Baselworld 2017; the harsh truth
Baselworld 2017 is history. The last drinks have been consumed and people have returned to their respective homes, offices and countries. An event that, if i may believe, can be count amongst the biggest, largest, most hyped fairs in the world. A place where watch freaks from across the globe meet and discuss their most interesting subjects. However, also a place where the overall feeling one gets about the industry is very well-ventilated.

We booked a plane and paid the hotspot a visit during 5 days. 5 days full of appointments, coffee and stress of finding the right angle for the perfect shot. A period in which we had the opportunity to see the most interesting novelties – in our opinion of course – but also a period in which we had the liberty of talking to a great variety of people. People with a lot of experience due to a certain position in the industry, who were willing to share their point of view about the industry.

Hyped things aren’t everlasting
First of all, let me point out that I truly regret the fact that people go crazy on news that’s shouldn’t be classified as news. Plain and simple: no, the ‘new’ Rolex Sea-Dweller is not a new watch. It’s the perfect example – amongst a few others – what’s going wrong with the industry. When I wake up to a timeline that still screams ‘new Rolex Sea-Dweller’ after I’ve been scrolling for at least 5 minutes, I start to realize something’s really wrong.

Kari Voutilainen piece unique

But what’s wrong then Remco? Why are you trying to throw some dog poo at Rolex and their huge success of reintroducing the same old song over and over again? Well, I’m not throwing anything at all, first of all if I do that my hands get dirty and second of all, I respect brands like Rolex. It’s very hard not to, so I’m not even trying.

Still, why that example? Well, you see it’s okay for a brand to revisit a certain model or collection to celebrate a certain cause. However, it’s the way people consume these happenings that worries me. This year’s Baselworld, Hall 1 had one giant theme: reintroduce vintage models. Alright, okay, as you will. But please, take a few seconds and repeat those three words ‘reintroduce vintage models’.

Romain Gauthier Logical One

You’ll find that it’s hard to actually combine those words with a certain action or situation that makes sense. Rolex introduces a Sea-Dweller with a red-coloured font and a Cyclops(?!), whereas Tag Heuer and Omega introduce us to a few models that are inspired by vintage, famous, highly-wanted models. Yes, the market of vintage timepieces has seen a huge growth over the past couple of years, but no, re-introducing identical copies does not still our hunger for watches.

Of course, all of these models are probably sold already, but does that mean these brands struck bulls-eye? Well, maybe, in terms of perfect – unoriginal – marketing. Is this what these brands should be doing? No, probably not. However, these giants are all focused on making as much money as possible, with or without cheap ideas for new models. Yes, it’s hard to blame them for it, after all, they get away with it quite simple and this isn’t the first time this is happening.

Still, it strikes me that this is happening. I hate to see that the biggest names in the business – in terms of brand names – are so unoriginal and delusional in their approach. Please, keep in mind that I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, I merely share my opinion on this matter, hoping you’ll share yours too. What I see are brands with a very highly-respected history, combining more and more marketingbudget to sell people watches that have been the same for more than a decade.

Akrivia AK-06

That’s not even wrong! After all, Porsche is selling the same car for over half a century and people still love it – I do too. What’s I think is wrong about this, is the fact that it’s brought as huge news and the masses still consume it like that. NO! This is absolutely no news and no, this isn’t what developers have sat on for over 5 years to come up with. I’m sorry to say, it’s just a very easy way to sell another thousand watches in the blink of an eye.

The contrast is growing
However, there’s a light shining brighter every day. That light can be found in the name of ‘Independent brands’. Like Grönefeld, Sarpaneva, Voutilainen, MB&F, Romain Gauthier and others. Brands that exist out of one thing: passion. Brands that are approachable and creative. Brands that exist out of people who all have the same intention: creating timepieces that are innovative, creative and renewing. Key aspects that are of major importance for each and every industry to keep the heart-rate at the desired level.

It is this contrast that is growing and growing and slowly but surely, we are starting to see a change. A change that, in the near future, will pressure the ‘big boys’ to be creative too. As I said, we’ve talked to a lot of different people. People who collect, who write for a certain type of media and people who distribute brands and try to make a living doing that. People who all share the same opinion: a watch should be a product of quality, innovation and creativity.

Moritz Grossmann BENU Tourbillon

Of course, brands like Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, they all give you quality. They should, that’s a promise they made over the years. However, it’s not longer only quality that makes you stand out. I’ve said it a couple of times during this Baselworld and I stick to it: people become more and more knowledgeable. Information about watches, movements, different types of finishing, even dial manufacturers, everything is accessible. As a result, the buyer that could be a potential customer of yours, comes to a jeweler with knowledge. He’s able to ask questions about a watch that proof he’s not there to be fooled.

But if customers become more aware of certain aspects, how come everyone still hypes things like the Sea-dweller or not-so-vintage Autavia Heuer? It’s because of their names, purely because of that, people tend to ride the wave that makes them abide the rules of spreading this ‘news’. We’re still in that phase of loving everything big brands do – at least when it comes to the masses. However, this is rapidly changing. There comes a moment where people will ignore publications about a new Rolex or Tag Heuer, because it’s no longer classified as news.

