Basel ’91: much interest, extreme caution

The Basel fair had fewer visitors, less design excitement and slower business than previous events. Even so, a lot was happening

The 1991 European Watch, Clock & Jewelry Show, held April 18-25 in Basel, Switzerland, was less ebullient than previous ones. Show officials cited “special circumstances”: recession in the U.S. (the major market), the Persian Gulf War’s effect on business in Europe and the Middle East, and economic slowdowns elsewhere.

The result: 90,000 visitors, down 10,000 from 1990’s record high; fewer innovations in watches or jewelry, and so-so business overall (satisfactory watch sales offset by disappointing jewelry business).

“[Show] results reflect the world economic situation,” said a report by the British Jewellers Association, “much interest but extreme caution by buyers.”

Still, there were sunny corners: High-end watch vendors and dealers in electroformed gold jewelry did well. There were more gold and gold-plated watches, more glistening yellow gold jewelry, and more use of colored gems. Breakthroughs were announced in long-life watch batteries and gem testing. And the fair was the largest it has ever been, with 2,020 exhibitors (548 watch and clock firms, 1,133 in jewelry, the rest in related industries) from 19 lands.

Indeed, though “European” in title (Germany had the most vendors), the show is now worldwide in scope. This year a third building was opened just for vendors from Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and first-time exhibitor Taiwan. (Only four years ago, Hong Kong became the first Asian group to be admitted.) Still awaiting entry is Thailand, whose government doesn’t yet meet the show’s free-trade and anti-counterfeiting requirements for admission. However, 26 Thai firms held their own mini-fair for the second year in a nearby restaurant.

TECHNICAL TIMEPIECES TIGHTEN GRIP ON MARKET

The watch and clock segment of this year’s Basel fair celebrated technology, past and present.

The Swiss continued to enjoy success with their mid- and high-end mechanical watches. While quartz watches dominate the global market and world output of mechanicals is falling, sales of Swiss mechanicals have grown steadily since 1987. Though only 7% of Swiss unit sales in 1990, they represented 42% of the value. That strong revival was evident at Basel.

More than half of all new Swiss watches shown were mechanicals, especially self-winding automatics. Indeed, there were more new developments in mechanical time — from 8-day tourbillon designs to the world’s slimmest perpetual calendar with moon phases — than ever in the show’s history. A number of firms now offer mechanical and quartz versions of their watches; a few also offer timepieces combining quartz and electronic features ( Read more: stuhrling original watches review). Even ETA, world leader in quartz movements, debuted a new mechanical perpetual calendar movement specifically designed, said a spokesman, to “help watch producers and retailers respond to the marked revival in demand for mechanical watches.”

Grip: Meanwhile, multi-function watches (sports, chronographs, divers) tightened their grip on the global watch industry. Chronographs, especially, were so prevalent at mid- and high-price levels that one overwhelmed fair official dubbed 1991 “the year of the chronograph.” That dominance, said watch and movement makers, will continue through the early ’90s.

Newcomers in the over-$1,000 chrono crowd included Breitling’s Chrono Shark, leader of a new line water resistant to 330 meters; Lucian Rochat’s Royal Sub Chrono, the only high frequency self-winding chrono resistant to 500 meters; Sector’s SGE500 quartz chrono series; TAG-Heuer’s quartz Formula 1 chrono; Cartier’s stainless steel Pasha automatic; Jaeger LeCoultre’s Herion chronograph with alarm, seconds hand and date calendar; IWC’s (International Watch Co.) Ingenieur Chrono Alarm, combining the world’s smallest mechanical chronograph movement with quartz-controlled time and an electronic alarm; Zodiac’s Gold Point automatic and Universal Geneve’s new Compax automatic model. New chronographs for women — unique in a field dominated by large-sized watches — included Baume & Mercier’s Transpacific model; Sector’s SGE 100 women’s chrono; and Cartier’s new Round Santos models. Cyma, Movado and Raymond Weil debuted under-$1,000 chronos.

Color treatments on chrono dials and subdials also were hot. Thus Seiko, which had a strong seller with a red and blue dial, plans more chronos with other color variations for fall.

Unique: The popularity of chronos and complicated watches has renewed consumer interest in other mechanical and multi-function watches:

* Chronometers (very precise watches which pass tough tests to be certified by the official Swiss chronometer agency). TAG-Heuer, a leader in high-tech sport watches, unveiled its self-winding S/el Chronometer, its first, in response to U.S. demand and will bring 500 here this year. Rolex is expanding the rating of chronometers for women in its Oyster line.

* 24-hour watches which show two time zones simultaneously. TAG-Heuer‘s new GMT has an extra hand that circles the dial every 24 hours and a rotating bezel with hour markings. Delma’s Meridian has two 24-hour displays on its dial and a rotating bezel marked with 22 world cities.

* Calendar watches. Vacheron Constantin and Movado both debuted watches which show the date (1 to 31) on the dial rim with a pointer. The Master of Business watch for businesspeople from Pointer of Switzerland and Ronda SA has a sixth hand to show the current week (on the dial rim) and month (on the bezel).

