On Scene: Geneva Watch Days 2020

A new normal for watch fairs?

Twenty-twenty will remain as a most peculiar year for the world as well as for trade fairs. Having taken place August 26-29,Geneva Watch Days (GWD) might be the only physical show the watch industry will see this year, at least in Europe. How did it fare? Was it a success for the brands, media, and public? Here is an overview of the atmosphere.

After the demise of Baselworld and the rescheduling of Watches & Wonders to Shanghai (will it really happen?), GWD was a ray of light in the dark times the watch community was experiencing. First mooted by Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive of Bulgari, and a few other watch brands, GWD quickly grew as many brands hopped on the bandwagon, hoping to salvage what already looked like an annus horribilis.

“Phygital” is the new normal

More than 20 brands were showing during the four days of GWD, which was a series of exhibitions and events at venues across Geneva, rather than being concentrated in a large hall as the traditional fairs are.

Most brands were part of GWD itself – Artya, Breitling, Bulgari, Bovet, De Bethune, Czapek, Ferdinand Berthoud, H.Moser & Cie., Gerald Genta, Girard-Perregaux, MB&F, Maurice Lacroix, Louis Moinet, Ulysse Nardin, and Urwerk.

But the official GWD exhibitors were accompanied by an array of independent brands more than happy to share a common audience. Carl F. Bucherer tagged along by presenting its novelties at the Bucherer store in Geneva, while Le Salon des Horlogers, a small, cosy store in the city centre, hosted some notable independent watchmakers: Romain Gauthier, Ludovic Ballouard, Kari Voutilainen, and Laurent Ferrier.

Accompanied by nonstop emails containing press releases for new watches, a flurry of pictures on social media- GWD seemed like an almost-normal watch fair.

The Ulysse Nardin Blast Tourbillon at GWD. Photo – Ulysse Nardin

The pleasure of finally being able to examine new timepieces in real life was tangible. Everyone was excited to touch and feel the novelties, try them on and scrutinise every detail. To name a few highlights: the Ferdinand Berthoud FB 2RE, Bulgari’s sixth world record with the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph, the Gerald Genta Arena Bi-Retro, Ulysse Nardin’s new Blast Tourbillon, and the Infinity editions at Girard-Perregaux.

At the same time, most brands organised digital presentations for overseas journalists and clients who could not make it to Geneva – mostly those in Asia, the United States and Middle East. The quality of the presentations seem to have greatly improved, as brands realise the potential of virtual exhibitions and get a better feel of how to pull it off in an attractive fashion. Complete with cameos by brand ambassadors and presented by chief executive Georges Kern, Breitling’s webcast to launch of the new Endurance Pro was a good example of what is being done now.

The Ferdinand Berthoud FB 2RE movement

Europe showed up

General consensus amongst the exhibiting brands is that a large number of journalists showed up, as well as a good proportion of Europe’s retailers. A vast majority of participants came from around Switzerland, but also from all major European countries: France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, and even across from Channel from the United Kingdom. Even a few Russian visitors were spotted.

Most of the brand PR people claimed they were almost as busy as at a normal watch fair, which was probably a bit exaggerated, as the Calvinist city was definitely not as lively as it was with SIHH. 

The salespeople seemed satisfied with the turnout and more importantly, the orders for new watches from retailers, who seemed to be making up for the wasted time and being deprived of new launches for most of the year to date.

The reception building for GWD. Photo – GWD

Brands also went the extra mile to support to the their retailers – in certain cases – for instance by granting exclusive sales rights for some new launches for a limited period. The new Bulgari Aluminium line, for example, will be available at retailers only for the first two months.

Other brands embraced the digital world completely by launching some models exclusively online, like Bulgari with the Gerald Genta Arena Bi-Retro that will only be available online, or the Girard-Perregaux 1966 Infinity Limited Edition, which will be offered only on Mr. Porter for the first month.

We are social animals

Despite the year so far, the overall atmosphere at GWD was laid back and relaxed. You could feel the happiness of people who could finally meet face-to-face – even behind a face mask. The greater watchmaking family was thrilled to finally reconvene after a long time apart.

It was heart-warming to see familiar faces, exchange thoughts and ideas in person, joke and laugh together, instead of being alone behind a screen. GWD was proof that physical and digital can co-exist, and in fact work well together. At the same time, the smaller, more local approach of GWD ticked a lot of boxes as far as conviviality was concerned.  

The chief executives of the participating brands. Photo – GWD

One of the major verdicts of GWD is confirmation that nothing can replace the human side of the business. Physical proximity – even if contactless – encourages a better communication; solicits genuine, immediate feedback; and provides an authentic intimacy that is useful in an industry centred on very small objects. That is proof that the physical trade show is indeed necessary and useful, no matter the scale or setting.

Bravo to the leaders who believed in the decentralised format of GWD and saw it through during this challenging period. The event was a great success and offers hope for the future.


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