Basel: putting on the glitz

The Apr 1994 Basel Watch Fair in Basel, Switzerland, attracted 80,000 visitors to view more than 2,000 exhibits and featured both traditional craftsmanship and glamorous contemporary styling. The Swiss industry holds 61.6% of worldwide watch exports, far ahead of Hong Kong and Japan, and saw sales rise 3% in 1993 to a record $5.29 billion. The strength of the industry may have been one reason for the luxurious diamond-laden styles displayed.

Both high-style glamour and old-fashioned craftsmanship shared the limelight at the Basel Watch Fair here last week.

Women’s watches were often loaded with diamonds, answering a demand for more sex appeal and greater intrinsic value. Mechanical watches were also present in quantity, a development watchmakers said was indicative of a thirst for more authentic, handcrafted pieces.

The emphasis on luxe reflected the good feelings of an industry that was able to push ahead despite the recession that prevailed in many markets.

In 1993, the Swiss industry posted a 3 percent gain in sales of watches and parts to hit a record $5.29 billion (7.59 billion Swiss francs), according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch & Clock Industry.

Moreover, Switzerland continues to dominate the world watch industry, responsible for 61.6 percent of global watch exports last year. Hong Kong and Japan came a distant second and third, with 13.3 and 11.5 percent, respectively. Also, the average price of Switzerland’s export watches was $111 (160 Swiss francs), four times that of Japan and nearly 20 times Hong Kong’s.

Attendance at the eight-day fair, which ran through Thursday, rose 2 percent to 80,000 visitors, according to show officials. The event once again took over the town of Basel. Demand for hotel rooms was so heavy, organizers brought riverboats down the Rhine to house all the extra visitors.

Networking is also a key part of the fair, with scores of launch and cocktail parties. Among the key events is the reception held annually at the Kunstmuseum by De Beers, the World Gold Council and W magazine, where one party guest, Stephen Magner, vice president of fine jewelry for Neiman Marcus, summed up the value of the fair this way: “It’s not just what you see on the stands and the exciting resources, but also the quiet deals. If you want a certain set of pearls, of rare diamonds, then Basel is the likeliest place to find it.”

The number of exhibitors increased, up 60 to 2,120, boosted by the return of South African diamond manufacturers to the international scene after years of boycott.

Among the big diamond users was Chopard, featuring sports watches highlighted with floating diamonds on the faces. It also offered the same concept in 18-karat gold earrings that will retail for about $5,000.

Chopard also went with the trend toward Australian pink diamonds. One women’s evening watch with clusters of pink and white diamonds was a work of fantasy to retail at $107,000.

A new feature of the fair this year was a Prestige Hall for 41 high-end jewelers, where designers such as New York’s Henry Dunay showed major statement pieces.

Dunay unveiled several brooches in beryl and tourmaline that he surrounded with an urban landscape shaped in gold. He also showed jewelry and watches in interwoven strands and combined with emeralds, diamonds and, in one case, a huge South Sea pearl.

“We are very happy with this new section,” Dunay said. “And business has been good, but building these stands is certainly an expensive undertaking. This place cost more than my apartment.”

Around the corner, Gianni Versace had a large stand showing his line of fine jewelry and watches, launched last year.

The Italian designer showed diamond and gold rings in his signature Medusa head motifs, set to retail at about $15,000, and a group of dramatic necklaces with retails of up to $150,000.

Elsewhere, Tiffany & Co. was displaying women’s watches with gold bracelets in a basketweave style with the weave wrapped around the watch. Central American influences popped up in Tiffany’s line of scroll jewelry, in cast gold with a soft patina.

Among other developments, John Loring, Tiffany’s senior vice president and design director for the New York-based company, said the company has been looking for a major retail space in Paris for several years.

“We’ve seen several sites, but have not been able to find a space of the right size,” Loring said. “Tiffany being an emporium, we can’t just open up a small shop of 200 square meters, but Paris is a city that doesn’t have that many large shops.”

Nearby, Tag Heuer‘s stand was packed with visitors, a tribute perhaps to the Swiss watchmaker’s international ad campaign, “Don’t Crack Under Pressure.”

“Our global concept is to communicate with an image and not the product,” said Tag Heuer president Christian Viros. “We don’t want to be tempted to change our collection every season like a fashion house. The strength of a brand is measured by whether you recognize it immediately, like, say, an Hermes scarf or a Louis Vuitton bag.”

This season, Tag Heuer introduced its first all-gold sports watch. This fall, it’s planning to launch a limited edition group of 5,000 watches, with the line being named after Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna.

Another trend at the show was animal motifs, dramatized at Paris jeweler Rene Boivin, with delicate elephants, bumblebees and octopuses, all in intricate gold with some featuring moving parts.

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