Web Exclusive: Basel Diary

What Not to Do at Basel

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The good thing about this place is that almost everybody here knows many multiples more than what most will ever know about watches

Doing as Romans do at Basel's watch fair has one big risk: it obeys the law of dimwit-outing returns. My exposure as a fool--okay, novice--comes sooner than expected. "Hmmm," I say, hands gloved, neck bent and lips pursed, though without an eyebrow arched in quite the same manner as my role model for the moment, a man with an Oxbridge accent at our presentation table who can not only tell one tourbillon apart from another, but also 'aah' at all the right intricacies of ingenuity to be spied within a Swiss watch. "Uhmm," says the genial fellow on my right, and discreetly turns my magnifying eyepiece around for me.

Everything in the window of that watch's dial--offering a peek of the 'movement' in there is quite the thing nowadays--had looked like a shiny swirl of mechanical mastery, but I had attributed this sight to my own eyes having got goggled under an assault of glitter.

Barring an occasion on which I mistook cK for an authentic way to say 'Seiko', there is no other slip-up of significance to report from Baselworld. The good thing about this place is that almost everybody here knows many multiples more than what most will ever know about watches. Casual visitors, these are clearly not. In the main hall where the fanciest brands have their pavilions, long trails go from one display panel to another taking notes and iPhone shots of new launches. The Chinese presence, as the word goes, is much lower this year than last. Not all of this is because of China's slowdown: ever since Swiss watches attracted the attention of its pelf police, it seems, the proletariat there has been advised to exercise due discretion in showing an undue interest in such objects of desire.

Most of the chatter in the air is in what sounds like either German or French, with a smattering of English spoken the American way no less than British. Snatches of Hindi are to be heard as well.

For classic designs, the Rolex display line-up has the biggest buzz around it, with Omega and Patek Philippe not far behind. Otherwise, Tag Heuer's Android watch would've had people elbowing one another for a dekho (or swipe-o, in this case) if Swiss manners were to go the Indian way.

Right now, thankfully, all that's going Indian are a few special editions. Of the brands trying especially hard to woo Indians, or their idea of us, a couple deserve mention. One is Graham, famous for its Chronofighter watches. It has a model with its hours marked in Hindi numerals: they look nice, these squiggles, even if the only one that meets my idea of elegance is at 4 o'clock. The other is Blancpain, a far more expensive brand. Among the models of 'haute horlogerie' put out for us at a demo session is a watch with a golden Ganesha applique on its dial, engraved by many man-hours of Shakudo, an art technique of Japanese origin. Its price? A cool Rs 1 crore. After making the appropriate noises of appreciation, we walk out of the demo chamber to find a small crowd achuckle at this other wonder of art done Shakudo style: it's doggie, a couple engraved in the act, rocking back and forth to the watch's inner movement, a little applique enlarged on the Blancpain pavilion's LED screen for a wider audience.