If you continue reading the following lines, you will be taken on a journey to the Basel watch show 2003. However, you will not find any information on watches, or on specific brands; you will not encounter any of the watch pictures and technical data ou would be looking for in a printed watch magazine. Instead, if you permit, I would like to show a very individual picture of the whole thing. There are my personal impressions and feelings, some background information, but barely anything necessary to understand a certain timepiece; just a facet of the horological industry and its presentation.

Unfortunately, I did not find an appropriate title for my œvre. How should I name it:

Personal impressions of the Basel watch fair 2003?

Backstage at Basel 2003?

Marcus unplugged?

by Marcus Hanke

© text and pics: M. Hanke, 2003

Well, take whichever you like, and if you have a better one, type it into your computer, click: "print document", cut out the title from the paper and glue it onto your screen, exactly


For every real watch nut, the yearly watch fairs at Basel and Geneva mark the central date in his calendar. For a real watch nut, nothing is more important, and I mean: nothing. Christmas is important for the kids and the toy industry, wedding anniversaries are the important for the better parts, birthdays are important to watch nuts only when the gift is a watch. So when the complete watch industry comes together to show the results of its work, THIS is really important for a watch nut.

However, the pilgrimage to the holy cities, Basel and/or Geneva ("ohhhmmm ..."), this horological hedschra demands quite an amount of preparation. While it is not mandatory any more to walk to Basel or Geneva on one's own feet, with heads and wrists uncovered, following the holy emblem, the crown of Saint Rolex ("ohhhmmm ..."), travelling is still not without danger. From my living place in Austria, I have to cross the land of the Swiss, a mountainous region inhabited by a ferocious tribe that fiercely defends its freedom by charging big fortunes from the pilgrims. Thus, the financial resources have to be carefully prepared, before the journey begins.

Really, Switzerland is an awfully expensive country for us Austrians! In fact, the Swiss always considered Austria the poor, somewhat primitive, but largely harmless neighbour. The three days necessary to see at least the more important part of the fair are straining the watch budget considerably. Additionally, making your boss, this ignorant creature, that pertinent challenger of our true belief in the BALANCED universe ("ohhhmmm ..."), understand that one HAS to get three days off, might be even more difficult!

Yet finally, I overcame all hurdles and joyfully drove from Salzburg to Basel. Rain showers and the ferocious tribal Swiss, charging their compulsory highway toll, made the journey a rather long one (and, of course, my permanent search for a bathroom; being on a diet, I have to drink a lot, and ... well, that's another story).

Three years ago, when I visited the Basel fair for the first time, I had the somewhat naïve impression that one would have a fine time, once the entrance fee was paid. You would be welcomed by all the different brands, you could see and handle all the new watches - WAKE UP!! I was terribly wrong. The only correct part of that impression was that with the entrance fee - and that was overly correct, since the fee is high (fifty Swiss franks, this year). But without any appointments previously arranged, all you can do is to walk from booth to booth and collect brochures and catalogues. If you were lucky, the novelties would be displayed in a tiny window, upon which you could press your nose.

My increasing involvement with watches brought me the contacts that are necessary to get the appointments I needed. While I am still but a small light, certainly not a V.I.P., my schedule this year was full enough to keep me busy for two days. The first of these appointments took place even before the fair started: On the evening before the official show opening, Ulysse Nardin would present its new watch, the "Sonata" alarm watch.

I arrived at Basel in the early afternoon; parking space in one of the many car parks was readily available. From the car park to the Messeplatz, around which all the huge buildings of the Basel fair centre are located, it was only a short walk.

The Messeplatz

It was strange to see this huge square being nearly deserted, only some early fair visitors stumbled from the busses, heavily loaded with suitcases and bags, fighting their way to the nearby hotels.

Where's the hotel?

Waiting for the opening

Since still some hours were left, before the UN presentation started, I walked into the town's old centre. Basel is a really beautiful city! Stretching along the shores of the Rhine, it has wonderful old buildings.

Riverside panorama of Basel's old town

There is the town hall, dominating the central square with its red gothic façade.

Town hall (built 1504-1521)

Old clock on the town hall

Town hall, inner yard

There are old half-timbered houses in irregular shapes, which are so typical for medieval towns, where space was rare and expensive, so every free square foot was used. There is the cathedral, there are fountains, statues, narrow streets - and, of course, there are shops, many of them watch shops. At last, we are in the economical heart of watch country!

The shop's sign says: "Condomeria", and, yes, they are selling condoms in every imaginable shape and colour - even some unimaginable ones! Who said the Swiss ain't no vitality?

It is no coincidence that ironclad men are ubiquitous on posts and fountains: The Swiss are notorious for their readiness to defend their country.

