The luxury of time at watchmakers’ showcase, Baselworld

Small but perfectly formed timepieces are taking over from bulky, ostentatious styles, finds Ivan Carvalho, as he views the micro marvels and masterpieces on show at Basel's sleek new exhibition centre.

Each year, as regular as clockwork, Switzerland plays host to Baselworld, the world’s largest gathering devoted to luxury timepieces. The showcase event brings together watchmakers, retailers and fans of horological hardware, just in time for Spring.

This year's event is the first to take place in Basel's revamped convention centre, with a new extension by local architects Herzog & de Meuron. The award-winning practice has erected a $460m pavilion featuring cantilevered floors and an aluminium-wrapped exterior that on closer inspection resembles the mesh bracelet of a wristwatch.

The spectacular structure has been delivered on time, with typical Swiss efficiency – and the results are dazzling. Inside, many leading watch brands have invested in their own elaborate mini pavilions – some costing more than $4m – to showcase their wares.

With attendees topping 100,000, more than 1,400 exhibitors were eager to seal deals over the fair’s eight days, in which organisers estimate six million business cards are exchanged.

Although Baselworld attracts watchmakers from forty countries, attention was squarely on the 382 Swiss companies exhibiting. The Alpine nation has centuries of expertise in horology and last year workers assembled 29m timepieces as Swiss watch manufacturers chalked up a new record, with watch exports totalling a whopping 21.4bn Swiss francs.

“We have the knowledge, the schools and because we have this heritage I think we will be able to maintain our monopoly. You cannot sell an expensive watch today if it [says] ‘Made in Japan’ or ‘Made in China’,” argues Hublot chairman Jean-Claude Biver who singlehandedly revived the fortunes of historic Swiss manufacture Blancpain in the 1980s, by shunning the newer electronic quartz movements then in vogue and stressing that timepieces should continue to feature traditional mechanics.

Mysterious ways

Miniature engineering feats were a common sight at Baselworld’s booths. The latest chronographs, escapements and balance wheels were all on display after many painstaking months of toil in the remote Swiss valleys where most brands operate, to ensure staff concentrate on the delicate task of piecing together engines measured in millimetres. From the workshops of Maurice Lacroix in the canton of Jura, the watchmaker unveiled another addition to its Masterpiece line, the Seconde Mystérieuse, with its open-worked dial with innovative seconds hand that appears to levitate across the face of the timepiece.

Another micro marvel came courtesy of Antoine Martin. Started in 2009, the company debuted its Slow Runner timepiece in a tent outside the main halls that played host to niche independent brands producing highly intricate models in small quantities that can often fetch five-figure prices or higher. 

Martin’s mechanical timepiece mesmerized onlookers with its slow-moving balance wheel that beats 7,200 times an hour, compared to the frenzied pace of 28,000 beats averaged by most watches. The action of the hairspring expanding and contracting recalled a pumping human heart and again showed how creative the Swiss can be in the tiniest of spaces.

Marking anniversaries and revamping of tried and true classics were two popular ways for companies to introduce new designs. The Rolex faithful queued to snatch a peek at the display case housing the company’s newest Daytona watch – dressed up this year in platinum to celebrate its golden anniversary. Tag Heuer marked half a century of its sporty Carrera collection with a range of masculine models. Patek Philippe placed a delicate clasp to cover the case back of its timeless Calatrava dress watch. Omega, meanwhile, offered a new version of its famous Speedmaster Moonwatch in black ceramic while Zenith feted pieces from its successful El Primero line, including a recent addition to the collection, the El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th, that broke the sound barrier when it was strapped to the space suit of Felix Baumgartner during his historic skydive from the upper reaches of the atmosphere last year.

Understated elegance

Collections for female consumers of well-made horology were plentiful. Hermes presented its svelte Arceau Le Temps Suspendu, fitted in a 38mm case in rose gold with an in-house movement developed in Switzerland for the luxury goods brand and naturally offered in a range of beautifully stitched leather straps. Founded in the 18th century but only recently swallowed up by the mammoth Swatch Group, Breguet conjured up a slender oval case ringed with diamonds featuring a day-night indicator with clouds made of mother of pearl and a moon crafted from titanium.

Slimmer models were a common sight, with some buyers and press suggesting the era of the bulky 48mm sports watch was over, its demise hastened by the all-important Asian markets, particularly China and Hong Kong, where consumers tend to have smaller wrists than buyers from North America and Europe.

Joachim Ziegler, CEO of Zurich-based watch retailer Les Ambassadeurs, who caters to Chinese tourists in his Swiss retail boutiques, sees the change but argues it is not down to Asian tastes alone. “Watches were huge up until 2008. People got tired of it. Now they want a retro look, a smaller size. Today we have very wearable sizes so I don’t think it’s tied to the business from Asia."

One traditional Swiss brand unconcerned about size is Oris. Horology aficionados were attracted to its new Depth Gauge diver’s watch – a model equipped with a tiny hole that allows water to enter into a narrow channel. When descending, pressure increases and air in the channel is compressed to indicate how deep the wearer is.

Surrounded by fashion brands flogging flashier pieces, staff at Oris didn’t seem bothered by the competition to court luxury-minded shoppers. The company’s motto “real watches for real people” struck the right tone as many toned down the bling factor and did away with diamonds on dials given today’s uncertain economic climate in the eurozone and elsewhere. Retailer Ziegler sees brands playing it safe. “If you ask me what the trend is today, I’d say probably it’s not to be too trendy.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.