* Perpetual calendars. Newcomers in this growing niche included Seiko’s sleek mid-priced model; Cartier’s Ronde Santos chronograph with the world’s smallest perpetual calendar; Breitling’s self-winding Astromat QP moonphase chrono, and luxury watchmaker Gerald Genta’s model with open-faced engraved movement, minute repeater and 59 ct. of diamonds on bezel and bracelet.

Sports time: Sports watches rivaled chronos as the industry’s white-hot sellers. Pulsar, a top-selling U.S. mid-price brand, announced a new collection called “TechGear,” topped by a two-tone chrono. TAG-Heuer launched the 1500 series, a step up from its 1000 line of basic divers’ watches. Rolex added a new stainless steel line called Monarch. Citizen debuted Aqualand II ($695), the first professional divers’ watch with an analog depth indicator, while Casio introduced women’s versions of its Oceanus series.

However, much of the sports watch news involved major tie-ins with important international sports events by firms which serve as sponsors or official timers.

Citizen Watch Co. announced it is official timer of the 1992 America’s Cup yacht race (with Citizen Watch Co. of America sponsoring Stars & Stripes, the U.S. entry). It debuted its new America’s Cup watches, including chronographs customized for serious and amateur yachters.

Hattori Seiko, official timer of the 1992 Olympics, unveiled a multifaceted program that includes Seiko and Pulsar official Olympics watches, Seiko watches designed to follow major Olympic events, a yacht timer and a new Olympic alarm chronograph.

Sector uses renowned athletes and explorers in its new “No Limits” campaign and is sponsoring the solo trans-Pacific trip of French navigator Gerard d’Aboville. Revue Thommen is backing a transit of the North Atlantic by Swiss sailors in a replica of a Viking warship.

Golden: Gold glittered amid the technical watches as more firms boosted the opulence of their wares. Luxury price debuts in 18k included Juvenia’s Mystere (popular 50 years ago, now revived as its signature line) and Patek Philippe’s new generation of complicated, ultra-thin automatics. Limited editions included IWC’s self-winding Amalfi, with a gold-plated movement in platinum or gold case, and Jaeger LeCoultre’s 60th anniversary pink gold Reverso.

More affordable 18k lines — many combining the gold with stainless steel and priced at $500-$1,500 — came from Cyma, French watchmaker Laurence Dodane, Delma (the Brasilia) and Raymond Weil (the Parsifal series, introduced earlier in the U.S.). Gucci’s 18k stirrup link series moves into U.S. jewelry stores this year, while a 14k version of Movado’s limited edition 110 Anniversary 18k series will be available for wider distribution.

Carven, a Swiss firm owned by Hong Kong’s Asia Commercial and new to the U.S., did well with 14k plated watches for under $500. Two other Hong Kong firms, Gordon C. & Co. and Myer Jewelry, reported healthy sales for their own 18k lines. And Hattori Seiko debuted Seiko Gold; if successful in Europe, the line could get a U.S. tryout in a few years.

Ladies only: New watches exclusively for women included eye-catchers in both mid- and high-price niches. At the luxury level, Gilles Robert, an 11th-generation watchmaker, debuted a brand with his name created by Paris jewelers and made by Swiss watchmakers. The 18k line, three years in creation, comes here this year. Its spring-operated Bulgari-style bracelet fits any wrist.

Citizen Watch of America unveiled Normandie, a mid-priced art deco collection inspired by classic 1930s designs. The watches feature octagonal, circular or square dials in black crystal or mother-of-pearl; bracelets feature individual squares of inlaid black enamel and gold-tone geometric designs.

Also new were Audemars Piguet’s Audemarine jewelry models; Nina Ricci’s “Ribbon Secret” line, with variously colored interchangeable straps; and Ultima Brands’ rigid bracelet Fendi women’s watch with two time zones.

Curves & cases: White, champagne and mother-of-pearl remained popular dial treatments.  Akribos reviews for strap watches have grown in popularity with Americans, and there were more deployment clasps.

Soft, graceful curves — rounded case flanks, stepped bezels, bracelets with curved and “pebble’ links — prevailed. Curves showed up elsewhere, too. Rectangular curved-cases collections were debuted by Cyma, Gucci and Mondaine, while rounded bombe-type crystals were essential to Movado’s 110 Anniversary series and additions to Raymond Weil’s Othello line.

Non-round case shapes formed a small but growing trend. Michel Herbelin’s new Etoile watches have octagonal cases and round bezels. Corum’s Symboise combines a round red gold case with a rectangular white gold bezel. WOTrigon of Kilchberg, Switzerland, offered triangular watches under the Wot and Trigon brands. Eterna made the biggest commitment with its “1856” 18k and steel line; five different case shapes — square, oval, ellipse, rectangle, and round — will be introduced over the next couple years. This marks “a return to basics” and “a concept we can build on, instead of being tied to a new trend every year or two,” said Martin Stalder, president of Eterna U.S.A.

Clocking in: Several well-known Swiss clock names were merged. Swiza, a leading mid-price clockmaker, took over carriage clockmaker Matthew Norman. The change won’t affect product or distribution in the U.S.