Barfüsserplatz; here many watch shops are located.

In one of the shops I stumbled over an item which changed all my previous considerations about the financial side of my visit to nonsense: I bought a used camera, a Leica M6, which I had dreamt of for many years. The first results of this purchase are shown here, in appropriate black and white. Thus, my watch budget for this year (and a part of the next) was spent on a camera.

Having committed this crime against our family's finances, time came to return to the Messeplatz. There, in the restaurant L'Escale, the "Sonata" presentation was to take place.

You know, the Internet is a strange medium: Somehow I can compare it with my past, when I had several pen pals. After exchanging letters for months, or even years, I knew nearly everything about my pals, as they did about me; but I never saw them personally, and of some of them I even never had a photograph! I am quite sure that some of you had similar experiences. The same happened with the 'web' and myself. I know many of Ulysse Nardin's employees for years, we communicate very friendly and personally, but I had absolutely no idea what they looked like! This changed that evening, when within minutes, I was introduced to many persons I had contact with before. But now the names received faces as well.

Yours truly (left), together with Marc Rogivue, who is responsible for Ulysse Nardin's Asian market

Rolf W. Schnyder, president of Ulysse Nardin, presents the "Sonata"

I felt embraced by the Ulysse Nardin community as if I were welcomed into a family. Then there was this Asian gentleman with his large digicam, who suddenly appeared in front of me. He turned out to be Jaw, important member of our PuristS staff, Chopard forum moderator, and an absolutely great guy!

The presentation was nice, and the watch is great. For a full account on the event and the watches, please read my "Sonata" report.

Delicious small titbits were served, but most of them passed by; I was busy talking to my newfound friends, and .... just re-read my comment re: "diet" above ... *sigh*

The Basel fair had started very well for me. Now it was time to drive to my hotel, which was located some 50 kilometres south of Basel. Each year, finding a hotel room in or near Basel, for visiting the fair is an extremely difficult task. I started my search more than two months earlier, and these fifty kilometres where as near as I could get a bed. This made it necessary to get up early in the morning, in order not to miss half of the show. No breakfast (re-read "diet" comment). Road works on the highway, traffic jam. I would not arrive on time, certainly not as punctual as the often-quoted Swiss watch movement. But I am an Austrian, and unhurriedness is a part of our national genetic heritage.

Traffic jam delays my trip from the hotel to Basel

Better to leave the highway and drive on the small roads, through the wonderful mountainous landscape. Medieval and baroque fortresses, towering on the hills, demonstrate the strategic need to control the valleys.

The mighty Aarburg fortress received its huge dimensions in the Baroque era.

Even small paths to Basel have been controlled by medieval castles

Much less spectacular, but nonetheless present, are the grey concrete walls of bunkers, which continue the tradition of fortifying the country well into the 20th century. And it worked, since the Swiss territory was never challenged from outside since 1499 (albeit several civil wars took place, the last one in 1847).

Fortress and bunker also seem to have been the theme behind the design of many booths at the fair. Most of them leave the impression to serve the purpose of keeping people out, instead of welcoming them. Rolex had erected a huge stronghold, consisting of a rectangular tower and a round castle, not dissimilar the papal "Angel fortress" in Rome.

The Rolex fortress

Patek Philippe's Crystal Palace

Other booths were uniformly cubic in style, with small entrance areas, all easy to be defended by the ubiquitous security people. Bulgari with its two haute horologie brands Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth even had a huge hall for themselves. The "booths" there were gigantic, impressive and overwhelming in an intimidating way; the architecture of power. Albert Speer would have been happy to see it. Cosiness was an emotion that was certainly not wanted to slip into this arrangement: There were no chairs, no tables, no bars, and no restaurants in that part. People were meant to stand and look in awe, not to make themselves at home.

Friendly welcome at the Ulysse Nardin booth

What a pleasant contrast was the booth of Ulysse Nardin. Built in the shape of an old sailing vessel, it broke the geometric monotony of the hall. After being heartily welcomed, I spent nearly all the day, visiting those people at UN I wanted to talk to. This was not an easy task, since it was apparent that they were VERY busy, with large numbers of journalists, dealers and collectors besieging the booth and the staff.