That moment will mark a huge shift in the industry. It will give creativity a new impulse and then, it will not only be the independent brands who put their asses on the line for research and design. The big boys will feel the need to be innovative too and when I mean innovative, I’m not talking about the use of different materials for the spring.

Urwerk UR-T8

Take one for the team
As I said, at this moment the industry only sees innovative design and techniques coming from the independent brands. Which means that brands who do not own even half of the financial resources of Rolex, have to invest almost all the money they have – up to their last penny you could say – to develop new things, crazy designs and new techniques. The cool thing? They succeed. These brands where the real eye-catchers during Baselworld. When we entered ‘Les Ateliers’, we’ve entered a sneak-peak of what the industry will go to eventually.

A place where the most-respected watchmakers in the world sat at a modest table, humbly discussing their own creations with people like us. People who are eager to know every last bit about their creations and – most of the time – do not know half of what they know about watchmaking. Which doesn’t matter, because all of these brands are created out of passion, passion that can be found in each and every one of the people we spoke, while sitting at those modest tables.

When I talk about the people we spoke, I mean people like Kari Voutilainen, Tim & Bart Grönefeld, Stepan Sarpaneva, all men who are there to share their passion. They do not want to create something for you to buy it and then move on to the next customer. No. These watch makers are there to spread the virus that – funny enough – starts with most boys aged 12 hearing about Rolex or Omega. What makes them so likeable and different compared to the establishment, is the fact that they lack the traditional arrogance and hunger for money.

Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire bespoke dial by Kari Voutilainen

Of course, at the end of the day, their creations have to sell in order to keep their workbench up and running, but that’s not why they do what they do. Speaking to all of them, one thing became clear: there’s no intention of becoming the biggest fish in the sea or selling the same ten times. No, they want to create. Their horological minds want to explore the unknown and come up with something you can only dream of. Where big brands tend to burn each others offices down, these men walk out the door together in search for a few beers after work hours.

Grönefeld wanted bespoke dials for their 1941 Remontoire, no problem, Mr. Voutilainen is willing to help with that and vice versa. That’s what I like. Sharing knowledge, passion and quality to grow. Not growing in terms of people in the office or pieces sold, no growing in knowledge, passion and possibilities.

When you see these geniuses working their asses of to create something that gives a customer true value for money, but above all, gives a customer a piece of passion – then you realize that the big brands don’t matter anymore. You come to the conclusion that horology is so much more than a brand name printed on the dial.

Sarpaneva Korona guilloche dial by Kari Voutilainen

‘This is how the industry works’, they say
Then, when you discuss this with a variety of people, everyone agrees on the cheap marketing stunts the big brands do and how independents realize true horology. After that, almost every single time, the conclusion is: ‘well yeah, but let’s be honest, this is how the industry works’. Yes, maybe it is, but does that mean it should stay like this? Should we keep accepting these bullshit creations because a brand is used of getting away with it?

Romain Gauthier Insight Micro-Rotor

Why does Nemo have to risk its life in order to seek for new coral and different surroundings if the few great white sharks could do the same without having any risk of dying? That’s what annoys me. Let’s be honest, if Rolex comes up with something totally different tomorrow, 99% of the people will shit their pants because you should be shocked – as stated by the rules of a sheep herd. Still, that 0,1% will buy these new creations. Conclusion? No risk taken, no great white killed.

Yes, I know, I might believe in fairy-tails, but only by believing in the impossible you can achieve new things. Isn’t this what the independents do all the time? Have we already accepted a price of little less than $11.000 as cheap? Or what is the reason that we don’t demand creativity for such amount of money? Can you tell me?

The industry indeed works in a certain way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way. The time that people were blown away by merely a brand name is slowly vanishing. We are entering a new phase. One that brings forward consumers who want bang for their buck. They are looking for something that’s special and not to be found on every street corner. Something that justifies the huge amount of money paid for it.

Dreaming out loud
It’s hard to achieve something that needs so much effort. Something that seems so unreachable and unrealistic. However, I really think there’s a different approach possible for this matter. Big brands should start doing research again, and by that I don’t mean sending an intern to the archives to come back with a long-forgotten model as an inspiration for a whole new collection. I mean discovering new areas, really using their millions for something useful, rather than paying them to a hyped modern-day interpretation of Zorro with paint all over his boots.

Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire case back

The independent brands are the true warriors in this industry. In turbulent times, they still try to come up with news ways, news design aspects and innovative techniques to please the consumer. This is what really deserves a place in the spotlight, for 365 days straight. I actually think that if things go on and on like this, the big brands will eventually all fall. Whereas the independents will rise and keep evolving. Call me crazy, but you can compare this to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The big boys at the top of the food-chain – read: T-rex – ruled the world for years and years. However, when the moment of extinction came, they weren’t able to adapt. Where much smaller creatures like birds and fishes were possible to adapt to their surroundings. It’s cool if you think you’re surrounding will adapt to you, but history has proven that it doesn’t work that way. I rest my case.

Visit the Grönefeld website here.
Visit the Voutilainen website here.
Visit the Sarpaneva website here.
Visit the MB&F website here.
Visit the Urwerk website here.
Visit the Romain Gauthier website here.
Visit the Moritz Grossmann website here.
Visit the Akrivia website here.