Ken Kessler recounts his first-ever visit to the Basel and Geneva watch fairs
Mecca for watch lovers? Sure, if your idea is overdosing on what you adore, on being so overwhelmed by a surfeit of fantastic timepieces that…well, let’s just say that it reminded me of a time when I pigged out at a party, age 11 or so, and had such a stomach ache that I ended up hospitalised. Post-Basel and Geneva? I’m still curing my shakes.
Nothing can prepare you for the two trade shows that dominate the watch (and jewellery) industry, and I had avoided them for years because I am not, by nature, a masochist. Window shopping to me is a form of torment. The thought of sitting at a table with 15 Roger Dubuis Golden Squares and Sympathies – I survived it, but it was like walking tumescent but penniless through Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
But reality soon takes over, and suddenly you appreciate that you’re there for a reason: to gather as much information about the year’s forthcoming watches as you can, because these are what you will be writing about, or selling, or coveting over the next twelve months. Even if you’re not covering the show in some conventional ‘show report’ manner, you must use every moment because there are, categorically, more brands than you could ever hope to visit.
Baselworld is the massive five-halls-and-hundreds-of-stands affair, equivalent to the Detroit Motor Show or the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. If you were there for the entire week, you’d still struggle to visit every stand, save for fleeting calls to grasp a catalogue or press kit. And before that week ends, the ‘rival’ show at Geneva starts, and you have to change cities (I used the efficient-to-the-minute Swiss rail service) to make your appointments.
Although they are, ostensibly, rivals, the two events do not compete because Basel is a monster of a show with everything from Swatch Group and Rolex and Patek Philippe, to strap makers and fountain pen companies and gem-stone vendors. Geneva, on the other hand, is an exclusive event of only around 20 exhibitors, entirely high-end, with nary a ‘peasant’ watch or pen or bracelet in sight. It is populated by brands such as IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre, Parmigiani Fleurier and Roger Dubuis, Panerai and Cartier. And it’s small enough to cover in a day, in depth. But every hour features a different conference, so you stay a bit longer than the catalogue’s floor plan suggests.
Although this was my first Basel/Geneva experience, losing my virginity was not painful. I had covered the Consumer Electronics Show around 20 times (the watch content of which is below this magazine’s radar…) and it dwarfs Basel in every respect. Basel’s biggest stand, the Swatch display, would be swallowed by Sony or Panasonic, and Las Vegas itself would probably swallow Switzerland. With shorter distances and smaller stands – watches take up less space than home theatres – I managed to visit every brand on my list, while enjoying the discoveries of marques new to me. Rest assured, no matter how deep your love of watches, no matter how many magazines you read, you WILL find new brands, obscure brands, brands that distribute their wares to so narrow a market that you’re unlikely to have heard of them.
What I wanted to avoid in my reports, though, were two sets of ‘the usual suspects’, given that I would be reporting on a merely slice of the action. The first set contains the obvious brands, like Patek Philippe, Cartier, Rolex, names so famous that every magazine will cover their new products in depth. Conversely, I wanted to avoid the solipsism of waxing predictably lyrical about my personal ‘usual suspects’, the brands I adore and/or collect, such as Panerai, Dubuis, Arnold, Grimoldi, Graham.
In the eyes of the show visitor, especially a member of the press, all brands should be equal, but they aren’t. Personal prejudice – and I’m the watch equivalent of a racist – colours your perceptions. I like chronographs, I like steel cases, I hate useless complications, I detest gems on the outside. So, one of the few disappointing things about Basel, more so than Geneva, was a preponderance of nauseating ‘bling bling’ brands for whom the number of diamonds on the outside is far more important than the number of rubies on the inside.
Clearly, there’s a delineation between people who love watches and people who love jewellery, the grey area being the diamond-encrusted watches from the serious brands. Let’s face it: a diamond-covered bezel does not undermine the magnificence of a Girard-Perregaux. But neither does the addition of a diamond crust turn a lump of quartz crud into a masterpiece, despite a £20,000 price tag.
An example of the ‘bling bling’ factor, and the way it seduces the unwary (including those who ought to know better), took place at the launch of a brand I needn’t name. Suffice it to say, the company sells sizzle, not steak. To a roomful of hacks, the spokesperson boasted of the brand’s watches being on the wrists of a couple of hundred Hollywood celebrities. The assembled hacks ‘oooh’d’ with admiration. Er, duh: those ‘stars’ were given those watches, shmucko. Give ANY Hollywood celeb a freebie, and they’ll be more than happy to oblige you with a photo opportunity. At least David Beckham and Elton John, the world’s most likeable taste-free zones, pay for their glitz, their tchatchkes.
‘Bad taste’ aside, there were few, er, bad tastes. Everyone was professional and charming, wearing brave faces despite SARS and a war in Iraq and a world economy down in the toilet. So plentiful were the fat catalogues that I had to ship home two large boxes. But they’ll keep me busy until next year’s events. Which I wouldn’t miss for anything.
