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That Time of Year

A primer on this month’s Baselworld, the most important event on the calendar for watch enthusiasts

Author Matt Diehl Photography Simon Bielander/MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG

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“It’s like you’re an actor, in a movie about time.”

That’s how François Thiébaud, the president of the Swiss Exhibitors Committee at Baselworld, poetically describes the experience at the annual event, officially known as the World Watch and Jewelry Show. Gregory Thumm, the president of Bulova, describes Baselworld more simply, but with no less enthusiasm. “It serves as a reaffirmation of my passion for the craft,” he says.

Like clockwork, Baselworld takes over its namesake host city of Basel, Switzerland, each year in early spring (this year’s edition is March 19 to 26). According to Thiébaud, the event is to horologists what Fashion Week is to clothing designers and Cannes is to filmmakers.

If anyone can unpack Baselworld’s enduring appeal, it’s Thiébaud. The dapper, charismatic Frenchman doesn’t just serve as an influential member of Baselworld’s organizing body, he presides over one of the world’s largest, most prestigious timepiece manufacturers: the heritage-driven yet technologically forward Swiss watch giant Tissot. “It is primarily an industry event, but any passionate watch lover is welcome,” Thiébaud notes. “Once a year, the makers and the poets of time come together with collectors and consumers, all in the beautiful environment of Basel.”

With its history of innovation, Basel does provide an appropriate setting. During the mid-15th century, the city was where the craft of printing (and the publishing industry) was born. In the 20th, the picturesque town evolved into a global art-world hotbed, with the spectacular Art Basel fair starting here. And in the last few decades, it has become a major center for contemporary architecture, with buildings by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Tadao Ando. Two years ago, locally based Herzog & de Meuron—the Pritzker Prize–winning architecture firm responsible for the U.K.’s Tate Modern—created the massive, strikingly modern structure where Baselworld is now held. In the facility’s nearly 500,000-square-foot exhibition space, the biggest luxury concerns—esteemed names like Breitling, Raymond Weil, Tudor, Patek Philippe, Ulysse Nardin and Ebel—build elaborate presentation booths where attendees can gaze upon the precious wares.

Meanwhile, at Baselworld’s intimate Palace tent, you’ll find younger watchmaking concerns devoted to pushing horology to its bleeding edge, with a community of timepiece enthusiasts offering sympathetic ears (and wrists).

“In big booths, no one ever asks about the watch I’m wearing, but in smaller ones, they immediately comment on it,” explains Mark Carson, noted watch blogger and founder/creator of the Mark Carson Individual Design independent watch line. “The Palace section has a more ‘take your time’ vibe. You can actually talk directly with principals of companies like MB&F and De Bethune; it’s where I first met the movement designer of Arnold & Son. It’s great!

“And then,” he adds, “there’s the secret part of Baselworld: the evenings.”

Indeed, while the exhibition space provides the event’s official hub, Baselworld business flows throughout the city. You’ll find the high-end likes of Omega and Rolex holding court at the five-star Les Trois Rois hotel. More boutique brands might take dinner-and-drinks meetings at Restaurant Matisse—a haute moderne eatery known for its adventurous menu.

Regardless of where you fit in, the mission remains the same: showcasing the watch industry’s latest and greatest. It’s Baselworld tradition for brands to bring out “novelties” displaying the heights of horological invention, as well as to provide the first views of the newest offerings.

“You can’t come with the same stuff from years past,” Thiébaud explains. “You’ve got to present different products and concepts that are even more innovative and creative.”

For Baselworld 2015, Tissot looks to make a bevy of splashy debuts, including an exquisite new mechanical pocket watch. Thiébaud, however, is scant on details; after all, Baselworld is all about the art of the reveal.

“It’s a unique experience—a show that’s not a show, not a museum,” he says, “but a world unto itself, where lovers of time, technology and beauty all meet.”

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