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Watch and learn

Watch and learn

The inner-workings of the biggest watch fair in the world

The inner-workings of the biggest watch fair in the world

Melanie Grant | April 4th 2016

Getting into Baselworld – the world’s biggest watch and jewellery trade fair, where 150,000 people come each year to buy or gawp – isn’t easy. Once you’ve negotiated paratrooper-style security and endured the Swiss marching band (red coats, drums, kilometres of fur trim), you have to vault over gaggles of selfie-taking journalists, scoot around old-money winter tans and Loro Piana cashmere and then manoeuvre through herds of men wearing Savile Row suits and chunky gold rings.

Then you find yourself in a crystal city, with row upon row of dazzling glass structures in which brands flaunt their finest watches. These giant greenhouses contain bars, lounges and private rooms, which are accessible only via a front line of model-beautiful receptionists who are as tough as they are ruthlessly efficient. It is like a cross between Las Vegas and an army assault course, only much more dangerous. Worn out by the crowds, light and heat, you have to be constantly on the look-out for the killer trams that silently criss-cross the fair.

My colleague Luke and I managed not only to escape with our limbs intact, but to attend 40 appointments in three days, fuelled by cheese, fruit salad and a will to survive. Luke’s impressive quiff did start to wilt on day three but as my navigator and source of moral support (you would have to be a masochist to do Baselworld alone) he steered me through the throng with aplomb. Once you have made it to your appointment, never less than ten minutes late, the next challenge is to get your hands on the goodies. Each brand sees a combination of buyers and press but with only a handful of prototype watches available, buyers take precedence. If you’re lucky enough to get your sweaty mitts on a beautifully crafted watch then you’d better enjoy it fast because it will be spirited away in minutes to be lovingly caressed by a bloke who has 200 stores in the American midwest.  

The Victorinox Paracord, whose nylon strap can be unravelled and (the manufacturer claims) be used as a fishing net, shoelace or a bow drill for making fire

The best appointments are with people who can introduce you to the creations they have been beavering away on all winter in a workshop high in the Swiss mountains. Francois Nunez, Head of Creation at Victorinox (and his silent, eye-rolling sidekick, Basile), teased and flirted me through a handsome collection of tough-looking timepieces. One of the models (left) had a plated bracelet made out of parachute cord designed to be unravelled and used when things go wrong in the wilderness. Another, made of rubber, was such an eye-piercing shade of yellow, that you could get away with it only if you were a certified diver or a Japanese student.  

I wanted them all. Watch obsession, when it strikes, is deadly. I went through most of my adult years glancing at my phone for the time, laughing heartily at goggle-eyed watch-loons banging on about co-axial escapements. Then, one day, I was on a plane and decided (on an altitude-induced whim) to buy an entry-level timepiece – Armani, I think it was. So I got used to wearing a watch, then I started noticing other people’s. Soon I casually began googling the history of Rolex and Patek Philippe. I knew I was in trouble when I caught myself having conversations with strangers in lifts about nato straps and diamond bezels. Before long, I’d infected everyone around me: work colleagues, my partner, even my mother, who used to wear a Mickey Mouse watch but now talks to me daily about the gold Cartier Tank she simply must have. And now I’m like the rest of them, pawing that new mechanism with glazed eyes, my nights at Basel spent writing lists of what to buy after my lottery numbers finally come up.

Distracted as I was by the large chunky affairs I covet for myself, I couldn’t help noticing a definite move toward smaller models. The massive 45mm prototypes of a few years ago have given way to midsize designs, as the industry tries to cater to the growing number of people who are wearing more unisex styles and the Chinese government’s campaign against corruption. Dior’s 19mm watch, La Mini D De Dior, is so cute and dainty, I’d wear three at a time, budget permitting. The trend continues for grey and blue dials – partly, I assume, because in tough times (global economic woes, the dawn of smart-watches) neutral colours are a safer bet.

Jacquet Droz’s Charming Bird, which tweets the time

At the pinnacle of watchmaking, colour and size don’t matter. Jacquet Droz, a top-of-the-range Swiss brand, mesmerised me with the Charming Bird, (right) an oddly exquisite hand-wound piece from the Les Ateliers D’Art collection. A tiny mechanical bird sings sweetly under a bubble of glass on the dial, the movement and sound almost lifelike. At Graff, a carpet of brilliant-cut diamonds unfurled onto my wrist. Snowfall had been created by using a 3D printer to manipulate liquid resin, while a band of flexible joints held the stones in place. Bendy and shiny – it’s amazing how childlike wearing 278 diamonds makes you feel.  

Chanel has combined jumping hours, retrograde minutes and their first ever in-house movement within a new single watch called Monsieur de Chanel (main picture). This elegant design is a decisive step towards serious watch-making for a company that has been in the business for only 29 years.  The best watches this year were the simplest. Rolex unveiled heavy gem-set pieces, new aubergine dials and an update to the Oyster Perpetual Explorer. Nestled among the bling was a wonderful re-working of the Air-King: minimalist, elegant and wearable.

No Baselworld trip would be complete without a visit to Patek Philippe. The UK CEO Mark Hearn and his trusty team welcomed me with a hug and a carefully curated collection of masterful creations. The Annual Calendar 5396G sailed serenely into view, all buttery leather strap and twinkly silver dial. The World Time 5230 lets you zip effortlessly between 24 cities, looking super-stylish while you’re doing it. Luke’s quiff (which by now had become a barometer for both our energy levels) positively vibrated with excitement. I half expected a Swiss marching band to burst in at any moment. 

After getting up close to such precious little machines, leaving Basel empty-handed is always dispiriting. For now, I will just have to content myself with window-shopping and the sense-memory of metal on wrist, lingering like the dent in my heel from when I foolishly wore new shoes on my first revelatory visit 14 years ago.

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