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Inside the Changing Landscape of Swiss Watch Fairs

At Geneva Watch Days 2023, CEOs of Bulgari and Breitling fuelled the fire of an ongoing rivalry with Watches and Wonders. The comments come as Swiss watchmaking’s calendar fills up with more events both in Switzerland and abroad.
At Geneva Watch Days 2023, CEOs of Bulgari and Breitling fuelled the fire of an ongoing rivalry with Watches and Wonders.
At Geneva Watch Days 2023, CEOs of Bulgari and Breitling fuelled the fire of an ongoing rivalry with Watches and Wonders. (Breitling)

GENEVA — Switzerland’s watch fair rivalries are set to continue as two of Geneva Watch Days’ founding members — Bulgari and Breitling — voiced their commitment to continuing the late-summer event, shutting down rumours that they would defect to the larger Watches and Wonders fair next year.

The Swiss watch fair landscape has been redrawn in recent years: Following the collapse of Baselworld during the pandemic, Watches and Wonders (Switzerland’s biggest fair, formerly known as SIHH) has sought to consolidate its position as the main gathering for brands, dealers, and collectors. But in addition to some major brands continuing to back Geneva Watch Days, alternative watch gatherings both in Switzerland and abroad have proliferated, suggesting that the industry’s calendar is being durably transformed.

The watch fair rivalry, as well as the growing number of smaller fairs and events outside Switzerland, show how the Swiss industry — which for decades moved more-or-less in lockstep to help hard luxury conquer new markets around the globe — is becoming more fiercely competitive as brands fight for market share. Last week, Rolex acquired a major Swiss-based multi-brand dealer, Bucherer, as the turf war for retail locations and the marketing spotlight continue to heat up.

“We can continue to grow faster than the industry [average] for the next 15, 20 years without being part of Watches and Wonders,” Bulgari chief executive Jean-Christophe Babin told the Business of Fashion. “As long as I will be at the helm of Bulgari, it will be like that.”

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Breitling’s chief executive Georges Kern said that after discussions with Watches and Wonders, his conditions had not been met. “We were accepted for 2024, but we still decided not to go,” Kern said. “I would [participate] if the concept were more flexible and easier to use for all participants. And the governance has to be more ecumenical.”

Kern, Babin and Pruniaux.
(L-R) Breitling’s chief executive Georges Kern, Bulgari's chief executive Jean-Christophe Babin and Patrick Pruniaux Girard-Perregaux's chief executive Patrick Pruniaux, founding partners of the Geneva Watch Days. (Courtesy)

Following Baselworld’s demise, the long-running fair’s anchor brands such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Hermès and Chanel joined forces with SIHH loyalists such as Richemont’s Cartier and IWC to create Watches and Wonders. But Bulgari and Breitling, once Baselworld stalwarts, have stayed on the sidelines even as the 2023 edition attracted 43,000 unique visitors, including as many 5,400 retailers and 1,400 members of the press.

Babin and Kern have continued to be vocal critics of the show, citing a governance structure dominated by Richemont, Rolex and Patek Philippe. Bulgari’s LVMH sister brands TAG Heuer, Hublot and Zenith have all joined Watches and Wonders, but the luxury group is still not represented on the board of the foundation that organises the fair.

“We can accept not to decide everything, but we cannot accept to decide nothing,” Babin said. The 64-year-old industry veteran said the show was too expensive and that the format of high-cost brand booths, formal presentations and paid-for public days was outmoded, adding that the offer made to Bulgari by the organisers to exhibit was “insulting”, “humiliating” and “a polite way to turn you away.”

“We want to have a fair share of space,” he said. “We cannot have 10 percent of Cartier.” He also said that making members of the public pay to enter the event was “stingy”.

A “Fair” Alternative

Geneva Watch Days was created in 2020 in response to Covid and the cancellation of the spring fairs. Babin was its main architect, collaborating with Kern and Patrick Pruniaux, the chief executive of Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux, to craft a “21st century concept” of an industry gathering.

