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A Brief Look at SIHH

Get a feel of what it’s like to be in SIHH, one of the biggest watchmaking fairs in Geneva.

Right now, watch journalists around the world are in their winter gear, lugging portable photo studio light boxes, packing their Berocca and Airborne tablets, and possibly, slipping into comfortable shoes (vanity kills—those stiletto boots look good with that double-breasted trench coat, after all). And where are they? In Geneva—where the temperature will not breach the positive double digits anytime soon—for the event that sets the year’s tone for the watchmaking industry.

Today, the Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie—SIHH to most—is opening its hallowed halls to more than 20,000 (and counting) retailers and members of the press. And recently, it’s been open to a limited number of the public. In those hushed, temperature-controlled halls, 35 of the watchmaking industry’s luxury brands will be presenting their maisons’ latest wrist-candy collections. Company CEOs, the rockstar watch designers, master watchmakers and artisans, and legions of marketing and sales team members will all be on hand to make sure that the audience experiences Swiss luxury at its finest.

Here’s a quick background. SIHH started in 1991, when Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Piaget, Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth broke off from the all-encompassing Baselworld to start their own very exclusive watch event. At the time, Baselworld was the biggest watch and jewelry trade show in the world (still is!), but included watch brands from around the globe, ranging from plebeian timepieces to multimillion works of art. SIHH, on the other hand, was exhibiting only luxury brands.

Over the years, the fair has grown from five brands in 4,500 square meters of space to 35 brands in 30,000 square meters. Through all the expansions, changes, and brand comings and goings, one thing hasn’t changed. It’s all about the luxury. And boy, do they know luxury.

That you will see the latest and greatest timepieces is a given. Innovations; amazing new movements; materials from other industries co-opted and integrated somehow into a watch; centuries-old techniques and superb craftsmanship all done in miniature—how these are all presented is the key. And it all starts with the brand booths.

Actually, ‘booth’ is not quite the word to use, given that each exhibition space can probably house you, your friends, and a club. Baume & Mercier had a Shelby Cobra in there, and IWC once even had sharks hanging from the ceiling! Each booth showcases the brand’s personality. Panerai has always had a nautical feel to it, with wooden floors and riveted steel accents. Baume & Mercier maintained a Hamptons lifestyle vibe. IWC, Roger Dubuis, Richard Mille—these brands’ décor varies according to the hero collection of the year (IWC’s underwater + sharks booth launched the Aquatimer).

Having attended SIHH for several years, I know most of the presentations are done in cozy rooms with cushy seats. Refreshments of some sort flow freely in each of the booths (Audemars Piguet always has the best chocolates—I could live there), along with the press kits. Outside the booths, refreshments of all sorts were also served. In fact, you can even get a three-course meal for lunch, order champagne throughout the day, and just keep coming back for coffee, juice, soda, and an assortment of finger foods all day (I’ve heard that you can also get multiple lunches). All for free. It’s as if they have all the money to burn.

And they probably do. The average price of a watch exhibited at SIHH ranges from five to six figures—in dollars. Providing an endless supply of still and sparkling water, decadent chocolates, and gourmet meals is hardly anything.

One thing that SIHH has done excellently is maintain the exclusivity of the fair, although since 2017, SIHH has been opening its doors to the [limited] public, allocating the last day for enthusiasts to come and see the fair. Another point of excellence is how they have managed to maintain the traditional values and craftsmanship yet keep updated with the world. In 2018, for example, they added interactive, professionally-lit photo walls—perfect for IG posts. They also provided ‘white boxes’—semi-circular, semi-enclosed couches, with professional lighting, so you can interview your chosen CEO or watchmaker without having to set up anything yourself. An Auditorium provides a Ted Talks feel, with talks scheduled throughout the days.

Launching this year is the LAB, a combination of exhibit space, showcasing the brands’ latest technologies and offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the research and resources that goes into each product they create; and a workshop area, with classes on social media and digital content creation.

An interesting development to look forward to not only involves SIHH, but Baselworld as well. From 2020 to 2024, the two fairs’ schedules will be coordinated. Baselworld usually exhibits in March and SIHH is in January. By next year, both fairs will move their dates: April 26 to 29 in Geneva, and April 30 to May 5 in Basel. So that means only one trip to Switzerland for most of the fair visitors.

In the meantime, we shall wait with bated breath for SIHH to finally reveal what they have been up to in the past year.