Hot off the press, the latest news is that the canton of Basel-City has isolated a number of children for a two-week period following the discovery that one of their nursery assistants has tested positive for the coronavirus. The recent spate of show cancellations has been big news, starting with Parma, then Watches & Wonders and the Geneva Motor Show. The general feeling is that most people are expecting some kind of announcement from Baselworld in the next day or so. And as just reported by Reuters, Switzerland’s Federal Council has today banned all large-scale events that will be attended by in excess of 1,000 people. Revolution understands, however, that this is in place until March 15th at the earliest, so time will tell. In light of this latest news, whatever determination the Baselworld organisers had to plough on regardless, may now buckle under political pressure and the show called off. A decision will have to be made quickly as it takes a couple of months to physically build the stands for the show. This is a shift in the landscape and the question has to be asked, what might all this mean to the wider watch industry?
On the face of it, it’s a simple cancellation of an event. The decision to not go ahead with the Parma watch show in Italy this week on its own isn’t a shock. The virus seems to be spreading more rapidly than our governments were expecting. So Parma is finito, it’s swimming with the fishes this time round. It is now rescheduled for April instead, but I expect it may not happen then either. Watches & Wonders is definitely cancelled, so if they cancel Baselworld and W&W, what will happen to auction weekend in Geneva in May? My guess is that it too will be canned. What will happen to the market, you ask? Well, in truth nobody can provide a credible answer to such a question but would it be terrible news?
Let’s look at Parma first. To the outside world it’s a show in show – the watch ‘hall’ is a corner of one of three large exhibition spaces at the Mercanteinfiera Parma. It isn’t glamorous or a showstopper like many watch events, but to underestimate its importance in the market would be a mistake. The Italians are a force in the watch-collecting scene. It could be argued that indeed they invented the hobby; but what is without argument is that they play a key role in the market. The Parma Fair (which I wrote about here a while back) is visited by almost all the world’s leading watch dealers. They travel from the US and all over Europe. The twice-annual show is key for dealer-to-dealer transactions as well as the opportunity for the market makers to meet and take the temperature. The first show in early March is always important, but was especially crucial this year, as everybody waits to see how the market evolves in 2020. There will be disappointment at the announcement. No doubt.
From this year, Baselworld was no longer solely a new watches exhibition as we reported a week ago, Phillips are now going to be represented at the fair, with a presence in Hall One alongside Rolex, Tudor and Patek Philippe. Exceptional pieces from private collections and previews of lots from forthcoming sales is what is being promised – this is a new strategy and one that will be interesting for sure. But it’s the ‘forthcoming sales’ bit that might be in question. What would happen if the spring auction weekend was to be cancelled? Again, one cannot underestimate the importance of the Geneva sales. It’s the vintage and important watches’ health check. It’s the market’s blood pressure, ‘drop and cough’ and cholesterol test. How would the market be evaluated without it? Well, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing…
Nobody is saying the market is in crisis, but there is certainly a correction in some areas. I reckon most people, if pressed, would say that in some ways this was an inevitability and in most cases was needed. Maybe a break is just what the doctor called for. It would certainly be preferable to a lacklustre season, which in itself could be terrible for the market. Dealers and the auction houses need these opportunities to sell – it is after all their business to do so. But a halt in proceedings and the lack of any quantifiable markers might whet people’s appetites for the autumn and bring a fresh and renewed energy to the market. Many ‘ifs ‘ and ‘buts’, but in my days as a musician one important mentor always used to say to me “always leave them wanting more”.
And what about new watches? Well, as we wait to see what Baselworld decides to do, I have a strong feeling that whatever happens, all will be well. In truth, how many members of the watch buying public actually attend Basel? I have no idea but I’d guess less than 0.001 percent. And the authorized dealers who attend the appointments – are they going to not order the watches? Of course not – they will want as many of the watches as possible, especially from the power trio in Hall One. As for the magazines and online platforms, well I can safely say that our collective appetite is as ravenous as ever. Will things be a little different? Without doubt, but then change is good. Einstein’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing time after time and expecting different results.
Vintage watches need a bit of breathing space and maybe a little bit of time for the Houses to find enough incredible pieces to have a bumper season. And the new watches launched in 2020 will sell – we just have to work with the brands to share the messages in a different way. I’ll finish with another music thought. In the words of Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie – “Dealers keep dealin’…Junkies keep scorin’”.