Let’s Celebrate 100 Years Of Baselworld 1917-2017 – A century of history of the world’s biggest and most comprehensive watch fair is impossible to sum up in just a few lines. However, that is exactly what I am attempting to do here as the centenary edition of Baselworld approaches in 2017.
The history of the Baselworld watch and jewelry fair we know today began on April 15, 1917 as the first Schweizer Mustermesse Basel (MUBA). Coincidentally (or perhaps not) this time is not only the same one that saw the wristwatch rise to popularity, but also one in which World War I represented a serious threat to the artistry of Swiss craftsmen.
A total of 831 companies from diverse branches of the national Swiss economy such as the chemical industry, banking, insurance, and transport and shipping – the city of Basel’s chief economic mainstays – exhibited in the city’s casino, and the 6,000-square-meter exhibition space also included a special section for watches and jewelry.
Among the first exhibitors were watch brands Tissot, Thommen, Longines, and Ulysse Nardin. Mustermesse is German for “sample fair,” a word perfectly characterizing the beginnings of this exposition, which has become the most important annual gathering of the watch industry in the world. And it remains the oldest trade fair in Switzerland open to the public.
In 1923, six years after it had begun, the first halls were built where today’s Hall 1 stands. This was also the year in which Zenith exhibited for the first time, making 2017 the Le Locle-based brand’s 94th appearance at the show. Just one year later, the Swiss watch industry’s Fédération Horlogère (FH) was called to life – an association it would be hard to imagine the industry without today.
For the exhibition of 1925, MUBA (“Mustermesse Basel”) invited several more watch manufacturers. This was obviously successful, for in 1926 the first hall dedicated solely to the watch and jewelry sector – high-end Schaffhausen-based jeweler Furrer Jacot had already been exhibiting since 1924 – was opened on the grounds.
At this particular exhibition, John Harwood’s automatic watch caused quite a sensation. Harwood had invented a wristwatch with automatic winding in 1924 – at that time watches were still wound by hand – and sold the rights to Fortis. Movement supplier A. Schild subsequently perfected Harwood’s construction for serial production, and Fortis utilized an AS caliber as the base movement.
At this Basel fair in 1925, Fortis presented the first serially produced wristwatch with automatic winding. The watch had no crown and the time was set by rotating the bezel. Blancpain and Felsa also introduced wristwatches containing the same caliber (see the Blancpain rendition in Eternity In A Box: The Blancpain Rolls Starring Léon Hatot Made Watchmaking History).
Because Rolex did not participate in the Basel fair until 1939, two of its most important inventions were not launched there: the Oyster in 1925 and its self-winding wristwatch mechanism patented in 1931 – and in use to this day – which the brand called the Perpetual rotor. The wristwatches outfitted with it also boasted an exhibition case back to allow potential customers to see the “perpetual” motion of the rotor at work.
It was in 1931 that the Basel fair became known as the Schweizer Uhrenmesse (“Swiss Watch Show”). By this time the sector was so big that it was held in the dedicated pavilion that is today’s Hall 1.
This same year ASUAG (“Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG,” a conglomerate created with the assistance of the Swiss government and banks) was founded as the result of a crisis that had gripped the Swiss watch industry between the two Great Wars caused in great part by the Depression. ASUAG represented the starting point of what – through mergers, buyouts, and conglomerations – would become first ETA, then SSIH (1983), and then finally SMH (in 1985) before morphing into today’s Swatch Group, a watch empire without equal now totaling nearly 190 companies spanning the globe.
In this year, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s evergreen Reverso model was likewise born, although it was also not introduced at the Basel fair (see 85 Years Of The Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso).
“Patek Philippe has participated in the Basel Fair since 1932,” says Jasmina Steele, head of international communication and public relations director for Patek Philippe. “Baselworld was and remains the most important professional show for us. It is an ideal communication platform and this is the time of the year where we meet all our world sales network and press contacts. Most importantly, as a privately owned watch company, this is the unique yearly concentrated opportunity for the Stern family [Patek Philippe’s owners] to personally greet all our retailers as well as the press. It is always a very positive and motivating time of the year for us, the head office teams and world teams being all together as a big family, and we always look forward to unveiling the new models and technical developments at this occasion.”
Further changes come about with the notable decision by Timex and its brands to pull out of the fair as well as Kering brands Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux moving to Geneva’s SIHH.
Change is inevitable and change is good. And in a century it is possible to witness a whole lot of change.
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