The picturesque Swiss city of Basel has been in the business of showing watches for over a century. For two weeks of the year, the Swiss (and global) horological industry descends on the Rhine-bound enclave for a glittering bacchanal of luxury timepieces, parties and trade. Heavyweights like high quality fake Rolex, Patek Philippe and Hublot use the occasion to announce their latest and greatest, and for one or two days, the typically sedate and tradition-bound watch industry makes headlines in the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. Except not in 2020. Baselworld, as we knew it, is gone forever – thanks to Covid-19.
The death of this glorified trade fair doesn’t really affect too many people; best copy watches are still being made, bought and sold. But it is symptomatic of the upheavals in the luxury business model, which was in many ways rather old-fashioned. Global Swiss watch exports are down some 30 per cent this year and Australian demand is down around 20 per cent. The Richemont group (which owns powerhouse brands such as Cartier, IWC and Panerai) estimates around $1.3bn in lost sales between January and March, with all the other major players experiencing similar woes.
Locally, the watch business has felt the crunch too, but for all the storm clouds there has been the occasional silver lining. Helen Gregory, co-CEO of Gregory Jewellers, notes, “When we reopened, we saw a more captive audience come through our doors. Despite foot traffic being down significantly, the customers visiting us are spending more time in the store and are very happy to make decisions that would normally take longer.” Many also leaned into e-commerce, a space watch brands have been slow to embrace. Those with an established presence – like WatchBox, an online retailer of pre-owned timepieces – found themselves in a healthy position, with the company reporting 25 per cent revenue growth in the first half of 2020. CEO Justin Reis said: “Our fastest-growing segment is in the $69,000- $139,000 category, with nearly 50 per cent growth in sales over last year.”
Reis went on to comment that while Australian tastes have traditionally leaned towards classic sports watch brands, there was a noted shift to higher-value pieces from prestigious marques such as A. Lange & Söhne. Brad Harvey, managing director of Bulgari Australia, echoes the sentiment, saying, “We have seen a dramatic increase in our online business as more clients have time to research and seek out new and exciting products – icons such as ‘Serpenti’ and ‘Octo’ are proving popular.”
Thankfully, there’s a bright contrast to the plummeting sales and business uncertainty that was watches in 2020, and that’s the watches themselves. Many brands sensibly decided to scale back the quantity of new releases. Still, they made up for it in the sheer variety of hues on offer, perhaps subliminally aware that now more than ever, people want a watch that’s equal parts fun and functional.
Hublot – never one to follow the herd – offered a sophisticated take on pink with its ‘Big Bang Millennial Pink’, a 42mm chronograph in dusky-hued anodised aluminium. And just in case you weren’t ready for your wrist to take part in deconstructing gender binaries, there’s a matching ‘Sky Blue’ ceramic option.
Rolex replica, not to be outdone of course, refreshed its iconic ‘Oyster Perpetual’ line, bringing in a bold suite of new dial colours with evocative names like Candy Pink, Coral Red and Turquoise Blue. Even in the more sedate silver or black options, this improved take on the classic design shows why Rolex wears a crown on the dial.
Breitling also joined the party, announcing the cheap replica Breitling Professional Endurance Pro as its summer star. Billed as an athleisure watch, this large chronograph weighs next to nothing thanks to the Breitlight (proprietary polymer) case and Superquartz movement. And while the case might be black, the high-vis highlights and rubber strap give this watch a permanently sunny countenance.
The last 12 months have seen the future of luxury watches change forever. And while virtual sales appointments and digital drops look set to be with us for the long haul, so too are the watches themselves, in all their vibrancy. So at least you know that even if the future doesn’t always look that bright right now, at least the watches are.