My personal highlights? Let’s make this more specific: aside from the stuff I knew I’d like – new Panerais, new IWC Portuguesers – the surprise element for me was the host of watches I wasn’t expecting, ones I would buy without hesitation if I had the wherewithal. What follows is a list of the wristwatches that have entered my ‘wants’ list rather than the ones that are obviously newsworthy. Someone else can tell you about the new Patek Philippe Tourbillon, the Franck Muller Crazy Hours, Lange’s Lange 1 Moonphase for the Australians. Which they will. My (alphabetical) selections are the ones that don’t deserve to slip through the net.
Anonimo may be too Panerai-ish for some of you, but, hey, I can’t get enough of the big stuff, and I don’t mind wannabees like Anonimo and Buti if they’re also Italian. The Anonimo Model 6000 is a chunky limited edition that I’d give wrist space to, with its 45mm diameter case, highly visible numbers, and a helium valve I’d never live to use. So butch it should be supplied with every Hummer.
Chronographe Suisse is an old name, familiar to collectors for a range of relatively common, fairly decent chronographs from the early 1950s, always good value at flea markets. The name has been revived with a series of hefty chronographs, too new even to be accompanied at Basel by basic literature. I hope this brand succeeds, because they struck me as offering exceptional value, somewhere in between Oris and Breitling. Functional, unpretentious and as handsome as a 1950s RAF Lemania.
Chronoswiss’ big ol’ TimeMaster has been a fave of mine ever since it appeared. Imagine my delight when I saw it in chronograph form, with both the black dial and the glow-in-the-dark dial, and in right and left-handed form? That oversized ‘onion’ winding crown, the ultimate in legibility, the Gerd Lang pedigree: Gimme both. Please.
De Bethune was one of the new names that made my heart skip a bit. Founded by one of the principals behind the revival of LeRoy, De Bethune is firmly of the ‘classic’ mould, exquisite dress watches with magnificent details including Breguet hands, ‘pointy’ lugs, ultra-clear dials, peerless craftsmanship, and – for me – a star in the range in the form of a slim, vintage-style single-button chronograph that you just know would have been worn by Ettore Bugatti had De Bethune launched over 80 years ago. Along with Chronographe Suisse, above, possibly one to, er, watch.
Jaeger-LeCoultre is a brand I adore, but not for its classic, the Reverso. I just don’t get on with rectangular or square watches, that’s all. But Jaeger did it to me this time with a series of four Reversos, 25 only of each, bearing enamelled backs not just of paintings by my favourite artist, but of my two favourite paintings of all time. So, I have to find £56,000 to acquire two Tamara de Lempicka Reversos, one each of Girl In Green Bugatti and Girl With Green Dress. And quickly. Before Madonna and Barbra find out.
JeanRichard (the ‘Daniel’ has been dropped) is in the awkward position of going upmarket without invading the territory of big brother Girard-Perregaux. That’s fine with me: I love the brand’s entry-level, not the high-end. And now I have the hots for the plain vanilla, hours-and-minutes Bressel Classic, measuring a healthy 43mm, with small seconds at 9 o’clock, black or white dial, dependable Unitas movement and a price under £1200.
Jorg Hysek makes precisely the sort of watches I normally hate – quartz, rectangular, so modern that they make me feel like the poor jerk in Futurama. By the V-King? The idea of wearing a watch that must weigh a kilo, like something that dropped off the Terminator in the huge crusher at the end of the first film – I was hooked in a second. It is cool beyond words, with a bracelet that has the structural integrity of an ammo belt off a Howitzer. Trouble is, it weighs so much that you’ll build up an imbalance of muscle. Seriously.
Omega is, for my money, the most underrated brand in the world, and its Museum Collection has yet to received the acclaim it deserves – why, I don’t know. Maybe it’s uncool to compliment the Swatch Group, which is regarded as the Microsoft of the watch world. Whatever. I love the latest in the Museum Series, the breathtaking 1945 Officers’ Watch chronograph. But that’s not all: I’ll go one stage further for Omega. This year’s best buy for a do-it-all, sport-cum-dress watch has to be the Seamaster Aqua Terra with co-axial movement, black dial, broad-arrow hand and Arabic numerals – at 3-6-9-12-only, of course.
Ulysse Nardin’s major launches this year include the revised trio of astronomical models, some purposeful diving watches and a new colour Freak, but for me, their most desirable piece is one of the most subtle: the Ulysse I. The charm of dress watches normally eludes me as I’m a slob, but this rose gold chronometer with power reserve gives you evening wear style with something a damned sight chunkier than is the norm.
Universal Geneve has always produced fascinating chronographs; I adore my 1970s Space Compax. And even though I detest moonphase – as useless a complication as has ever been maintained into the era of electric lighting – I was stopped short by the Aero Tri-Compax, which gives you a full function chronograph, moonphase, triple calendar and GMT. It’s like getting a Tri-Compax and an Aero-Compax for the price of one. Or maybe one-and-a-half. Yummy.
(QP, Issue 2)
© Ken Kessler 2003