With 108 Swiss exhibitors of which 86 watch brands, is the Baselworld glass half-empty or half-full? Some fear the worst, given the decline in the number of participants. Others just as easily argue that measures introduced by new management are sufficient to stem the flow. After this “transitional year”, we can only hope the fair is able to move forward and maintain an important event in a profession whose members are all too inclined to go it alone. Organisers did their best to plug the gaps in the halls left by departing exhibitors; less easy to mask were the gaps in collections that were subdued to say the least, with no real trends emerging – as though exhibitors, yet to get over the last dry spell, are afraid to let go of the reins. With a few notable exceptions, there was little in the way of mechanical wizardry and no healthy competition to impress the audience with grand complications, as though brands had come to some mutual agreement to stay within the lines. Back to normal, some might say, to a time when new releases weren’t a given. The general impression, however, was one of creative stagnation.
In this context, the handful of truly exceptional watches stood out all the more, starting with the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT Automatic which brought home a fifth world record for Bulgari, the undisputed champion of extra-thin. H. Moser & Cie. confirmed its command of horological understatement with the Endeavour Concept Minute Repeater Tourbillon, while Patek Philippe came with a highly original Alarm Travel Time Ref. 5520P in a pilot’s watch style. Design-wise, two hot contenders were Hublot’s Classic Fusion Ferrari GT and the MB&F Legacy Machine FlyingT, its first lady’s watch. On the technology side, special mention goes to the carbon-composite balance spring that made its serial-produced debut in the Autavia by TAG Heuer, and to Zenith’s revolutionary oscillator which beats at a remarkable 18 Hz. Previewed in 2017 inside the Defy Lab, it returns in its production version with the Defy Inventor. Completing the line-up of must-sees is De Bethune’s very first dive watch, the DB28GS Grand Bleu, and the Chronomètre FB 1L by Ferdinand Berthoud with an unusual age-of-the-moon complication.
Exceptions aside, the collections shown at Baselworld tended to follow the same route as Chanel’s J12. Almost twenty years after its launch, the brand settled down to the task of revisiting the twenty-first century’s first iconic watch. Revisiting but not transforming: 70% of the original components have been tweaked but in ways that have left its identity perfectly intact. The one major difference is the movement by Kenissi, a manufacture in which both Chanel and Rolex have stakes. Note that the J12 wasn’t the only watch getting a makeover at Baselworld 2019, although not everyone was as upfront about it.
Vintage still going strong
Breitling, which has already had its “out with the old” makeover, cast its net wide with collections for land (Premier), sea (Superocean) and air (Navitimer). There are iterations aplenty, true to the pioneering spirit of a brand that will do whatever it takes, crawl, swim or fly, to conquer wrists. In an infinitely dressier register, Chopard is out to seduce the contemporary gentleman who chooses his watch with the same care as his cashmere suit. The brand enters the dapper gent’s wardrobe with its tried and tested L.U.C watches whose elegance is measured by the scant millimetres of their profile. Rolex, meanwhile, remains faithful to its professional watches to the point of obsession. It went all out with a Yacht-Master sporting a new 42mm case size and – the big innovation – a ceramic bezel insert featuring moulded and polished graduations. A first!
Supporting the claim that the old ones are the good ones, vintage once again provided the lowest common denominator. This year’s match made in heaven is the green dial-bronze case combo. Much has been said about the virtues of bronze and its symbolic value in watchmaking. After making timid inroads, it has become something of a rite of passage for any brand wishing to shine a spotlight on the patina of time. This most ancient of materials was high on the agenda at both Tudor, with its Black Bay Bronze, and TAG Heuer with the Autavia, not forgetting Bell & Ross, Anonimo and Oris. Green, meanwhile, emerges as the only colour to be unanimously approved as an attractive alternative to the traditional blues, whites and blacks. In a similar vein, two-tone watches are making their comeback. Hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, they offer a more affordable alternative to all-gold models. Rolex has made them a focus of attention this year. Examples include the Sea-Dweller in Rolesor, a combination of Oystersteel and 18k yellow gold. Carl F. Bucherer has a version of its Heritage BiCompax Annual in steel and pink gold. At Tudor, the S&G epithet of the Black Bay and Black Bay Chrono gives the game away.
Even with so few discernible trends, very few watches ventured into new terrain as brands opted to play safe, leaving it to the smaller names in the Les Ateliers and Incubator sections to fan the flame of creativity. While this is something collectors expect, it would be wrong to downplay the inventiveness and originality these independent brands show, each in its own register. Think Grönefeld, Kari Voutilainen, Louis Moinet, MB&F, Romain Gauthier or Urwerk for the better-known among them; Czapek, Mauron Musy, Alchemist, Beauregard and Cyrus for the up-and-comings. At a lukewarm Baselworld, alongside the big brands who “make” the watch industry but can “break” it too, they were finally given the place they deserve.