BASEL, Switzerland — Each year, some 150,000 industry insiders and haute horlogerie fanatics descend upon this small town, near the German and French borders, for Baselworld, the biggest watch fair in the world.
But amid the relentless clinking of Champagne glasses, flashy showcases and sequin-encrusted models cruising the floor with multimillion-dollar showstoppers, the mood at the fair this year was, according to its regulars, more subdued than at fairs past.
“The atmosphere is not great,” said Jean-Claude Biver, the chief executive of TAG Heuer, talking at a media preview. “I think Baselworld this year will not be that bad, but it won’t be one of the best.”
Because of currency fluctuations, slowing demand from China and a slump in traveler spending, full-year Swiss watch exports fell 3.3 percent to 21.5 billion Swiss francs ($22.1 billion) in 2015, eroding much of the industry’s growth since 2012.
Despite the predominant focus of the seven-day fair on men’s watches, which make up the majority of global luxury timepiece sales, the displays devoted to women’s watches — a rapidly growing part of the market — were clearly trying to grab some of the spotlight.
Some players built their offerings around easily accessible and known associations for clients. Most of the luxury fashion houses, for example, turned to the runway for influence.
The Dior VIII Grand Bal Coquette, with a cotton-candy pink and cerulean blue palette, gave a clear nod to the colors on the catwalk as part of the Dior spring 2015 couture collection. The raspberry and forest green hues of the spring 2016 resort show were evident in several of the Dior VIII Montaigne styles. Even the Grand Soir KaleiDoirscope No. 5 — a dazzling one-of-a-kind watch forged from gold, garnets, sapphires and diamonds — was given a splash of contemporary flair with its washed denim strap.
Fendi had detachable fox fur adornments encircling silver and pavé diamond watches from its My Way collection, mirroring the fluffy charm movement that was on display at Milan Fashion Week last month.
But the power of brand extension was at its most literal at Chanel, where the signature quilted effect of its bags had been recreated in several straps, be it in lashings of woven white diamonds in pieces like its Signature Diamond Secret Watch, or the plush black alligator leather of the Mademoiselle Privé collection, with watches featuring sculptured Oriental-style gold birds dancing on onyx dials.
Others simply decided to dazzle with color this year, adhering to a philosophy of brighter and bolder is better. Examples included the Big Bang Tutti Frutti collection from LVMH-owned maximalist brand Hublot (with yet more examples of denim detailing); the magenta pink and deja blue of Louis Vuitton’s Blossom timepieces (bright blues were everywhere this year, as well as in 2015); and the Chopard rainbow-hued Imperiale Joaillerie watch, a self-winding mechanical movement with a case, crown, dial and strap covered entirely with 581 baguette-cut sapphires, arranged in colors that melted gently from one to the next.
Indeed, a desire to dazzle with bling was ever-present. The kingpin jewelers certainly pulled out all the stops. Bulgari’s new quartz movement satin-strap women’s watch, the Diva’s Dream, had a dial of 233 brilliant-cut pavé diamonds and blued hands. Graff’s new quartz women’s timepiece, the Snowfall, featured 278 diamonds set like flakes suspended in midair on a rippling lattice strap, with a delicate case in its center just 6.17 millimeters thick.
And Boucheron took a subtler (but no less luxurious) approach with the unveiling of the Reflet Bleu de Jodhpur. The Reflet — with its secret clasp and interchangeable strap — has been a staple style for the house since 1947.
Its latest incarnation — framed with cabochon diamonds around the edges of a delicate rectangular case, a single sparkling gem at 12 o’clock, and a white marble dial from the same quarry from which stones for the Taj Mahal were sourced — had an understated, feminine elegance that proved a hit with many of the big-name connoisseurs.
Elsewhere, though, the great gender crossover continues to build as much momentum in the watch world as it has on the catwalks in recent seasons. Nowhere was the deliberate erosion of once-rigid demarcations between conventionally feminine and masculine styles clearer than with smartwatches and the latest offerings brought to the market.
The highest-profile timepieces to marry stylish form with digital function were the $395 Michael Kors Access watch, which uses the Google Android Wear platform and comes in either gold or a sporty black design, and Swatch-owned Tissot’s futuristic-looking solar-powered Smart-Touch, which comes with an independent outdoor weather station unit, and can provide navigation by moving its hands and even trigger an alarm on a fob (with which it is sold) in order to find mislaid keys.
“I’m in the business of making people’s lives easier through fashion,” Mr. Kors said. “I thought, ‘Why can’t tech accessories be chic and glamorous?’ You wear them every day. After all, technology is impacting life more and more. A watch should reflect your personal taste as much as anything else, but it should also give you access to all the experiences that you want.”