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Dubai Watch Week - Putting the Gulf region on the horological map

Dubai Watch Week Putting the Gulf region on the horological map

As the first edition of the Dubai Watch Week came to a close last Friday with a festive dinner held in an elegant restaurant overlooking the dancing waters of the Dubai Fountain, organizers, partners and participants alike savored local delicacies and the satisfaction of a job well done.

The inaugural five-day event held in Dubai (Oct 18-22) brought together industry players ranging from collectors to auctioneers, watchmakers to journalists.  It featured watch exhibitions, panel discussions, “conversations” with brand chief executives, watchmaking masterclasses and a black tie gala diner, in a relaxed and cordial atmosphere that owed much to the generosity and hospitality of the hosts. Spearheaded by Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, a family-owned retail operation with some 65 outlets in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai Watch Week was organized in partnership with Christie’s, the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority and the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.

Seddiqi, whose portfolio of watch brands includes a broad range of established and independent brands, bore all the financial costs of the ambitious, noncommercial venture whose main goal was to put Dubai on the map for brands and watch enthusiasts. “From the outset, the idea was to show that there was real interest in watches in this part of the world and to create a networking opportunity for everyone,” said Melika Yazdjerdi, the company’s head of corporate communications. While admission was free, attendance, expected to be around 400 persons per day, seemed less heavy, explained perhaps by the fact that events held on workdays during business hours made it difficult for working locals to attend.

Christie’s, whose head of watches, John Reardon, moderated and spoke on several panels, held an evening watch sale mid-week, while the proverbial “iron was hot” and important buyers were on hand.

The 72 shortlisted watches competing in the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève were exhibited as part of their annual international roadshow at the Opera Gallery in the Financial Center, with both Carlo Lamprecht and Carine Maillard, respectively president and director of the GHPG Foundation, on hand to meet the local press.

Another exhibition showcased the “Rebels of Horology,” featuring timepieces by the likes of De Bethune, Laurent Ferrier, H.Moser & Cie, Hautlence, Urwerk, MB&F, and Greubel Forsey, all independents whose lines are carried by Seddiqi and whose chief executives had made the trip to Dubai.

“We have 65 brands in our retail portfolio,” Ms. Yazdjerdi said.  “The choice of inviting the independents was actually fortuitous.  But their approachability made it a natural choice for us to have them come here and speak to the public.”

Over 30 speakers participated in the Art of Horology Forum including Aurel Bacs, partner in the consultancy firm, Bacs & Russo, who moderated a panel on buying watches and storytelling in the industry.  Other speakers included the collector Claude Sfeir, Jean-Claude Biver, President of LVMH’s watch division, and Michel Arnoux, head of counterfeiting at the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Many talks were filled to standing-room capacity, in particular that which assembled Vincent Perriard of HYT, Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk, Maximilian Büsser of MB&F and Edouard Meylan of H. Moser & Cie., each of whom described candidly the challenges of pushing creative boundaries, the financial risks involved in watch entrepreneurship, and life in the shadow of the big brands.

“The most important thing for us as organizers was to have moderators and speakers share their knowledge and expertize,” Ms. Yazdjerdi explained. 

Peter Speake-Marin found his one-hour watchmaking masterclasses for 12 filled to capacity, even offering a private session for her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “I was quite surprised at the level of genuine interest shown by the princess and the sophisticated questions she asked,” Mr. Speake-Marin said.

While that masterclass was underway, I moderated a talk on watches and fashion featuring Hind Seddiqi, the company’s chief marketing officer, and two personalities of the fashion world, the Russian entrepreneur Miroslava Duma and the Italian bespoke designer, Roberto Mararo.  Before a roomful of local fashion bloggers and social media mavens, the conversation became quite animated as we explored, among other topics, Apple’s strategy behind its first foray into the watch market via the fashion world.

The week’s events came to a close before a full house gathered to hear three giants of horology - namely Philippe Dufour, Giulio Papi and Jean-Marc Wiederrecht - discuss the “Future of Watchmaking” and tackle issues such as the impact of smartwatches, the sustainability of new materials and the challenges posed by the transmission of know-how, on a panel moderated by Watchonista.com’s co-founder, Alexander Friedman. “The vibe here has been so positive that everyone spoke honestly and without restraint about real issues in our industry,” Mr. Wiederrecht opined at the close of the Forum. “We have been very impressed with the program.”

In the end, attendees were thrilled to have had an opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of horology, handle rare watches, disassemble real movements, rub elbows with admired watchmakers and share the passion of some of the most respected members of the industry.

Clearly, the Seddiqis have understood that breeding local collectors and connoisseurs to develop a genuine appreciation for watchmaking can only help improve a market that currently absorbs 4.6 percent or $1.1 billion of the $24.3 billion timepieces exported annually by Switzerland, a figure on the rise by 8.9 percent from 2013.

“This event helps a lot in creating a serious market base here,” said Jeff Harris, an American dealer traveling home from Asia who decided to stop and attend two days of events.  “I will be back next year.”

Whether there will be a next year is still undecided.  Falling between Watches & Wonders in Hong Kong and the Salon QP in London, Dubai Watch Week could become an annual - or even biennial - addition to a busy trade show calendar.  As the organizers ponder that question, those who were there this year can confirm the region’s great potential.

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