The rickety tram ride from Basels 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, youre 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 Switzerlands meekest city.
And then you venture inside to be swept up in the throng of Euro glitterati, Middle Eastern royalty and lowly journalists. Its 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 Baselworlds 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 Banks 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 Januarys 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 couldnt resist rocking the boat a smidge more, with a new variant of Pateks own sports watch, the Aquanaut (where, we should clarify, sports implies ones 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 functions 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 (Omegas swoonsome new 70th-anniversary Seamaster reissues notwithstanding) it was equally heartening to step onto Nomos Glashüttes 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 whats the deal with the new Autobahns 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 youre 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 Rolexs 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.
Youll 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 its 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, Romes 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 Juras Watch Valley, plus some collaborations with the areas 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, Chanels 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 Chanels 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 theres Bulgari. Not only is its Octo collections 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: its the worlds thinnest self-winding watch, its the worlds thinnest self-winding tourbillon (the tourbillon being that tiny carrousel whirring away at 6 oclock), and its the worlds 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.