Whereas Geneva is known for its diplomats, Zurich for its bankers, and Gstaad for its holidaymakers, Basel, a historic university town with a thriving port, is home to Switzerland’s industrialists—think New Jersey on the Rhine. Once a year, however, the city welcomes a more glamorous contingent of visitors, as thousands of jewelers descend on its convention center to attend an annual frenzy of buying and selling known as Baselworld.
Boasting 150,000 attendees representing 40 countries and $2.7 billion in revenue, Baselworld looms large over the watch landscape in more ways than one. With its soaring 32-foot ceilings and wide passageways, the exhibition space is home to extravagant multimillion-dollar booths commandeered by brands that determine the trends that will shape the watch business.As novelties go, this year’s show—held March 27 to April 3—was remarkably conservative. “It seemed like a safe year,” said Katie Wudel, managing editor of Our Minutes, the digital publication of Tourneau, a national watch retailer with stores in Aventura, Bal Harbour and Coral Gables. “We saw a lot of returns to classic models and iterations of pieces that sell really well.”
Take the news from Breitling, for example. At its impressive four-story stand—famously fronted by a colossal aquarium holding 16,000 liters of saltwater and thousands of sea breams, sea perch and damselfish—the brand rolled out a bevy of vintage-inspired pilot’s models to celebrate the 130th anniversary of its founding in the alpine village of Saint-Imier. “Anniversaries always make you reflective,” said marketing director Lisa Roman by way of explanation, as she introduced the redesigned Navitimer—a 1952 mechanical chronograph that paved the way for the modern-day obsession with pilot’s watches—now available in a larger 46 mm diameter.
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Breitling isn’t the only brand feeling nostalgic. Across the watch industry, the vogue for what has been dubbed “the new vintage” is apparent in the scores of contemporary models evoking the 20th century’s most popular timepieces. From the new Tudor Heritage Ranger, a military-style “reinterpretation” of a classic 1960s watch that retains the domed crystal and pear-shaped hands of its retro inspiration, to a series of tribute pieces unveiled at Zenith, Swiss brands are reaching back into their archives, dusting off their most iconic models, equipping them with souped-up movements, and outfitting them in larger, more robust cases.
Fans of the avant-garde might see the rage for yesteryear-styled timepieces as ho-hum, but from a retailer’s perspective, it’s a clear winner. “It was a really strong year in wearability,” said Sandy Hequin, owner of Morays Jewelers, located in Downtown Miami’s Alfred I. DuPont Building. “People want something they can use—not look at every once in a while like art.”
Even Patek Philippe, considered by many to be the standard bearer for complicated dress watches, opted to case its new Annual Calendar Chronograph 5960 in stainless steel, a testament to president Thierry Stern’s desire to introduce more casual, contemporary styling. As is typical for anything Patek-related, the blogosphere went nuts for it: “I always take an opportunity to mention my appreciation of white-dialed sport watches,” wrote Ariel Adams on Ablogtowatch.com. “Patek gets it very right emphasizing both legibility and attractiveness.”
If any brand toppled expectations this year, however, it was Rolex, the juggernaut of the watch business. Coveted by collectors and dilettantes the world over for its classic tool watches, the very essence of sportiness, the brand took an unexpected tack at Baselworld, where it highlighted the redesign of its Cellini collection of classic dress watches. “The typical Rolex client that’s coming into our store is expecting an Oyster case,” said Jeff Newbauer, vice president of Kirk Jewelers, a fourth-generation retailer in Downtown Miami, referring to the iconic waterproof case patented by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf in 1926. “They’re not familiar with Cellini. It’s a big point of excitement for us. The collection features all self-winding movements, all precious metals—the line is 100 percent new. It’ll take something on our part to promote it but with Rolex’s backing, I think it’ll be very successful.”
Rolex is clearly on to something. Ever since the financial crisis put the kibosh on sales of brash, oversized timepieces, the Swiss have embraced the subtle sophistication of the traditional dress watch. At Weston Jewelers, high-end clients have gravitated to the new Patrimony Traditionnelle 14-day Tourbillon introduced by Vacheron Constantin at Geneva’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in January, said owner Ed Dikes. “Imagine a watch, especially a tourbillon, that’s got a power reserve of 336 hours,” Dikes said. “We explain it to the watch enthusiasts and they really get it.”
In collector circles, another trend that’s picked up steam in recent years, according to David King, president of King Jewelers in Aventura, is skeletonization—“pieces that allow you to see the actual movement from the front of the watch.” King said that Vacheron Constantin jumpstarted a push to “create more depth on the dial” in 2008, when it unveiled the Quai de l’Ile, a customizable timepiece designed with a three-dimensional hologram to thwart counterfeiters. “You’re seeing a variety of skeleton pieces now—whether it’s Hublot or Cartier, every big brand has that,” King said. “And part of that is the development of the technology inside the watches. There’s a lot more attention being paid to adorning and finishing movements.”
It’s true. By placing so much emphasis on the appearance of the levers, bridges and wheels of a movement—which pass for “watch porn,” as enthusiasts sometimes refer to the kick they get from looking at a watch’s insides—Swiss brands (not to mention the retailers who stock them) are quietly cultivating a generation of buyers besotted with the mechanical artistry of their timepieces. “I have a watch collector and I’ve sold him probably 50 watches, some spectacular pieces, in the last 10 years,” said Dikes of Weston Jewelers. “I showed him the new Classic Fusion rose gold skeleton from Hublot and he fell in love. In about five minutes, he said, ‘Okay, I’m taking it.’”