IT'S ABOUT TIME: Trip to Baselworld
For those who have not heard of it, Baselworld is an annual convention held in Basel, Switzerland, where most of the major and many of the smaller watchmakers present their collections and premier their latest products. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to attend the renowned show in March. I expected to see watch collectors/enthusiasts, dealers, journalists, and brand executives all sharing their passion for horology (the study of timekeeping) as well as the new watches released at the show. I imagined bumping into and engaging in memorable conversations with some Hodinkee writers like Ben Clymer and Jack Forster, or Jean-Claude Biver, a figure in the watch world I once admired. I was mistaken to think that this would be the reality.
Before going to the main show, I started the experience by visiting the Hyperion Hotel, where some small, independent, brands with much lower marketing budgets, set up their booths. The first brand I looked at was H. Moser & Cie., which I have been following over the past few months. The moment I looked at their cabinet, a representative from the brand came running to me and asked if I needed assistance. I had a very educational chat with the representative and learned more about the brand and its noble history. The handcrafting and painstaking care involved in the timepieces is mind blowing. I then went to the Urwerk booth, as I am intrigued by their unique way of telling time. They too welcomed me with open arms and showed me the newest additions to their collection. I was able to learn about some very small brands that I had never heard of, like Klokers (whose watches have the dials move and the hands stay still), which get overlooked because they are not a “big brand.”
After visiting the hotel and trying on some of the watches, I imagined that the main show would take days. I remember talking to my dad about how many tickets to buy. The options were day passes or an unlimited pass; we opted to buy the one-day pass until we got a lay of the land, and we made the right choice. I walked into Messe Basel (the convention center) and was stunned by the grand and impressive booths that the big brands had set up.
I started at Bvlgari, which was the first booth to the left when you walk in. I had read the Hodinkee article about their new automatic tourbillon, which broke three world records: the thinnest automatic watch, the thinnest tourbillon, and the thinnest automatic tourbillon. The watch is 3.95 mm thick, which is around the thickness of 2 dollar coins.
This was the first thing I wanted to see because it was one of the few timepieces at the show that made a significant advancement in watchmaking. I walked up to the entrance of the booth and was rudely stopped by someone who said, “this is a private event, you can’t come in. You can look at some of the pieces in the display case around the booth.” I then went across the way to Tag Heuer and faced the same issue, although they didn't have their watches locked up in a glass box; instead they had a rotating wheel with watches on it. I thought, “it's the first two booths, they must have tons of people trying to get in, so they have to turn people away.” I then zigzagged more through the hall and was turned away from Patek Phillipe, Breguet, and Omega. I unfortunately came to the realization that the big brands just don’t care about an enthusiast’s interest in the art and science of watchmaking and horology. The “big brands” only care about you if you spend tons of money on their watches or if you are one of their top dealers. While I understand that time at the show is limited, I believe the brands should have done more to attract or reach out to all visitors.
As I made my way through the “big brand” booths, I did receive one warm welcome, from an actual Blancpain watchmaker, seated at a microscope. He spent twenty minutes with me explaining, under the microscope, how the tourbillon differs from the carrousel, both means of correcting for the effects of gravity, both beautiful to watch in motion, and both requiring the highest level of watchmaking to create.
Towards the rear of the Hall 1, the section with widely recognized brands, the smaller, Jaquet Droz, with its amazing automata (moving figures and animals) was also welcoming.
Then I made my way to Hall 2, which consisted of the small brands, the inexpensive booths, and I met watchmakers and representatives who were truly passionate about their products and happy to discuss them with pride with whoever showed interest. These included the German Meistersinger company and the crazy, clown-faced, watches of Konstantin Chaykin, whose silliness makes it hard to imagine the master watchmaking involved. There were makers from all over Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark who may make less than a thousand watches per year, but have more passion and love for what they do than the “big brands” do.
Patek Phillipe, Breguet, and Omega have long histories of making beautiful timepieces with incredible workmanship, but their refusal to show any interest in a watch enthusiast who wasn’t a buyer or dealer, really turned me off. The people from these big companies, or at least the ones who come to Baselworld, just seem to see it as a business. On the other hand, Baselworld turned me more on to the world of the small, independent, companies in the “cheap booths,” which don’t have the big marketing budgets but truly are in it for the love of the product.
The best example of this at Baselworld was H. Moser & Cie. Another great example, which wasn't at the show, was F.P. Journe. In a future article, I will discuss the amazing tour I had of his amazing manufacture in downtown Geneva as well as my exploration of the watchmaking regions of Switzerland with the magnificent horology museums of La Chau-de-Fonds and Le Locle.