UPDATE: The MCH Group which organizes Baselworld has issued its response to the news – see it at the bottom of the article

This might not be the end of Baselworld, but it is the end of Baselworld as we know it. Rolex, which has been among the least vocal brands since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 cancellation of Baselworld, has just announced two important things. First, Rolex is supporting the Red Cross and some other notable humanitarian charities around the world during our current serious global public health crisis. Second, it is breaking up with Baselworld — and it is taking its friends with it.

Rolex has formally announced that it has left Baselworld for good to instead participate in a new show that will be organized in collaboration with the FHH. The FHH organizes the Watches & Wonders events previously known as SIHH in Geneva, with the next iteration currently scheduled for April 2021. Rolex is taking fellow luxury watch brands and luxury houses Patek Philippe, Chopard, Chanel, and its sister company Tudor along with it. This leaves just the powerful LVMH brands to anchor Baselworld to the world of serious mainstream luxury timepieces, as most other big names have either left or are existing members of the Watches & Wonders show.

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The press release, which was dispatched by Rolex (as opposed to the other parties mentioned in the document), includes quotes by leaders of the brands and organizations that mostly speak to supporting Rolex’s decision to leave. Frustration between exhibitors and Baselworld has mounted over the last few years due to changes in the global market, and the Baselworld 2020 event itself was forced to cancel when the Swiss government banned large events due to concerns over the coronavirus. The rescheduling of the show to a date very early in 2021 seemed to be a catalyst that led to a series of events that has, apparently, enraged loyalist exhibitors such as Rolex and Patek Philippe. In some of the fastest decision-making I’ve ever seen from the modern Rolex, they decided not only to scrap Baselworld but to also join forces with the FHH, along with other brands.

This unity is itself noteworthy because most of these brands (especially Rolex) do not like to share limelight — or at the least don’t often appear to be concerned with what other brands are doing. That Rolex is formally aligning itself with particular members of the watch industry might be a sign that serious troubles in the luxury timepiece space are compelling brands to unite for a new era of solidarity.

Jean-Frédéric Dufour, CEO of Rolex

Rolex CEO Jean-Frederic Dufour brings up a few reasons why the relationship with Baselworld soured. First and foremost, Rolex and other watch brands seem incensed that MCH (the company that owns Baselworld) engaged in “a number of unilateral decisions made without consultation by the Baselworld management,” including the “rescheduling” of Baselworld 2020 to January 2021. Rolex also mentions Baselworld’s “inability to meet brands’ needs and expectations.”

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One growing problem with Baselworld wasn’t the show itself, but the city of Basel — which has never been particularly accommodating for an international trade show. Brands wishing to woo retailers and clients reportedly have found it increasingly challenging to attract people to the historic but quaint Swiss city that featured limited hotel rooms, a lack of many convention support services, notably higher prices for food and accommodations during the show, and generally lacked any luxury context to complement the experience of the show.

Without a Baselworld show at which to debut new luxury wristwatch products, Rolex decided to work closer to home in Geneva – and to host its event at the same time as Watches & Wonders: Geneva in April 2021. This is mostly a practical decision because it is more efficient for the FHH to expand Watches & Wonders, as opposed to Rolex having to organize its own separate event. Also, retailers are already traveling to Geneva, and it makes sense to capture everyone’s attention at one time. This is also a direct attack on Baselworld since Rolex and the brands which have just departed it had made it clear that they do not feel retailers wish to travel to Switzerland twice in a row to view the year’s new products.

Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chopard, Chanel, and Tudor are not joining Watches & Wonders, per se, but my understanding is that they will be part of a new (as yet to be named) show that will exist at the Palexpo convention center along side Watches & Wonders. Rolex has also mentioned that other brands may be added to the new event. It now seems that anywhere from 40 to 60 major watch brands will be displaying new products in Geneva, sometime in April 2021.

Rolex has also made it clear that its new event will be similar to Watches & Wonders insofar that it is not generally open to the public, with an emphasis on guests to the show being retailers, media, and VIP customers. It is also generally believed that Rolex, Tudor, and Patek Philippe (as well as perhaps others) will skip introducing new products in 2020 entirely, with an emphasis on debuting new watches in the year 2021.

It is challenging to imagine the exact divide between Baselworld and many of its current and former exhibitors, though I do know that the global shutdown has been particularly hard on the luxury industry — and, naturally, tensions are high. Watch brands are entirely within their right to protest if a show they rely on makes large decisions without consulting them. It also seems about time that Baselworld return to being a smaller show that the city of Basel can handle. It is also possible that MCH will retire Baselworld entirely or move the show to a different city, such as Zurich. The Baselworld name as we know it will likely go on, and it will likely offer a lot of value to a range of brands, but the Baselworld that the aBlogtoWatch team has been attending for the last decade is now formally part of history.

In April 2021, aBlogtoWatch will be in Geneva to cover Watches & Wonders, as well as the new show (whose name will be debuted later) that will include Rolex, Tudor, Patek Philippe, Chopard, and Chanel. We will continue to publish updates about the latest watches and to cover the evolution of Swiss luxury watch industry shows as the news develops.

UPDATE: A few hours after the release of this news by Rolex and the other brands involved in the announcement, Baselworld itself issued a response press release. In the release Baselworld parent company MCH expressed “great surprise” at the cancellation of the major exhibitors, and also apparently felt that Rolex and other brands on the “Exhibitors’ Committee” were duly involved in important conversations about the future of the long-standing watch and jewelry trade show. They further mentioned that at no time did Rolex, Patek Philippe, or others mentioned intention to move their exhibitions to Geneva. Finally, Baselworld suggests that the specific catalyst behind the decision for Rolex and other brands to leave was related to finances, since exhibitors were not refunded money after Baselworld 2020 was canceled – likely a serious error on behalf of the show.

Baselworld’s statement is both a defense of itself, but also an acknowledgement of serious fissures between the commercial realities of running the show and the expectations and needs of its most important exhibitors. It is important to recall that many of the brands which left the show did so outside of the COVID-19 pandemic. Baselworld’s existential crisis has now hit a head – with the show itself confirming rumors that a 2021 Baselworld event is no longer guaranteed. More so, under the current strategy and business model, it is unclear if Baselworld has a competitive chance to continue over the next few years, without a substantial and major overhaul. It is very possible that in addition the Baselworld as we know it going away, that the Baselworld name itself might be in a form of hibernation until its stakeholders can figure out what to do with it. That effectively means Baselworld as a show might be tabled for the next several years at the least. While watch brands desperately need the visibility a trade show like Baselworld can offer them – the cost of attendance for many watch makers feels higher than the returns.

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