If you’re really into watches, there’s one event during the year that you really can’t miss. And that’s the Watches and Wonders show in Geneva – the horological equivalent of the Met Gala, attended by all the most prestigious watchmakers in the world and a few selected guests. With the exception of a couple of public days, this isn’t the sort of show that you can just wander into: you have to be invited. And this year, I was lucky enough to have an invite drop onto my virtual doormat.
I’d heard a lot about the fabled Geneva show. But despite all of that, nothing actually prepares you for being there.
First things first: it’s overwhelmingly big. Even the queues to get in are big. Only the final weekend is public, the other days are for industry bigwigs, media and privileged clients. A-listers, in other words, minus the journalists like me. But on the first day, everyone is ultimately in the same queue. A queue that snakes around the entrance to the Palexpo, Geneva’s well-known exhibition centre, and culminates nearly an hour later in an electronic booth where you swap a QR code – confirmation of your accreditation – for the fabled pass that unlocks the doors to watchmaking nirvana.
Or not quite. Because first you have to negotiate another queue, this time for security. If you’d like to drop a bag – and I really recommend that you don’t – you’ll find another queue to the cloakroom.
The irony is that once you’re actually at the x-ray machines, the impeccably polite security guards aren’t particularly bothered about what you’re taking through. Look at it this way: nobody takes their watches off, which is just as well, because a lot of the watches being worn there are ones that you wouldn’t want to let out of your sight anyway.
But finally, you’re in. And then you’re confronted with perhaps the hardest decision of your time there: where to begin?
For many people, it’s an easy decision. People flock to the Rolex stand like wasps around an unguarded jam pot: next to them is Tudor, and opposite is Patek Philippe: forming a holy trinity for a lot of visitors. Other stands are practically deserted.
But we should first of all define what we mean by ‘stand’. These are no ordinary stands because this is no ordinary trade fair. Instead, the stands at Watches and Wonders are more like small buildings. In fact, make that big buildings: with multiple floors and artistic installations that stretch the imagination. Apologies to Jaeger-Le Coultre; I didn’t realise that their floor was actually a painting.
No expense has been spared, but the watches within the stands are worth even more. As one experienced blogger observed: “Just how much do you think this whole show is worth?”
My mathematical mind isn’t big enough to compute, but it’s fair to say we’re talking billions. Once you’re in, everything is laid on for you. That includes three-course (stunning) meals and vintage Champagne. Not to mention hotels, shuttle buses to and from the airport, and enough little presents and books from the brands that would enable you to open up a reasonably-sized souvenir shop. Ironically, the only thing you can’t get your hands on (to take away) is a watch – as the watches there aren’t for sale.
But it’s easy to get your hands on them in a literal sense. Each watch brand hosts a series of ‘touch and feel’ sessions, where you can hold, photograph, and try on their new watches, as well as quiz brand representatives all about them. By the end of the first day, chances on you will have already tried on watches that are worth more than your house. Or in my case, by the end of the first morning.
While the atmosphere at Watches and Wonders is genteel, there’s a distinct air of intense competition. All the brands are trying to outdo each other, in a commercial feeding frenzy to attract the pool of monied collectors in the room. It’s not just the tall glass windows overlooking the airport that make the Palexpo feel a bit like a goldfish bowl sometimes – featuring some very sharp-toothed piranhas.
But the majority of people are there just for the watches, and the love of it. Most of the announcements of new releases come on the first day, which is particularly buzzy. One thing you soon get used is the fact that there are simply not enough chairs to go round in the media lounge, so on Monday you find journalists camped out more or less anywhere, frantically firing out news stories about the latest releases.
To be honest I’m not sure how they do it, as the new watch releases come out faster than you can physically type. Video now seems to be the preferred medium, and there are more cameras around than you can shake a selfie stick at. Call me childish, but people walking into things while vlogging never ceases to be funny (especially the chap so focussed on his livestream that he took out a waiter bearing a tray of Champagne). And the lady who dropped a $100K watch while trying to film it is probably still having nightmare about that moment now. But that’s just an occupational hazard in Geneva.
Despite the exclusivity of the event, the openness of it is equally a surprise. You get to handle and sample even the most special watches in a way that’s almost casual, and the very top CEOs and marketing directors, who you’ve only read about in magazines up to that point, turn out to be surprisingly ordinary and approachable human beings who will have a laugh with you and offer you a drink.
It’s a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be a one-percenter. You find yourself raising your own game, and even paying attention to what you wear (time to get that suit out) – especially on your wrist. There are some pretty special watches out there that don’t live on the stands. I spotted a gold Richard Mille, which was quite something. People will often ask you what you’re wearing, and you need a better answer up your sleeve than “spotted red boxer shorts”.
But the item of clothing you need to pay particular attention to are your shoes. Fitness fanatics will enjoy the fact that you consistently rack up more than 20,000 steps a day, but if you’ve not got the right footwear, then your feet resemble two freshly minced steak tartares by the end of it. One thing I’d do differently next year is not wear new shoes. It also pays to book your appointments well in advance for the most popular brands. You can’t just wander into the media sessions: as this is Switzerland, everything is immaculately organised and all meetings function like clockwork.
You get a clear idea of the pecking order amongst brands just by looking at the available media sessions on the excellent Watches and Wonders app. Want to book an appointment with Rolex with a week to go? Pas de chance. But the exclusivity is what makes the whole experience so very special.
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs courtesy of Watches and Wonders