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Baselworld Every year in March, the biggest international trade fair for the watch industry opens its doors in Basel and retailers from around the world flock to make their deals for the coming year.
Thousands of journalists also join them to bring all the news and reviews of the latest offerings by many of the world’s watch brands, both big and small. Hotel owners rejoice, residents rent out their apartments and enjoy holidays on the proceeds and the city hums with the sound of commerce, bringing a touch of luxury to a city otherwise dominated by the pharmaceutical industry.

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History – from Schweizer Mustermesse Basel to Baselworld

The Mustermesse in Basel dates back to 1917 when it was first set up as a means of promoting Swiss industry to the rest of the world. From the outset, jewellery and watch brands exhibited their products at the fair. The fair moved into its own hall in 1931 and moved into new premises in 1963. It only opened up to foreign brands in 1972, initially welcoming exhibitors from Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy before extending this to the rest of the world in 1986. It takes place every year in March.

Major change came in 1991 when five exhibitors left the Basel fair to set up the SIHH (Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie) in Geneva, using the city’s Palexpo exhibition centre. Over the next decade the number of exhibitors gradually increased and saw some changes as individual brands were taken over. Breguet, for example, had been exhibiting since 1999 but left in 2002, along with Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta, which had been acquired by Bulgari. They were replaced by A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Van Cleef & Arpels, all of which had recently been integrated into the Richemont Group.

The Mustermesse fair is still held every year, but the watch and jewellery exhibition has long since overtaken it in terms of its scope. The “muba” as it is known locally, occupies the three storeys of Hall 2 (which is known for the giant clock face above its entrance) and the first floor of Hall 1. The Mustermesse is the second-biggest public exhibition in Switzerland, after the OLMA (St. Gallen) and ahead of the BEA (Bern). Like the jewellery and watch fair, the MUBA is the property of the MCH Group, as are the exhibition premises.

In 2013 a brand-new building, designed by star architects Herzog & de Meuron, was inaugurated for the fair. It took five years of planning and almost two years of construction work, costing 430 million Swiss francs. The new building covers the Messeplatz tram interchange and links two previously separated buildings overhead. An enormous hole straight through two storeys of the new building allows light to penetrate through to ground level.

The people of the fair

Several names have played an important role in the development of the Basel watch fair into what it is today. Jacques Duchênne was president of the exhibitors’ committee for 20 years and had worked for the fair without interruption for a staggering 60 years. During this time was instrumental in developing the fair’s reputation and combating counterfeit watches.

Sylvie Ritter has been the managing director of Baselworld since 2004 and has thus overseen some of the most significant changes at the fair, including the huge transformation to the exhibition space and, on a less positive note, the reduction of the fair’s duration and its significant shrinkage in exhibitor numbers from 2017 to 2018.

As well as being CEO of one of Switzerland’s biggest watch brands, Tissot, Mr François Thiébaud has been the chairman of the Swiss Exhibitors’ Committee for the Basel fair for a number of years, representing what is by far the biggest group of brands at the show.

Noteworthy exhibitors

The Basel watch fair has always hosted many of the world’s biggest watch brands, initially from Switzerland but later from the rest of the world, too. Cartier was a strong presence until it left in 1991 for the SIHH in Geneva, but many of the world’s top brands remain. Walk into the cavernous expanse of the ground floor of Hall 1 and you will discover three-storey palaces that act as places of reverence for fine watchmaking. The LVMH group has pride of place with the first four stands on either side of the principal thoroughfare as you walk in occupied by Bulgari, TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith. Beyond these are giants of watchmaking such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, who look across at each other from sumptuous windowed stands where they welcome their customers and show off their latest collections every year. Rolex in particular is famous for keeping its latest products under wraps until the very last minute, often making a big show of bringing its timepieces to the stand under armed guard. It was in the halls of the exhibition centre, for example, that the world first saw the so often imitated bezel of the legendary Submariner model.

Since the Swatch Group was established as one of the world’s biggest watchmaking groups, its brands have been concentrated around the centre of Hall 1 around what is known as the Swatch Group plaza, which has a central open exhibition space that is used in turn by the individual brands throughout the duration of the show. At the centre of the group is Omega, with a towering three-storey stand which, like that of its rivals Rolex, is closed to the public, its collections only visible through show windows placed around the outside of the structure. Among the other brands with stands in this prime location is Chopard, which is one of the few family-owned independent brands to benefit from such a location, thanks to its longstanding support for the fair.

One floor above the big Swiss names you can find the famous Japanese names of Seiko, Citizen and Casio, who offer a great mix of their traditional watchmaking and the latest technology such as solar-powered watches and Bluetooth-enables smartwatches.

The Basel cluster

With hotel rooms in short supply, the expansion of the luxury watch industry in the first decade of the new millennium helped a construction boom that saw Basel erect Switzerland’s tallest building right next to the entrance of Hall 2 of the exhibition centre. The “Messeturm” stands at 105 metres high with 32 floors and incorporates a 200 room hotel, as well as the trendy Bar Rouge on the top floor, which is home to many a party during the fair.

Since the Messeturm was built in 2003, competition for Switzerland’s tallest building has intensified between Basel and Zurich. Although there are relatively few skyscrapers in Switzerland, Zurich’s Prime Tower, at 126 metres, took the record from Basel when it was completed in 2011. Zurich’s dominance was, however, shortlived, as the pharmaceutical giant Roche inaugurated its unimaginatively named “Building 1”, which stands at 178 metres on the bank of the Rhine river. As well as being a stone’s throw from the exhibition centre, it shares several other parallels, since it was designed by the same architects, Herzog & de Meuron, and cost slightly more than the renovations of the exhibition centre, at just over half a billion Swiss francs.

The future of the trade show

Much to the delight hotel owners, there has been a watch industry trade show in Basel every March now for just over a century. Both the watch industry and the show have rebounded after several major crises, including a world war, the so-called quartz crisis and, more recently, the advent of the smartwatch. They will undoubtedly survive others as the Swiss watch industry still persists after a couple of centuries, in spite of the inherent obsolescence of the products it produces. The arrival of the smartphone and later the smartwatch have created a dichotomy in how we both tell and perceive time, favouring the technological on one hand and the traditional on the other. Will we see more of the former or the later at future Basel fair? Will our watches, in the face of competition from the smartwatch, continue to have their characteristic bezel or some other form of multifunctional device? It remains to be seen, but as long as there is a watch trade show in Basel, WorldTempus will be there to bring you the latest news and reviews of the timepieces launched at the show each year.