Basel, not faulty: The knives were out for the watch world’s biggest fixture this year, but nothing could detract from the scintillating creativity on show

 
Alex Doak

The rickety tram ride from Basel’s Old Town to Messeplatz, or ‘Exhibition Square’, is a curious tableau.

Medieval quaintness and winding streets quickly yield to the mighty Rhine, with the chimneys of Big Pharma spiking its banks in the distance. Over the river, the urbanity picks up again, but with city-limits mundanity and red-light seediness. Then suddenly, one sharp corner later, you’re plunged into it: Baselworld.

The biggest date in the watch and jewellery calendar has always been a spectacular affair, but thanks to a recent CHF430m investment, a gleaming new extension looms over the aforementioned platz, designed by starchitects Herzog & de Meuron, a parked-up Star Destroyer, whose jagged metallic cladding brings widescreen science fiction to Switzerland’s meekest city.

And then you venture inside to be swept up in the throng of Euro glitterati, Middle Eastern royalty and lowly journalists. It’s two Place Vendômes, a few Bond Streets, one Fifth Avenue and a Dubai Mall, all bolted together beneath one roof for seven days of wheeling and dealing, to the tune of billions of dollars of wholesale luxury trade.

Rolex leads the charge, unsurprisingly – its 31x40m footprint containing a vast three-storey stand that takes 150 trucks to transport and a month to build. Meanwhile, that other bastion of the horological firmament, Patek Philippe, LVMH (Bulgari, TAG Heuer, Zenith and Hublot), and Chopard all serve as Baselworld’s gateguards, they themselves guarded by frosty fembots and impassive security guards. The upshot? A jamboree of ticking bling that accounts for 80 per cent of Swiss watch exports.

By all rights, the pervading mood should have been more confident than ever this March, following a bumpy few years of gifting-culture clamp-down in China, not to mention the Swiss National Bank’s abrupt uncapping of the franc against the euro in 2015. Even in 2009, at the height of the financial slump, the atmosphere at Baselworld was infectiously optimistic.

Yet this year there was an unusually cautious atmosphere clinging to the velvet walls. Perhaps it was the unseasonably bleak weather, when Basel in March should be the harbinger of a long-overdue springtime, or the continuing exodus of brands to January’s rival Salon International de la Haute Horologerie in Geneva, with higher-profile exits rumoured to come, or simply the lack of sustenance beyond a lean-to veal-sausage stall next to the tram stop.


From left: Tudor Heritage Black Bay GMT, £2,790, tudorwatch.com; Patek Philippe Aquanaut Chronograph 5968A, £33,510, patek.com; Omega Seamaster 1948 Limited Edition, £4,550, omegawatches.com

To be fair, the future viability of any vast global event like this, in our digital age of see-now-buy-now lightning connectivity and locally ‘curated’ retail initiatives, is being questioned across all manner of sectors. But bad juju aside, 2018 saw one of the best, and most consistent spreads of horological launches in years.

It certainly helped that watchmakers seemed disinclined to compete for the dubious accolade of Most Over-Ambitious Product. Just look at Rolex and Patek Philippe, whose respective fortes – the GMT sports watch and annual calendar complication – each received respectful nurture in the form of the re-released red-and-blue ‘Pepsi’ cult classic, and a handsome new midnight-blue dial.

Surprisingly, however, it was the most classical of the two who couldn’t resist rocking the boat a smidge more, with a new variant of Patek’s own sports watch, the Aquanaut (where, we should clarify, ‘sports’ implies one’s capacity as a debenture-holding spectator; or, if pushed, a volunteer for a relaxed set of mixed doubles). Picked out in fabulous orange, the reference 5968A is the first time a chronograph has featured in the collection, and about time too, given the stopwatch function’s pure sporting pedigree. But for the most part, this was a welcome, sunny antidote to the gloom outside.

Following so many years of safe, rose-tinted retro revivals (Omega’s swoonsome new 70th-anniversary Seamaster reissues notwithstanding) it was equally heartening to step onto Nomos Glashütte’s bright and breezy pavilion and discover yet another surprising and contemporary venture. The German purveyor of Bauhaus purism, where form and function remain in perpetual balance, are famous for toying with layouts, typography and colour – oh, the colours! – but everything has always been in strict service to the task at hand: telling the time.

So what’s the deal with the new Autobahn’s luminescent semi-circular motif? Nothing much more than decoration, as well as allusion to nightime driving… But, boy, does it work. Especially in concert with a dial contoured like a flea-circus skatepark.


The exterior of Baselworld

So much for outward optimism in glorious technicolour, but what of the stuff that justifies those astronomical pricetags; the hand-assembled mechanics that form the beating heart and soul of every luxury timepiece? Innovation will always come at a cost here, given the microscopic tolerances, drawn-out R&D and laborious hand craftsmanship, so you’re invariably in for one of two things: variation on a theme, or no-holds-barred outré showmanship.

The former is usually the preference of the purist, and sure enough Rolex’s increasingly self-sufficient sibling, Tudor scored massive points with its headliner – a second-time-zone ‘GMT’ evolution of its cult Black Bay, coloured in not-so-subtle allusion to the above-mentioned ‘Pepsi’ Rolex. Devastating looks aside however, the kicker is the brand-new, in-house ‘integrated’ movement. This means the mechanics required to adjust your ‘home time’ hand separately from the ‘local time’ are part and parcel of the whole engine, rather than bolted on top – not only a far more reliable, let alone prestigious state of affairs, but a bargainous one too at just £2,570.

You’ll have to believe the spec sheet there though, as all that clever engineering is firmly sequestered behind a solid-steel caseback. If your audience down the local requires firmer, visual proof of your canny investment, then perhaps it’s worth thinking about two other brands who had everyone talking with some proper highfalutin mechanical fireworks: Chanel and Bulgari.

One, a titan of Parisian fashion. The other, Rome’s very own jewellery diva. Hardly the sorts to be taken seriously when it comes to cutting-edge haute horlogerie, right? Well, they are, actually – mostly thanks to some clever acquisitions from the Swiss Jura’s Watch Valley, plus some collaborations with the area’s finest tweezer-wielders. Cottage-industry skunkworks, if you like. The refreshing difference being that, with watchmaking nous established beyond reasonable doubt, extra kudos is guaranteed thanks to (sorry, Switzerland) both brands’ total mastery of chic, elegance and élan (things generally lost on mountain-dwelling watch sorts).

To whit, Chanel’s unisex Calibre 3, framed within the voluptuous Boy.Friend case, is a deceptively pared-back movement, whose smooth, spokeless wheels had to be galvanically grown from the particulate metal to ensure they would have enough weight to function properly. This attention to detail has become Chanel’s calling card in its burgeoning business of in-house mechanical alchemy. If the term ‘haute couture’ could apply to watchmaking, this would be it.

And then there’s Bulgari. Not only is its Octo collection’s defining, Tetris-worthy geometry of sculpted facets the finest example of contemporary watch design today, but it is showcasing an endless parade of record-breaking horological gymnastics. This year, without anyone asking, let alone expecting, the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic breaks three world records in one fell swoop: it’s the world’s thinnest self-winding watch, it’s the world’s thinnest self-winding tourbillon (the tourbillon being that tiny carrousel whirring away at 6 o’clock), and it’s the world’s thinnest tourbillon, period.

Not only all that, its constellation of wafer-thin mechanics looks phenomenal. Otherworldly, almost. Perfectly at home aboard the crashlanded Star Destroyer that is Baselworld, just over the Rhine, up the road from the red-light district.

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