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The End of an Era: Baselworld Sees Exodus of the Show’s Biggest Brands

This week’s announcement made waves throughout the watch, gem and jewelry worlds.

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BASELWORLD WILL STILL survive as long as they have Rolex and Patek Philippe.”

That was the statement made by just about every person familiar with the fair after the Swatch group pulled its 18 brands out in 2018.

What a difference two years and one worldwide pandemic make.

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The watch community learned Tuesday morning that the fair’s anchor brands were leaving. That was a week after news broke of a scathing letter sent to Baselworld organizers by the president of the exhibitors’ committee (Hubert du Plessix, head of investments and logistics at Rolex).

The April 14 announcement stated that Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel, Chopard and Rolex’s sister brand, Tudor, would be leaving Baselworld and creating a new show in Geneva in April 2021 organized by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH). According to the press release, the brands had decided to leave the fair because of decisions made by Baselworld show management as to the show’s postponement and options for reimbursement of exhibitors.

“This departure follows a number of unilateral decisions made without consultation by Baselworld management including the postponement of the watch show until January 2021, as well as its inability to meet the brands’ needs and expectations,” the release stated.

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And while the announcement surprised few, it still made waves throughout the watch, gem and jewelry worlds.

“I was 25 years old when I attended Baselworld for the first time as a sales representative for Maurice Lacroix watches. That was 20 years ago,” said John Carter, owner of Jack Lewis Jewelers in Bloomington, IL. “The fair was a thing of wonder to me.”

Carter, who is president of the American Gem Society and an authorized Rolex dealer, had been looking forward to attending Baselworld 2020 before its postponement.

“I hope the fair finds a way to live on, but a decade of change seems to be taking its toll,” he said.

Asked if the idea of a new show in Geneva would interest him, Carter replied, “Yes! To me, it seems like the best call for Rolex. Basel is a really beautiful city, but it always seemed to struggle when it came to infrastructure. Geneva, or even a city like Zurich, would seem more fitting for a show of that size.”

Brian Duffy, CEO of the Watches of Switzerland Group, which has retail locations and branded watch boutiques throughout the U.K. as well as in the U.S., was optimistic about the changes to come.

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“Today’s news was not entirely unexpected, as we know frustration was building amongst Baselworld exhibitors in recent weeks,” he said.

Duffy, who works as a retail partner with all five of the brands leaving Baselworld, views the move as reasonable.

“The shift by Rolex, Patek, Tudor, Chopard and Chanel to align with the FHH and Watches & Wonders in 2021 makes a lot of sense,” he said. “It is certainly our hope that this move will bring added solidarity to the Swiss watch industry at a time when we need it the most. Geneva, where I lived for many years, is a wonderful city and has such a rich heritage when it comes to fine watchmaking. This is going to make the trip even more rewarding.”

But while buyers and retailers who work largely with watch brands seem relatively upbeat about the changes to come, there are other sectors of Baselworld that will be greatly affected by the mass exodus, namely, the companies dealing in jewelry and gemstones.

But David Bindra, vice president and head of acquisitions at B&B Fine Gems in Los Angeles, described the recent news as “a travesty all around.”

“Baselworld was a magical show for me growing up. Some of the most beautiful moments in my life happened for me at that show,” said Bindra, whose company had planned to exhibit at Baselworld 2020.

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Bindra said Baselworld management did not approach his company to ask whether the new dates for 2021 would work.

“We were contacted by the organizers with the change of dates on Feb. 28, after the postponed dates had been confirmed,” he said. “The options absolutely did not have the exhibitor’s best interests in mind, as they conflict with the AGTA Tucson Gemfair, which for many of us is our most important show of the year.” When asked if he felt that the fair would continue now that the anchor brands are out, he said: “I think without Rolex and Patek Philippe, there is no Baselworld.”

MCH Group, organizer of Baselworld, issued its own press release later Tuesday in response to the news. It began:

“It is with great surprise and equally great regret that the MCH Group takes note of the cancellation of major exhibitors at Baselworld. The new date for the unavoidable postponement of Baselworld 2020 was defined jointly with leading exhibitors. The objective was to find the earliest and best possible date for the industry following the COVID-19 related measures. The companies now ‘migrating’ – including Rolex – spoke out in favour of a postponement to January 2021. They are also represented on the Exhibitors’ Committee, where the future vision of Baselworld has been discussed on several occasions and has met with a positive response, as was also evidenced by countless individual discussions. The intention to move to Geneva has never been mentioned. The MCH Group must therefore conclude that the relevant plans have been in preparation for some time and that the discussions concerning the financial arrangements for the cancellation of Baselworld 2020 are now being put forward as an argument.”

MCH also said small- and medium-sized exhibitors from the gemstone and jewelry sectors had given positive feedback on the changes.

But while Baselworld may have for years been the watch world’s most glamorous event, many exhibitors, buyers and members of the media felt taken for granted. What the industry is now witnessing is proof that there are always other options. As retailers have long known, the customer is always right.

PHOTO GALLERY (4 Images)

Barbara Palumbo is a watch and jewelry industry writer, journalist and speaker. She manages the blogging websites Adornmentality.com and Whatsonherwrist.com.

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