It’s hard to stand out at the world’s biggest watch fair, especially if you are new, small and not Swiss. Emerging foreign watchmakers have to play to their unique strengths - in two cases that means Chinese ceramics and Australian red earth.
With an exhibition space equivalent to almost 20 football pitches, Baselworld accommodates around 1,500 watch and jewellery brands. But the space is far from evenly distributed. The most prized piece of real estate is the ground floor of the cavernous Hall 1. It is here that Swiss watch industry’s giants like the Swatch and Richemont groups as well as iconic brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe strut their stuff in stalls that are bigger and more glamorous than most watch shops.
Hall 2 has more of a market-stall feel and this is where you find little known Bausele and other international brands. Blink and you’ll miss the 14sqm stand of the company with Australian roots.
Its stall is peppered with Aussie touches like a surfboard, a boomerang, giant posters of the outback, as well as specially commissioned kangaroo leather chairs.
It is a set to showcase Australia-inspired but Swiss-made watches.
“I was walking along the beach thinking of ideas when I realised that I was surrounded by sand, red earth and coral,” Bausele founder and CEO Christophe Hoppe told swissinfo.ch. “I thought this is it! We are going to put these elements of Australia into the watch.”
The brand’s watches, which fall in the $500-3500 (CHF494-3458) price range, have a hollow crown which is filled with red earth from the outback, sand from Australia’s beaches or opal mined in the country. Hoppe hopes that his attempt to distil a continent into a watch will be enough to help his watches stand out from the crowd.
“We are all competing for the same customers. What I've got is a different concept,” he says. “I don't think Swiss watch brands have an advantage over us, as we've got the Swiss-made aspect as well.”
Even though the Swiss are only the third-largest watchmakers by volume, they have the biggest share of global watch exports market at CHF22.2 billion. The average price of watches exported by Switzerland is an impressive CHF785 compared to around CHF4 for a Chinese watch.
A Baselworld newcomer who is hoping to change this is Shuyang Zhang from China.
He made his money in the television sales business and has spent a considerable amount of it on collecting antique timepieces and ceramics.
“I thought why not combine ceramics and timepieces to create a new watch brand,” he told swissinfo.ch.
His strategy? Focus on China’s traditional expertise in porcelain. His company ZhangDao employs up to 60 master artisans in Jingdezhen – known as the porcelain capital of China – to create one-of-a-kind ceramic dials for watches that retail between €1000-5000 (CHF1055-5275).
“I decided to invest all of our innovation and creativity into the watch dials as we cannot hope to compete with Swiss-made mechanical movements,” he explains.
China is his target market but the world’s second largest economy is also extremely important to the Swiss. Excluding Hong Kong, mainland China alone is the third largest export market for Swiss watchmakers and is worth CHF1.45 billion to the Swiss watch industry.
However, Zhang thinks his watches can offer something that the Swiss can’t.
“Swiss watch brands think that Chinese people only want luxury. But Chinese are also keen on culture and art and are some of the biggest art collectors worldwide,” he says.
Of course, the easiest way to beat Swiss watchmakers is to not make watches at all. That is what German clock-maker Andreas Fritsch, who is exhibiting at Baselworld for the first time, has done. He has been invited by the prestigious Independent Watchmakers Association (AHCI) to exhibit his Circle Clock next to timepieces of established master watchmakers.
“Coming from Germany it is difficult to attract attention to show that I am also a good watchmaker. It is easier to be noticed if you're Swiss,” he says.
He wanted to become a watchmaker at the age of 12, when he saw his father repair a cuckoo clock. After years of restoring watches and clocks at his Munich workshop, he finally decided to create a timepiece of his own. It took him three years to create his Circle Clock that retails for around CHF34,000.
“At Baselworld people come to see watches but they are also interested in clocks,” he says. “Even today people want good design in their homes and a nice clock can complement a room like a well-designed chair or table.”
It is not just the Swiss that are worrying these novice outsiders. External factors like the strong Swiss franc have also cast a shadow, as everyone is dependent on Swiss watch parts.
“We buy all our components from Switzerland where we also assemble our watches,” says Hoppe. “Around 60-80% of the value of our watches is Swiss, so you can imagine the impact.”
The Chinese government’s crackdown on ostentatious gift giving is another development that has hurt the sales of luxury Swiss watch brands. Zhang admits that it could affect him as well but he feels that he will not be as hard hit as the Swiss thanks to his role in reviving traditional Chinese arts.
“Our idea of promoting Chinese culture to the world is supported by the government through its Silk Road initiative of which ceramics are a part,” he says.
However, they don’t seem worried about the potential impact of smartwatches on their sales figures.
“Hopefully, smartwatches will bring back the custom of wearing watches among young people. And when they turn 30 they'll move on to real watches,” says Hoppe.
While honoured to be a part of Baselworld, this new breed of foreign watchmakers feel they are also contributing something unique to the Swiss-dominated global watch industry.
“I think that our presence in Baselworld will benefit not only us but the whole watch industry since we are bringing in new blood and new approaches to artistic creativity,” says Zhang.