BaselWorld 2017: Signs of the times
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Times are tough. Business is hard. Markets are unpredictable. And the future seems uncertain. Posed with such questions watch brands have to dig deep to find answers that are simultaneously focussed on weathering the storm, without compromising the future. And all around Basel this year you saw these questions and answers embodied in a handful of key product trends. Some of these trends flow from directions we have seen before in previous editions of the fair. Others are somewhat newer. The watches are all, thankfully, great.
Business is precarious. But that doesn’t mean brands aren’t planning for the future. In addition to the new lines, value models and vintage collections mentioned above, brands are also taking the chance to rethink the way they do things. More than one brand suggested that it was time to rethink the centrality of one or two watch fairs in a world in which markets span the globe. More and more brands seem to be moving towards an annual innovation calendar, whereby new models are released frequently in specific markets. Other brands are not rationalising but also undertaking restructuring moves. Seiko, for the first time, spun off Grand Seiko into a stand-alone brand that will now take on the world on its own. This is great news. High end watchmaking at a good price is precisely what the markets could use right now. And no one does that better than Grand Seiko.
Slim and sexy
When the going gets tough, watch brands get back to basics. Slim, elegant, minimal watches in timeless designs were the calling cards for numerous brands this year. It is a solution that works. For more than one reason. Firstly, these watches are low risk innovations. These are crowd pleasers that attract all but the most unorthodox watch buyers. What is there to dislike in a wonderful two hand watch set in a single-colour dial on an elegant leather strap? Absolute nothing. This is exactly what they call timeless watchmaking. Secondly, the minimal elegant watch is tremendously versatile. They can be high-volume steel models to collector special platinum and limited edition. The potential for clever, efficient innovation is high. And thirdly, these watches cater to a market that seeks sobriety. Buyers, like brands, choose moments of crisis to go to basic and rediscover the simple.
Nobody likes to see watch brands struggle. We love watches. And without strong brands there cannot be great watches. Still a slump is not without its benefits. BaselWorld 2017 saw the trend for good value watches, first spotted two years ago, continue with gusto. All over the fair there were platinum models now available in gold, and gold models now available in steel. There is a spectacular choice of models in steel available out there right now. Other brands have brought in new lines and collections at competitive price points. Brands like value because it keeps the customers coming. Retailers like value because it keeps inventory turning. Buyers like value because value is awesome.
To go forward, sometimes you must look back. Cheesy? Yes. But their archives are a constant source of inspiration for watches as they weather storms. Most of the leading brands in the market today owe their existence to back catalogues that are full of timeless classics, sacred bestsellers and iconic designs. Why invest time, energy and manpower, especially in these times, on inventing new models when you have so many inspirations sitting in your archives at the head offices. Across board brands sought succour in their vintage models. And what a wonderful thing that is. From Longines’ Flagship to Tag Heuer’s Autavia, brands produced outstanding new retellings of classic old stories. And how good were the watches? These watches remind us that classic designs remain classics for a reason. Combine these with state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques and you have a product proposition that is hard to resist.
Brands are going digital in more ways than one. Firstly, of course, there is the need to respond to the wearable revolution. Not just because there is money, clearly, to be made. But also because brands want to be prepared in case of another ‘quartz revolution’ that obliterated the conventional brandbase. Nobody wants to be the last brand on the market left holding the mechanical movement. This is particularly true for brands in the value and mid-priced segments that are most at threat from wearables. Thus TAG Heuer continues to do interesting work with their Connected watches while other brands such as Frédérique Constant and, especially, the Fossil Group continue to frenetically innovate and incorporate wearable tech into their portfolios. The scene is still messy, but some of the watches are excellent.
Overall this is a market that continues to offer the smart buyer excellent value and outstanding design. There is something here for everyone. Men and women, the technical-oriented and the classical. The trick is to be able to tell the short-term product from the next classic.