Exhibiting brands pay fees between 10,000 and 100,000 Swiss francs depending on their size to cover central costs — chiefly a pavilion on Lake Geneva’s waterfront that’s free to enter for members of the public. Otherwise, brands operate independently, setting up in hotel rooms, boutiques, restaurants or other spaces around the city. Babin pointed out that his event has been endorsed by the Canton of Geneva, while Watches and Wonders has not.

Babin said he was confident Geneva Watch Days, originally a Covid stop-gap, would be back next year. “The organisers of the traditional fairs do not like the idea that a brand alone can gather a few other brands, and organise for a fraction of the cost a fair which is attracting a lot of retailers and media, and that’s growing year after year.”

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This year’s event attracted around 40 retail partners, roughly a third more than in 2022, and according to Kern, was expected to record around 8,000 visitors including 600 members of the international press. The pavilion also hosted a series of panel events and an auction to raise money for the Geneva Watchmaking School.

As for costs, Babin said he had invested around 1 million Swiss francs ($1.13 million) exhibiting at Geneva Watch Days, adding to the 1.5 million spent by the brand to stage a separate event at a Geneva hotel during Watches and Wonders earlier this year. He estimates participating in Watches and Wonders would have cost as much 8 million Swiss francs. “We invest the differential in media and other events during the course of the year,” he said.

Speaking at Breitling’s Geneva boutique last week, Kern agreed that Geneva Watch Days was a more efficient use of his budget. “It’s cost maybe two or three hundred thousand,” he said. “It’s peanuts. And it’s super efficient, super effective, and we have the same impact as we would have at a big fair.”

Growing Membership

While Geneva Watch Days remains much smaller than Watches and Wonders (which claims to have reached more than 600 million people on social media from the hashtag #watchesandwonders), brands like Breitling get a bigger share of the spotlight at the more intimate event.

Kern said he expects Geneva Watch Days to continue to grow thanks to its decentralised concept. “Many bigger brands want to come next year,” he said. “They don’t want infrastructure, they want to go into the hotels. It works because we do it ourselves. We don’t have any organising committee that we have to pay.”

The late August timing also appeals to some members rather than April, when Watches Wonders (and formerly Baselworld) typically take place. Watches and Wonders precedes the quieter summer season, whereas Geneva Watch Days leads into a busy sales period that covers Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas and Chinese New Year, Babin said. “Here, we get much better energy behind those novelties, because they are fresh.”

“It’s back to school,” Pruniaux echoed. “In any given year, we have between six to nine launches, so we need different timings.”

Not everyone is on board with the changing calendar, however. Edouard Meylan, chief executive of the independent watch brand H. Moser & Cie, said he “pushed hard” to have the event in November, when the Only Watch charity auction and prestigious Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) take place.

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“Geneva has two main watch weeks. One during Watches and Wonders [in April] and another for the GPHG and Only Watch,” Meylan said. “We would have all the biggest collectors coming… I think we would all benefit.”

Events Abroad

Supporters of Geneva Watch Days’ more intimate, decentralised format are weighing whether to take the concept on the road, travelling to other watch hotspots.

“There is a consensus in the industry that it’s good to have a fair outside of Switzerland,” Pruniaux said. “This model works because it’s in Geneva and a lot of brands can be involved at minimal cost. Now the question is could it be replicated elsewhere with the same cost-efficiency?”

Kern said he believed it could, but not yet. “We’ve been openly discussing going to China, but we should first consolidate Geneva with more, bigger brands,” he said.

Far-flung showcases are already populating the watchmaking industry’s calendar: Watches and Wonders will host an event in Shanghai later in September, with 10 brands slated to participate.

In November, brands including Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Chopard will head to the Middle East for the return of the biannual Dubai Watch Week, which is organised by retailer Seddiqi. Luxury conglomerate LVMH has staged a roving watch fair of its own, presenting new collections for its brands like Bulgari, TAG Heuer and Hublot in Dubai and Singapore in recent years.

Those events come in addition to a faster pace of single-brand presentations, as watch brands increasingly seek to create memorable marketing moments and deeper connections with collectors and the press. Glitzy events like Louis Vuitton’s most recent presentation at the Musée d’Orsay (during Paris Haute Couture Week) and Omega’s collection launch in Mykonos are becoming more commonplace.

In the digital age, “people still want to meet and talk about watches,” Kern said.

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