While some areas were as busy as always, the halls as a whole appeared virtually empty, compared with the crowds that frequented the fairs in past years. Just now, when for the first time the fair was officially named "Baselworld", to emphasize its global importance, all that was global were the problems compromising the show: Because of the ongoing war in Iraq, visitors from the economically important Middle East were more than rare. Even more valid this was for visitors from Asia, where the disease SARS is causing massive concerns. The "Baselworld" designation became finally a mere fiction, when only two days prior to the show's opening, the Swiss government decided to ban all exhibitors from Southeast Asia. The fair organizers must have thought of an April's fool joke, when their telecopy machines produced the text of the statute, decided upon on April 1st. More than 380 companies with about 3,000 employees were excluded from participation, many of them already being in Switzerland for days or even weeks. This affected mainly the watch part supply industry. The delegations from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam left empty halls, especially in Zurich, where for the first time national pavilions were to house a good part of the watch and jewellery fair. Additionally, the exhibitors that were allowed to stay, were prohibited to employ any personnel that had visited Southeast Asia or Canada in the time since March 1st. To even top this, the Swiss national health administration advised the fair organizers, to have every private visitor from these regions medically checked at the hall's entrance. The execution of this "advice" would have meant a lethal blow to the fair, but even so, the economical damage done by the short-term decision of the Swiss government was enormous. However, one must try to understand the government officials, too. Public concern on the possibility to import SARS together with the thousands of visitors from the affected regions had grown considerably, pressing the government to become active. Apparently the disputed decision was considered the minor problem.

For me as a visitor, the whole issue had a positive effect: Instead of having to fight my way through masses of people, I could leisurely stroll through the aisles, watching the busy camera teams; most of them appeared to come from Asia, probably intending to present the Basel novelties to those that decided (or were forced) to stay at home.

While in general, I had the impression of the 2003 watches becoming more and more uniform in their dogged efforts to become unique by means of fashionable designs (wasn't there a saying about "f***ing for virginity"?), there were some gems to discover, mostly hidden in small booths that were better described as cabinets. I had fun talking to the exhibitors, very often the companies' CEOs themselves - they did not have the money to let others do the exhibition work for them.

The Corum employees presenting the new watches looked a bit tired ...

The next day brought a real highlight - and an embarrassment: I had an early appointment at the UN booth, because I wanted to strip that "Sonata" alarm watch from Rolf Schnyder's wrist and listen, if it would be loud enough to wake someone up in a hotel room. I had to postpone, since I overslept in my hotel room - I had not heard my alarm clock! Now who is telling me that quartz is better than mechanical???

The highlight was, of course, the presentation of the new watches by Glashütte Original for a small group of "PuristS". If you are interested in the watches we saw there, please click on this link to access my report:

I was very excited about that, because of several reasons: I had not met GO's new CEO, Dr. Müller, before, and was anxious to leave a good impression. The chaos factor was that I had organized the two groups that were to participate, and - hooray the Internet! - with the single exception of our Jaw, whom I met two days before, I had never seen any of the other people! Not even those of the forum's staff, including Thomas Mao. I am working for thePuristS.com since fifteen months, but I had absolutely no idea what my colleagues looked like! Isn't this weird? Maybe, though, this is a result of globalisation we have to get used with.

Well, in spite of my fears, everything went well with the first group, which I had met in front of the GO booth (I simply assumed that all persons loitering around the entrance at the appointed time were part of our group. If this was not the case, and I abducted some complete strangers, I hope these will excuse me!). Then chaos stroke in person of Heinz Pfeifer, the bold "big boss" of Glashütte Original. He told us fascinating stories, allowed us breathtaking glances on future developments, while the time passed, and the second group was - hopefully! - waiting outside the booth since at least fifteen minutes. I was in a dilemma: Should I break all rules of politeness against our host and leave the room in spite of Mr. Pfeifer speaking with us, or should I risk that the members of our second group left again, thinking that the presentation would not take place?

Heinz Pfeifer (left) and Dr. Frank Müller (right)

Thankfully, Mr. Pfeifer seemingly sensed my tension, and came to an end. I jumped up and hasted outside, as quickly as good behaviour and my 'global' physique would allow, and - thank God! - there where some other figures idly standing around; they had not left in the meanwhile, and I was happy to stuff the pages with the action rules for worst-case-scenarios ("Step 1: Thank the host; step 2: Shoot yourself.") back into my pocket.

The evening found me sitting in one of Basel's best restaurants, the "Charon", together with the best and nicest company I could imagine (except a dinner with Jodie Foster, sorry, guys!), enjoying not only the meal, but a fascinating conversion with Dr. Müller, the people from the GO staff, and the members of both groups (possibly including the people I had tugged into the booth because I did not know them!). The conversation was so interesting, that I even forgot my diet (glad I did!).

Our Glashütte Original dinner at the "Charon"

Back in my hotel room, I stayed awake for hours, trying to recall all details of this visit to the Basel fair from my memory, reading all the catalogues and brochures, organizing my notes.

The day after, my drive home to Salzburg appeared longer; my wish to spend more time with my new friends seemingly held me back. Next year, guys!

Dusk over the Rhine in Basel

Copyright April 2003 - Marcus Hanke ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved