Baselworld 2016: For watch-lovers, this is the greatest show on Earth

Story highlights

  • Baselworld is the global shopping event for watches
  • 80% of watch sales for the year ahead are generated at the fair
  • Many leading watch brands create extravagant booths

This is part of a series dedicated to Baselworld 2016. Josh Sims is a freelance writer, watch expert and author of "Icons of Style".

(CNN)Baselworld may sound like a particularly uninspiring theme park, but is in fact the global shopping event for watches - at least if you're a retailer.

In Basel, Switzerland, once a year, the owners of watch and jewelery brands -- together with the press and a few big time collectors -- congregate to see what the horological world has to offer and, if tempted, to sign on the dotted line. A whopping 80% of global watch sales for the year ahead are generated at the fair.
    Baselworld, 1973

    Wear comfortable shoes

    Baselworld is big -- literally as well as figuratively. And it is strictly for those in comfortable shoes: the show covers some 141,000 square meters of aircraft hanger-sized exhibition halls, each structured according to different sectors and markets, with room for some 1800 exhibitors along their 30km of corridors. There is, for the 150,000 footsore visitors, a lot of walking to be done.
    And a lot of spectacle to enjoy. When it comes to their booths, many of the best known brands seek to replicate the sophistication and plushness of their flagship stores; often the same level of security too.
    Visiting Baselworld does not mean you get to see every brands' wares. Although day one of the show coincides with the release of a barrage of press material unveiling the latest watches, access to the stands can be by invitation only, which can be frustrating to watch mad members of the public who -- unusually for an industry show -- can also buy a ticket.

    Spectacle and space

    Not that these stands are unspectacular from the outside. When, in 1999, a new watch hall was opened, it allowed for three-story stands -- which consequently many companies built.
    Breitling's is known for its giant fish tank, Tag Heuer for suspending Formula One racing cars over the deal-making below. Model-esque hosts and flowing champagne are the norm. Small wonder some 20,000 workers and 7,000 lorries pass through Basel to make the eight-day event happen.
    Bulgari stand at Baselworld 2015
    Indeed, spectacle is part of the deal. While Baselworld is where fresh ideas in watchmaking and materials are mooted -- with competing shows the likes of Geneva's Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie and London's Salon QP equally important -- the event does not typically offer a plethora of innovation.

    Why it matters

    "For many of the major players that dominate the show Baselworld is, a few instances aside, more an exercise in marketing," explains Benoit Mintiens, the founder of boutique brand Ressence and a regular exhibitor.
    "That's important when the entire watch world comes to the show. Even as a small brand that needs to get itself known, there's no better way than to be at Baselworld. Of course, distributors typically want to note a rookie's presence at the show for a few years before they will consider buying. Like all trade shows, it's a bit of a game."
    Schweizer Mustermesse, Basel 1941

    A centenary of watches

    It's an old game too. Next year Basel will celebrate the centenary of a watch show in the city. A special section for watches and jewelery was first unveiled at the Scnweizer Mustermesse Basel in 1917, although it wasn't until 1973 that the first dedicated European Watch and Jewellery Show was inaugurated in the city. In 1986 exhibitors from outside Europe were admitted for the first time, making it a global event, and in 2003 this position was underscored by its re-branding as 'Baselworld'. Remarkably, some agency was no doubt paid a small fortune to come up with that.