America Friday, October 26th 2012
An interview with Carlos Alonso, director of the Salón Internacional Alta Relojería (SIAR) fine watch fair in Mexico City.
Carlos Alonso, director of the Salón Internacional Alta Relojería (SIAR) fine watch fair in Mexico City
Alongside the Swiss fairs and their predominantly trade visitors, a growing number of regional events give the public a chance to admire the latest in fine watchmaking, proof of brands' international appeal. While events such as this are now held in regions around the world, in cities such as Singapore, Paris and London, Latin America was one of the first. As the founder and organiser of the Salón Internacional Alta Relojería (SIAR) in Mexico City, Carlos Alonso is in the frontline. For the past six years, this journalist, entrepreneur and authority on the LatAm watch market has brought leading brands, an enlightened public and the media together every October to share their passion for fine watchmaking.
What gave you the idea to launch a fine watch fair in Mexico?
Carlos Alonso: There was a glaring need to develop a better understanding of the culture and expertise of fine watch brands. We had organised a few one-off events prior to SIAR where collectors could meet some of the sector's leading representatives, with brands such as Corum, Breguet, Parmigiani and Hublot, and these were always a resounding success. The idea was to bring end customers into direct contact with brands and their wares. However, it soon became clear that these traditional channels weren't dynamic enough to drive the natural process of bringing together the people who design and make watches and the people who buy them. A dozen or so brands said they would be interested in an event that would foster this type of contact, but that wasn't what we did: we were a specialist watch magazine, not event organisers. Still, the idea of a multi-brand fair wouldn't go away and so much the better as SIAR was a success right from its launch in 2007.
How did you convince brands to take part?
The fact that Tiempo de Relojes was such a respected publication was a push in the right direction. When SIAR started, the magazine was already in its eleventh year. Back in 1996, when the magazine launched, fine watches were very much a niche interest among Latin Americans. Tiempo de Relojes was a driving force for the market in Mexico.
So SIAR is the culmination of a process that began with your magazine?
Absolutely. The magazine had always been a vehicle for promoting watch culture, with sufficient credibility to influence trends and introduce new names. The ideal formula for what was to come.
How do you explain the growing number of events like SIAR?
The first major event of this kind was Tempus in Singapore, initiated by Michael Tay, the boss of The Hour Glass. Tempus came about just as the Asian watch market was getting into its stride. It was everything a fair should be and more. Michael Tay is a born entrepreneur and Tempus was nothing if not spectacular. It was a real eye-opener for me and for everyone else. I also see myself as operating in a developing market, and take pride in the idea that Latin America ticks all the boxes for future growth, even if we do sometimes lack faith in our strengths. Latin America is poised for success; Asia was quicker off the mark, that's all. So we organised an event that would soon be followed by others in Paris and London, which incidentally were also launched by journalists.
Are you surprised that journalists should be behind these events?
Not really. I think it's because we journalists are in direct contact with the brands, hence we automatically become vehicles for watch culture.
How is SIAR different from other regional fairs?
Salon QP in London and Belles Montres in Paris are located in two major capital cities and attract crowds of visitors. The event we created in Mexico City, which as a market for watches is a second-tier city, benefits from private funding and focuses on quality over quantity. Brands appreciate the fact that SIAR "only" draws 3,000 visitors as it allows them to make direct, personal contact with customers. This is a lot harder to do in Paris and London. Another point in our favour is that it's easier to reconcile everyone's interests. SIAR provides a welcoming environment for watch fans which the media are happy to support.
And how is it different from SIHH or Baselworld, the two big events in Switzerland?
Contact with the end customer. It's a great feeling to see Carole Forestier, who is head of fine watch development at Cartier, or Richard Mille chatting with a collector. In this respect, regional events complement Baselworld and SIHH. As interest in watches continues to grow, consumers, who are being fed information by social networks, feel frustrated if they can't be part of the action.
What are the advantages and drawbacks for watch brands in Latin America?
We live in a global and competitive world, meaning traditional retailers and distributors have to think like big businesses and make professionalism a priority. The second challenge is the sometimes difficult environment, particularly in terms of security. There is a degree of risk involved in watch retailing. In such a complex environment, the luxury microcosm has a fight on its hands to reach the standards brands expect. As for the political environment, a look at luxury over the past century shows that fine watchmaking has always managed to overcome difficulties. Take Venezuela for example. It's now an important market.
Latin America's greatest asset is that it is poised to go on developing and expand its middle class. Abundant natural resources, a large population, consumption… these are all advantages that put Latin America on the sunny side of the economic fence for the future. Also, demand for fine watches is constantly increasing, among young buyers in particular. Europe should remember that during its years of turmoil, in the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the big names in watchmaking all came to the Americas and found an alternative market for their products in Mexico, Brazil and Buenos Aires. SIAR has every intention of being a worthy modern-day successor.
Which are the main Latin American markets for fine watches?
It depends on the level of wealth. I've heard brands say that if they added together purchases made by Mexicans and Brazilians at home and abroad, they would account for 80% of consumption in Latin America. It's true these two countries are in the top ten export markets for watches. Argentina, meanwhile, has always held watches in high regard. It's interesting to see what's happening in Venezuela, where a new class is aspiring to luxury. Venezuela is the Latin American country that buys the most complicated watches per capita. The sector is also developing nicely in Peru. Chile tends to weigh up the real value of things more. Colombia, where everything is being done to boost the luxury market, could in the near future become the third-ranking LatAm country.
Will watchmakers be speaking more Spanish in the years to come?
Spanish is a widely-spoken language, and Spanish-speakers like luxury, adore fashion, and enjoy flaunting their possessions. So I'd say yes, watchmakers will be speaking a lot more Spanish in the future… ■
Carlos Alonso was talking to Manuel Palos