SIHH has grown into a globally recognised event that attracts around 20,000 visitors
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Get ready for Swiss watch week — or should that be fortnight? The two biggest events in the industry’s calendar will shift their dates closer together from next year, in what the organisers have described as an “essential breakthrough” for the sector.

From 2020, the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Genève (SIHH) and Baselworld fairs will run consecutively across late April and early May, instead of January and March, the two organisations announced last month.

The move is the firmest response yet to the news last summer that Swatch Group — Baselworld’s biggest exhibitor — was withdrawing from the event, citing costs and questioning the relevance of the fair. An ex­odus followed of smaller brands such as Corum, Raymond Weil and Maurice Lacroix.

Co-ordinating dates will remove the need for exhibitors, retailers and press visiting both fairs to travel to Switzerland twice in the space of two months, which organisers hope will strengthen both events and allay concerns over costs.

The Basel event, which dates back to 1917, has been such an industry fixture that it was once considered too big to fail. But some brands have begun to question the value of the entire watch fair model — including that of SIHH, which takes place in Geneva this week.

This is not the first time a leading brand has turned its back on Baselworld. In the late-1980s, Alain-Dominique Perrin, head of Cartier, asked for a separate zone at the fair for luxury brands that he felt was commensurate with the presentation of prestige products. The request was declined. So Mr Perrin planned a breakaway fair and began discussions with other watch industry names.

The resulting SIHH launched in 1991 with just five brands: Daniel Roth, Gerald Genta, Cartier, Piaget and Baume et Mercier, the last three owned by Vendome, the predecessor of Richemont.

From that founding splinter group, SIHH has grown into a globally recognised event that attracts about 20,000 visitors. Many exhibitors pay about SFr2,000 (£1,600) per sq m for their booths and stands, the largest of which is Cartier’s at 2,000 sq m.

Yet some big names are rethinking their place at the Geneva event. Van Cleef & Arpels has withdrawn from the 2019 show, while Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet announced in September that this will be their last year at the fair. Each cited changing business models for the move.

After a relatively stable 2017 for the Swiss watch market, last year delivered a 7.1 per cent increase in exports by value during the year to November, to SFr19.5bn ($19.9bn). Nevertheless, the industry is undergoing a period of change: distribution strategies are being reassessed; there have been changes in management at Richemont, Kering and LVMH; and retail continues to evolve. Many brands feel more confident about targeting individual customers directly through digital channels, while “monobrand” stores — those dedicated to just one brand — continue to grow. Such fragmentation has led many to doubt the effectiveness of annual watch fairs.

Audemars Piguet chief executive François-Henry Bennahmias wants to shed the burden of having a new product line to unveil at the Geneva fair. By leaving SIHH, he hopes to move to a schedule that suits the watchmaker better. “Instead of launching in January in Switzerland we will launch more locally, more organically, around the world and only when we have the watches in stock. When the watches are in the safe, we launch and promote.”

Fabienne Lupo: ‘We are welcoming more end clients as brands want to speak directly to them’ © Alex Stephen Teuscher for the FT

Despite the departures, newcomers continue to join SIHH. The past three years have seen the arrival of Kering, with its brands Girard-Perregaux, Ulysse Nardin and Hermes — all former Basel exhibitors. High-end brand Bovet, winner of the 2018 Geneva Grand Prix of Watchmaking, marks another addition to this year’s line-up.

Bovet is in fact rejoining the fair having previously exhibited in 2001 and 2002. “We asked if we could have a bigger booth, but at the time they did not have the space,” says owner and chief executive Pascal Raffy. “This year we asked and luckily Fabienne Lupo [the fair’s director] agreed to let us have the space vacated by Van Cleef & Arpels.”

Ms Lupo says SIHH’s focus on fine watchmaking makes it different yet complementary to Baselworld. “They have a large audience and are not solely focused on watches but on machines, subcontractors, jewellers, stone dealers, strap makers and so on. So it is difficult to please everyone.” Yet SIHH’s organisers are not complacent, she stresses, and are making changes of their own.

Square of influence: Carré des Horlogers

The Carré contains 17 independent exhibitors

Carré des Horlogers is in effect a show within a show and will make its fourth appearance at SIHH this year. The idea was to put the prestigious event within reach of smaller, independent brands with a production rate that may not even reach 100 pieces a year.

Yet the influence of these independents appears to be inverse to their production figures. As well as fulfilling the fair’s stated ambition of nurturing fine watchmaking for the future, the effect has been to diversify and reinvigorate the entire event.

“We didn’t really expect the curiosity and the fresh air brought by the young brands and the small watchmakers and I think it was important for the image of SIHH showing that we are also open to this nouvelle vague of haute horlogerie,” says FHH’s Ms Lupo.

Exhibitors in the Carré, meanwhile, appreciate what Vanessa Monestel, chief executive of Geneva-based watchmaker Laurent Ferrier, calls the consistency of the fair. For her, its appeal lies in the rigour of the vetting procedure. “The exhibitor committee is meticulous about selecting brands that are consistent,” says Ms Monestel.

She adds: “It is a great opportunity to showcase our watches in an environment consistent with our values in front of an audience of targeted trade, media and consumers.”

That rigour and consistency are unmovable objectives, insists Ms Lupo. “We don’t want to open up, we want to keep it exclusive,” she says. “We won’t have more than 20 watchmakers. We have to keep it to la crème de la crème.”