Jean Roulet completed its union with Imhof; U.S. business for both luxury clockmakers has grown strongly over the past two years. The firm launched a new line called “Les Dimensionnelles” under the logo Roulet-Imhof. These spherical “time units” (crystal balls encasing the movement and dial) rest on artistic pedestals. The clocks are removable and the pedestals designed to double as desk sculpture.

Also circular is “Rolling Stone,” a first-ever table clock from Swiss watchmaker Delma made of Corian, a stone and epoxy resin by DuPont. A round flat disk “plugged” into the clock at a 90 [degrees] angle enables it to rock to and fro at the push of a finger.

Scholer SA of Rohrbach debuted the “3S System,” a silent direct-drive, low energy-consuming 60-pole electromagnetic step motor for quartz analog clocks. It allows a seconds hand to be fitted directly on the rotor, simplifying construction.

Kienzle of Germany debuted a clock whose dial lights up at night in response to body heat from a hand. Junghans, one of Germany’s best-known watch and clock firms, said its radio-controlled clocks will debut in the U.S. this year.

BASEL JEWELRY: BUILDING ON LAST YEAR’S TRENDS

For many visitors and most vendors, Basel’s 1991 jewelry show was like a beautifully-wrapped package — with last year’s gift inside.

Despite acres of beautiful creations from Europe, America and Asia, a number of U.S. retailers — who go overseas for goods their competitors won’t have and to see foreign trends before they reach here — said this year was disappointing. “Nothing unique or different,” said Robert Green, president of Lux, Bond, Green & Stevens, Hartford, Conn., who spent much less than past years, “mainly on plain gold rather than gem things.” Harold Tivol, a leading Kansas City, Mo., jeweler, noted “a lack of innovation [and] the same inventory as last year.”

For their part, many exhibitors said retailers from the U.S. and Europe were cautious due to uncertainty about national and local economies. And indeed, several U.S. jewelers told JCK they’ve reduced what they spend overseas this year.

Still, some jewelry niches did well: Those dealing in lightweight electro-formed gold jewelry, such as Breuning of Germany, Charles Garnier of France and Midas of Israel, did well. Many Hong Kong vendors in the new Far East building reported healthy sales after a slow start, thanks to retailers seeking price-competitive goods. The 12 firms in the U.S. pavilion, sponsored by the Manufacturing Jewelers & Silversmiths of America, came with low expectations and results were mixed. But some — including Steve Lagos of Philadelphia, Pa., and first-timers Kabana Jewelry of Albuequerque, N.M., and Nancy B & Co. of Culver City, Cal. — reported good business and/or contacts.

Charms and diamonds: Although the jewelry often seemed like a rerun, Basel still had plenty to see.

There were fewer floral designs (though still a number of eye-dazzling examples, like the 18k and gem Santagostino pieces of Corti & Minchiotti, Vicenza).

As in the past two years, there were charms, hearts and stars, and dangling pendants galore on bracelets in gold, silver or platinum. And there was plenty of versatile “double-duty” jewelry, such as hoop earrings with detachable charms (some with colored gems). Also drawing attention were large drop earrings; most were gold, while some showed an African influence.

Diamond tennis bracelets are starting to catch on in Europe. Cabochons abounded, princess shapes are gaining popularity and there was a bit more use of flower cuts.

Golden notes: Soft-shaped, sleek, shiny yellow gold jewelry was very evident, with pink gold less so. An Italian spokesperson privately blamed that on the entry of price-competitive Thai jewelry-makers into the pink gold market.

De Vroomen Design of London showed gold jewelry with eye-catching enamel accents, part of the enameling trend in Europe. Tri-color gold remained in many firms’ repertoires, including the jewelry division of Citizen Trading Co., best known for watches. The firm’s export manager said Citizen will show its gold for the first time in the U.S. at this month’s JA show.

Geneva jeweler Ludwig Muller debuted (and patented) “blue gold” jewelry. White and 22k when it leaves the ingot mold, its surface turns deep blue after being alloyed with a little nickel and iron, heated to a high temperature, sculpted, chased and polished. Muller is designing jewelry which combines the blue gold with other gold colors, platinum and/or gems.

Sapphire shades: In gems, the big three (ruby, sapphire, emerald) continued to reign, but there were interesting uses of sapphire shades. These included Weber & Cie’s 18k rainbow brooch and earclips, set with 102 pastel sapphires, and Mario Panelli’s three-layer pearl choker necklace with hearts of pink, blue and yellow sapphires.

Also noted: More use of topaz, citrine and tourmaline — especially by German and Swiss designers — and of transparent and opaque gems together.

Not to be overlooked were some intriguing designs in sterling silver — the other white metal. Among them were sensuous serpentine bracelets with an Oriental influence, from the Llama collection by Bayanihan S.A., Barcelona; geometric-cut bracelet and earrings by Manuel Garcia Ramiro, Barcelona; and sharp-edged pendants featuring Finnish spectrolite from the Northern Lights series by Zoltan Popovits for Lapponia, Helsinki.

Some trends knew no national boundaries. Jewelry from a number of U.S., European and Hong Kong exhibitors showed a strong Bulgari influence. And requests from customers led several jewelry designers to add watches — designed more as jewelry than timepieces.

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