry’s future.
It should be noted that exhibitor numbers once exceeded 1,800; however, that was prior to show organiser MCH Group’s completion of the CHF430 million (AU$854.7 m) venue redevelopment in 2013, which resulted in a reduction in the number of exhibitors the event could accommodate.
Commenting on this, Ritter said her aim had been quality over quantity.
Industry weathers the storm
A number of issues have impacted the luxury watch market and export figures, including Swiss currency woes, depressed economic factors in China and Russia, and stagnant sales in the Middle East.
In addition, sales in Hong Kong, the biggest market for Swiss watches, fell 23 per cent in 2015 as China’s economic slowdown and Beijing’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign severely affected mainland Chinese spending.
The Swiss have recognised that these concerns are unlikely to change any time soon, which added to the ominous outlook presented at the fair.
François Thiébaud, president of the Baselworld Swiss Exhibitors’ Committee, also attributed a fall in tourism to Paris, another luxury goods hub, which had been affected by the Islamist attacks in November last year.
Nevertheless, Eric Bertrand, the newly appointed president of the Baselworld Exhibitors’ Committee, said the industry had “always bounced back farther and higher” when presented with challenges.
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Echoing Bertrand’s sentiments, Ritter stated, “The sectors of watchmaking and jewellery have an outsized ability to react, to take into account new situations and to adapt.”
She added, “No other event in the world brings together so many famous and prestigious brands. No other watch or jewellery presentation attracts 150,000 visitors from over 100 countries, or can claim the media impact of BaselWorld.
“This show generates annually CHF2 billion (AU$2.7 b) of economic benefit with some 13,000 jobs directly related to it.”
It was too early to know final visitor numbers given BaselWorld doesn’t close until Thursday 24 March, but the general mood among the exhibitors and press – about 3,000 media representatives attend each year – was that visiting buyer numbers were significantly down.
Two exhibitors told Jeweller this was most noticeable in the size of buying teams.
“Whereas in past years, major Asian jewellery stores might have a senior buyer and two or three assistants attend for product review and selection, this year we are seeing just one buyer and maybe a second person,” one exhibitor commented. “That’s where the numbers have declined, I think.”
All that aside, while some brands were promoting the smartwatch approach – or at least highlighting the introduction of connectivity models to their ranges such as Guess Watches and Tag Heuer – there was a clear anti-smartwatch campaign by a number of brands.
For example, in a full-page advertisement in BaselWorld’s daily magazine, watch brand Glashutte trumpeted, “For men who don’t need GPS to know where they stand.”
Shinola, meanwhile, had a series of ads in the magazine with taglines such as, “A watch that’s not dumb. It’s just not smart,” and, “A great looking watch with average intelligence.”
All the major Australian suppliers were in attendance; Citizen and Seiko had a significant presence yet again, while Ice-Watch and Guess unveiled major releases.
Jeweller will publish a full report on what’s in store for the local market in our July issue.