This year’s fair is a day shorter at four days but remains open for longer in the evening. It is also more focused on consumers than in previous years. “Over the past two years we have changed the concept. It used to be a [business to business] show but we took the important decision to develop it as a real communication and networking platform for fine watchmaking,” Ms Lupo explains.

“We are welcoming more [consumers] as brands want to speak directly to [them].” Last year SIHH opened to the general public for one day, which attracted 2,500 visitors.

The event’s content creation hub, SIHH Live, will be bigger this year. A television studio will enable brands to present new products via live streaming and their own social media platforms. There will also be a programme of debates and keynote speeches.

At the SIHH Lab, a new addition, visitors will be able to see “start-ups working on different apps for the watch industry to show that our industry is contemporary and dynamic”, Ms Lupo says.

It is this ecumenical role that Ms Lupo believes differentiates the SIHH, which operates under the aegis of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH), the body that represents the Swiss fine watchmaking industry.

“The FHH is concerned with defending and promoting fine watchmaking worldwide,” she says. “We are close to our members throughout the year . . . and this is how and why we are aware of their concerns and needs.”

In Basel, Hans-Kristian Hoejsgaard, interim chief executive at Baselworld owner MCH Group has been swift to react to some brands’ disillusionment with the fair. He intends to broaden the event’s consumer appeal and acknowledges the need “to underpin the physical experience with a very strong digital platform”, he says. “The physical, real fair is not enough.”

The organiser will use the space vacated by Swatch to improve the overall fair experience. It will also create a “show plaza” that includes additional restaurants and catering facilities, Mr Hoejsgaard says.

He believes Baselworld’s strength lies in the fact that it is more than just a watch show. He talks of four pillars: watches, technical equipment, precious stones and jewellery. “We are very much a jewellery show. As of 2020 we will put the jewellery forward and give it more prominence.”

As Mr Hoejsgaard puts it, “2019 is a transition year” and the industry’s eyes are now focused on what 2020 can deliver.

New arrivals: SIHH fair’s top launches

By Simon de Burton

1. Hermès Arceau 78

Hermès keeps it simple with an homage to the original 1978 version of its signature Arceau. Inspired by the brand’s equine heritage, the 40mm watch features stirrup-like lugs and a sloping font which the brand says is to evoke the impression of a galloping horse. £2,500 ($3,200)

2. Cartier Tonneau

Cartier’s barrel-shaped Tonneau watch first appeared in 1906 and has become one of the most celebrated models produced by the brand that King Edward VII is said to have described as “the jeweller of kings and the king of jewellers”. This new interpretation comes from Cartier’s limited edition Collection Privé; it will be available in 100 examples in pink gold and 100 in platinum.

3. Montblanc Timewalker

The official timing partner of the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed motorsport event reinforces its automotive credentials with two vintage-look driver’s chronographs. The watches feature black and white panda dial designs and perforated leather straps, and come in 41mm and 43mm case sizes. £2,840 ($3,600)

4. Panerai Submersible Chronograph ‘Guillaume Néry’

This 47mm, titanium-cased flyback chronograph is dedicated to Guillaume Néry, who set the French free-diving record in 2015 with a descent to 126 metres. The back of the watch is engraved with Néry’s signature, an image of a diver and the record-breaking depth. c.£16,500 ($21,100)

5. Laurent Ferrier Galet Annual Calendar ‘School Piece’

The 40mm watch from independent maker Laurent Ferrier features a calendar display that automatically recognises months of 30 or 31 days, meaning it needs manual adjustment only once a year, on March 1. It will be offered in a choice of red or yellow gold cases and black or white dials.

6. Baume & Mercier Clifton 10306 Baumatic Perpetual Calendar

Richemont’s entry-tier dial name impressed at SIHH 2018 with its Baumatic, which has 120 hours of power reserve, chronometer certification and a five-year service interval. It now comes in a perpetual calendar version with moonphase indication. If kept running, the watch will display the correct date until March 1, 2100. £19,500 ($25,000)

7. IWC Timezoner Spitfire Limited Edition

This 250-piece edition heralds this year’s IWC-sponsored attempt by pilots Steve Boultbee and Matt Jones to make the first round-the-world flight in a restored wartime Spitfire. When the watch bezel is turned so that one of the cities named on it reaches the 12 o’clock position, the hands adjust automatically to the relevant timezone. £11,290 ($14,450)

8. Roger Dubuis Excalibur Huracan Performante

The second model to emerge from the collaboration between Roger Dubuis and Italian supercar manufacturer Lamborghini features a skeletonised, 233-part movement with a bridge inspired by the support struts of the Huracan Performante’s V10 engine. The strap of the 88-piece limited edition carries the tread pattern of a Pirelli tyre. £47,000 ($60,170)

9. Richard Mille ‘Sweetness’ and ‘Fruit’

Though the brand’s watches do not come at pocket money prices, this has not prevented it embracing its fun and youthful side. Colourful creations called Sweetness (four models) and Fruit (six models) feature candy-inspired, hand-painted dials. Just 30 examples of each variation will be made.

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
About this Special Report

SIHH and Baselworld join forces to shore up watch fairs’ future; interview with Bulgari chief Jean-Christophe Babin; divorcing couples tussle over jewellery; why the Super Bowl’s blingy winners’ rings are getting bigger; designers boost sales through lending jewellery to A-list stars

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