Notes: Baselworld and Trade Show Life

The 100th installment of the watch fair and the weeks we spend as other people

I call it my week of suits. In actuality, it’s my other life. Four years in a row now I’ve woken up in an apartment in Basel, Switzerland, dressed myself quite professionally, hopped on a tram and worked a nine to six or seven job—for one week each year. There are about 30 or 40 back-to-back meetings in that span. Time is dedicated to innovations that are more often like subtle tweaks—a material change, a new colorway. It’s all unreasonably expensive to eat and drink. This is Baselworld, the world’s largest and most important watch and jewelry fair—and I love every minute of it. I play with gadgets and wear fancy wristwatches and mingle in a palatial grand hotel. Trade shows consume an individual’s every waking hour. Baselworld does so in a very particular way.

Basel, Switzerland isn’t beautiful in the way one regards classic European travel destinations. For anyone who has spent time in Paris, or who daydreams of Venice, this Swiss city is understated at first glance (and even second or third). There’s a Germanic utility to much of the architecture and the glorious views along the Rhine are bookended by industrial structures. But every 100 feet in central Basel, a vantage point imprints imagery that the imagination will play with when one has left: a church spire, winding cobblestone streets, a row of brightly colored houses. By the end of the week, I always wish I’d filmed my entire morning commute, capturing the moments. As we all know, it just wouldn’t be the same; best to store it in memory.

For watch lovers, or anyone who’s ever been to a trade show, Baselworld is a fascinating, immersive experience. The primary location, Messe Basel, shines like a precious metal crown in central Basel. A tram stop divides the massive structure in two. On one side, a press center rests above a wing dedicated to the Movado group. Opposite, two three-level halls stand side by side. Hundreds of brands occupy both. There are so many watch and jewelry brands I believe it’s almost impossible to see them all. Even with those back to back meetings, with zero seconds left in between to get from one exhibition booth to another, visitors (buyers, press, distributors, folks in advertising) would still be shy a few hundred.

Here, every hall and floor carries meaning. Entering hall one, the magnitude of Baselworld strikes. Exhibition booths by brands like Rolex, Bulgari, Hublot and Tag Heuer are three floors or more higher—each with their own restaurants and cafes within. These aren’t tables with some objects. They’re luxury boutiques built just for the fair with security, guest lists and magnificent display cases. Some booths quite literally hold millions of dollars worth of product. Hall one’s floor one is dedicated to the biggest names and they’re show-stopping presentations. Floor two is much the same, with well known, well respected brands from around the world, as well as some tech brands and, of course, fashion brands who make (or license) watches. Floor three is the same to a smaller scale. You may have heard of these brands. But tucked into the back is the new Les Artistes section and only watch lovers, design nerds or those who spend time shopping around would know what’s back there.

Jewelry dominates hall two, but many independent watch brands are also present. Any spare moments should be dedicated to roaming here, looking for the undiscovered. This year, some of our favorite brands pulled out of the Messe. Shinola didn’t come to Basel. Mondaine moved down the road. Christophe Claret went to the SkyLounge of the Ramada (a very, very nice Ramada). Such is the way with fairs. Not everyone wants to be in the thick of it. Other brands are here only to throw parties, some involving three course meals and some three plus beers.

As a journalist, through it all, one feels the race to publish and in previous years I could be found rushing through features at lunch and dinner. There are a few ways to talk about watches: breaking news, thematic groupings and more in-depth design or technical stories. This year, I decided we simply keep up with larger publications for breaking news. And it’s not entirely necessary anyway. The problem with round-ups though, is the idea of “trends.” We try to forego trends. It’s an awful word, with an implied timestamp. Four years ago, there were a lot of brilliant blue dials. Three years ago green was everywhere. But when you see thousands of watches in five or so days, one can make any argument. We make round-ups to emphasize elements we enjoy or what we believe our readers will enjoy. And those take time. The point of Basel: context is key. With a year’s worth of watch releases in front of you, it’s easy to find things you like but that shouldn’t be rushed.

I don’t think anyone goes to Baselworld for the rare celebrity endorsement or performer—this year Dépêche Mode was most notable. Though, finding yourself at a performance of Gallant (also this year) or being told you’re interviewing Daniel Craig in five minutes (three years ago) does keep one entertained. Many journalists will agree the best part of Baselworld is meeting other writers and editors and talking about what you’ve just seen. It’s exceptionally fun to geek out about complications, especially with the industry’s female voices like Hodinkee’s Cara Barrett and Barbara Palumbo, founder of What’s on Her Wrist.

As with all trade snow there are a lot of people walking sideways or backwards without regard to their surroundings. Like an auto show or music festival, the first days are the best days and mornings are always more manageable than overcrowded afternoons and evenings. But nuances like the free sandwiches for journalists and the confusion over all-female bathroom attendants mopping the floors without interruption during business hours in the men’s room make Basel distinct. And of course, there’s the opportunity to wear half a million dollar watches for a minute or two. And the hourly drinking cycle of sparkling water, espresso, champagne, dry out, calm down and repeat.

Almost all male attendees wear suits. A handful of videographers can be found in jeans. Anyone dressing in high fashion is most likely a blogger or influencer, the newest group to grace the fair. At the end of the day, some walk home, some take the tram and others train to Zurich. We return again and again. Hours create expertise. Immersion yields context. Baselworld offers both for a niche market that’s not really all that niche. For those of us on the events circuit—from January’s CES to December’s Art Basel Miami Beach and round again—there’s really nothing quite like Baselworld.

Hero and last image courtesy of Baselworld, all other images by David Graver