If horology where a religion then Switzerland would be the Vatican and Baselworld Christmas. And to have both Rolex and Patek Philippe not attending is basically the equivalent of the pope leaving. Having made the pilgrimage to the heart of the watch world had been a fantasy of mine for a while, and I still remember the excitement I felt when I first entered the glittering halls of this century old tradition. A memory that is bittersweet, knowing that I probably will count among some of the last people to ever witness Baselworld in all its glory.
Starting as just a section of the Basel Mustermesse in 1917, it grew consistently to where at near its peak it opened in 2013 to premiere a 430 million franc renovation. At its height they managed to consistently get visitors around 150,000 on an annual basis. Eventually however all good things must come to an end. Although no one can know exactly how the atmosphere was behind the scenes, that matters little while the performance is good. When that is not the case, however, the cracks begin to show. So much so that in 2017 the visitor count was so low that the numbers where not published, and the fair was shortened by 2 days in the following year.
Of course, a slightly shorter or less popular show on its own is not particularly dramatic in the broader scheme of things. After all the fair’s health was largely correlated to that of the industry, and accordingly there are bound to be bumps in any road. None of that matters as long as they manage to retain their little crown jewel, being the platform for the release of Rolex, they would manage to retain the title as the biggest watch trade fair in the world. Exactly that grip on the big brands started to slip, most notably in 2018 as the Swatch group announced their intention to leave, citing high costs and an antiquated system as a reason. They would soon be followed by the two biggest Japanese brands as both Seiko and Casio announced they too would not return after 2019 due to scheduling conflicts with Japanese holidays as the fair’s usual dates have been moved a month forward.
Already struggling, the corona virus pandemic was bound to deal a serious blow to the fair, but I don’t think anyone would have expected things to get this bad, this fast. In response to the extent of the virus becoming increasingly more apparent, Baselworld eventually delayed, and finally postponed to January 2021. This decision, which Baselworld in the aftermath declared was made together with the brands, did not sit well with many manufacturers. What tipped things over the edge, however, was their response regarding a refund. I don’t think I need to say much about these as I believe they pretty much talk for themselves, but just think how you would react if for example you asked a concert organiser for a refund following it being cancelled due to:
– 85% of the amount for Baselworld 2020 carried over to cover fees for Baselworld 2021
– The balance 15% retained by the organizers to help cover the out-of-pocket costs of Baselworld 2020
– 30% of the amount reimbursed
– 40% of the amount carried over to Baselworld 2021
– 30% of the amount used to help cover the costs incurred by Baselworld 2020
The following move can only be described as watch history in the making, as Rolex, Tudor, Patek, Chanel, and Chopard decided to leave the fair and create their own version. Claiming to be surprised by the announcement, the situation went from bad to worse as a few days later LVMH also announced their departure, including such brands as Zenith, Hublot, and Tag Heuer. This already means that the famed main hall, the one I remember so vividly, would basically be completely empty come next year’s installment.
As of writing the blog, Baselworld is still planned to start on the 27th of January 2021. However, in their statement in response to the big departure of brands, they already said that they will have to make a decision on whether the fair is to be continued. Regardless of that decision, however, it will never be the same without the big brands around, so much so that I have to ask myself: would it even matter if they decide to continue?