25 years with Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie

It all started in 1991 and there were five exhibitors: Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Piaget, Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth. They had left the Basel fair to join forces in their quest for quality, originality and luxury.
Text: Britta Rossander
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The source of inspiration for the design of the show hall was the Place Vendôme in Paris. The exhibitors proclaimed: “Our quality is defined by craftsmanship and technology, patiently acquired competence, noticeable extra value, controlled innovation and a firm belief in the beauty and perfection of the object.”

Special guest and former UN official Helmut Schmidt spoke about “new challenges in Europe”. Franco Cologni, Richemont CEO, paneled a debate about “luxury and exclusive watches in tomorrow’s Europe”.

Opening ceremony at the first SIHH

Opening ceremony at the first SIHH

SIHH has since the start been held at different dates – right after Basel, right before, and since 2005 two months before.

Cartier and a number of other brands chose to leave Baselworld because they wanted to manifest quality, exclusivity, luxury and craftsmanship. Only the specially invited would have access to the Salon – unlike Basel where the general public could buy tickets on certain days.

Dr Cologni at that time at the top management of Richemont today hairman of Haute Horlogerie Foundation and of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie

Dr Cologni at that time at the top management of Richemont today hairman of Haute Horlogerie Foundation and of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie

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The first SIHH lasted for five days and was held on 4,500 square meters in the Palexpo fairgrounds next to Geneva’s airport. The same year in Basel, Cartier’s booth (shaped like a rather ugly Swiss chalet with plastic flowers) was missing and the space had been taken over by the Swatch Group. Personally, I didn’t get an opportunity to attend the SIHH until the third year when everything was crème-colored, all the booths looked the same, and I had been set up with appointments with all the brands active in northern Europe. Impressive service!

The displays were of varying quality and our group of journalists consisted from the start of reporters from Britain, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Benelux countries, one American and ”Miss Sweden” as they called me. It would be a few years until I was joined by fellow Scandinavians.

During the years, the presentations have varied in quality. Sometimes it became a bit of a parody because of language difficulties. Sometimes tempers flared, like when some of us felt that Van Cleef didn’t belong because they weren’t about Haute Horlogerie but rather like jewelry with quartz works that could measure time.

The layout of the first SIHH was meant to look like Place Vendôme in Paris

The layout of the first SIHH was meant to look like Place Vendôme in Paris

The dinners the day before the grand opening were much more impressive. Seated tables with a CEO as table host, all arranged by the wonderful Anne Bieler, SIHH’s press contact for almost eleven years. This made sure we could connect closely with the brands, an investment from both the press and the manufacturers that still opens doors today.

In 1995, the fair almost tripled in size to 11,000 square meters and during the next years new exhibitors joined in; Alfred Dunhill, YSL, Mont Blanc, Vacheron Constantin and Parmigiani Fleurier, making a total sum of ten exhibitors. Four years later they were joined by Audemars Piguet, Bovet, Breguet, JeanRichard, Girard-Perregaux and Perrelet.

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1999 was the premiere year for Officine Panerai. The excitement was as huge as their booth was tiny. There were no limits to the hype factor. The next year we could see Panerai’s CEO, Mr Bonati, posing in their booth in front of a Plexiglas box filled with copies of Panerai watches.

The brands came and went, and a lot happened between 2001 and 2002. Breguet was bought by Swatch and Daniel Roth, and Gérald Genta was acquired by Bvlgari and got a ticket to go back to the Basel fair. They were replaced by A. Lange & Söhne, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Van Cleef & Arpels that had recently become a part of the Richemont Group.

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A couple of years later the show grew too big for the premises and moved across the roads surrounding the airport to a huge hall run by Palexpo. “Even more luxurious and effective” according to many. The number of journalists invited from all over the world had now reached 1,200.

Even after the 2009 financial collapse, 1,500 reporters were in attendance and the Ralph Lauren Watch & Jewellery Co made their debut at SIHH that now had 17 exhibitors. The next year, niche brands Greubel Forsey and Richard Mille were welcomed, bringing the number up to 19. In spite of the troubled economies in many corners of the globe, the Swiss watch exports increased by an unprecedented 22 percent!

WTM:s editor Mia Litström, who has attended the last four conventions, says:

”This year’s SIHH was special because of the 25th anniversary. About the items on display, you could say I fell for pretty much everything. I’m fascinated by the beautiful and solid craftsmanship and certain models that stood out above everything else such as Richard Mille’s lovely ladies’ watch. It has all the advanced complications that collectors want, and is designed with such finesse which makes it unique with a feminine touch. The magnolia that opens to reveal a tourbillon, that’s a masterpiece for women. A. Lange & Söhne presented their decimal minute repeater, another watch that stands out and really shows off their level of craftsmanship.”