The History of Rolex at Baselworld

Today, the names Rolex and Baselworld are inextricably linked. The Swiss watchmaking behemoth is by far the largest exhibitor and uses the annual event to unveil its very latest creations on an unsuspecting world.

However, the show had existed for more than 20 years before the crown arrived and was already the most important date in the horology calendar.

Humble Beginnings

Schweizer Mustermesse Basel 1926

The first appearance of what would go on to become Baselworld took place on April 15th 1917. Originally known as MUBA, or the Schweizer Mustermesse Basel, it was a Swiss goods trade fair held in the Basel casino. As well as the 831 companies representing industries such as insurance, transport and, of course, banking, a small section of the 6,000m space was given over to jewelry and clocks. This was at a period when the wristwatch was having its image transformed from very much a lady’s adornment, and was becoming more acceptable for men to wear—helped on by the returning soldiers of WWI.

While the area provided for the new fad was modest, with only 29 different manufacturers, it proved a huge success and many believe it was this event that acted as the catalyst for popularizing the wristwatch as an essential male accessory. Among those handful of brands exhibiting were names still going strong today, with the likes of Tissot, Longines, Ulysse Nardin and Thommen (now Revue Thommen) all attending.

Yet it would take until 1926 before the watch industry had grown large enough to be granted its own halls in the show, and from there its impact began to dominate, leading to its first dedicated pavilion under the name ‘Swiss Watch Fair’, in 1931. It was at this point the Baselworld we know today really started.

Rolex at the Show

Rolex Oyster Ref. 2280

By the time Rolex gained access to the exposition, it was already becoming the biggest event of the year, renowned for showcasing all the momentous innovations of the day. John Harwood had demonstrated the original automatic movement here in 1924, eventually selling the rights to Fortis who would go on, the following year, to bring out the first ever serially produced self-winding wristwatch.

Rolex’s pair of groundbreaking innovations, the waterproof Oyster case and their own take on the automatic caliber, the Perpetual, came about prior to their initial showing at Basel. When they eventually entered the fray in 1939, there were upwards of 50 watch manufacturers in attendance, and Hans Wilsdorf’s company took up just 30 square meters of the exhibition space, joining other such luminaries as Heuer, Jaeger LeCoultre and Patek Philippe.

Ever Expanding

The yearly watch fair continued to grow steadily in both size and influence and additional halls were being built to house the increasing number of attendees.

Vintage Rolex Submariner from 1953

By the 50s, the scale of the exhibition took on a vital significance for Rolex during the launch of the now iconic Submariner. Released in 1954, it was lauded as being the first of a new breed—the modern dive watch. But in reality, Blancpain had brought out their Fifty Fathoms the year before, a piece now considered the actual holder of that title. Blancpain, however, did not attend the Basel Fair and as a result, Rolex displayed their creation in front of a far larger audience and gained worldwide acclaim.

The continuing success of the show led to still greater expansion, with more and more brands flaunting their wares, and it became the only place to be for all Swiss heavyweights every April.

Some of the industry’s biggest advances made their debut here. In 1957, for example, Bulova showed off their Accutron movement, the immediate forerunner to the quartz watches that would, ironically, decimate so much of Switzerland’s traditional maisons. And in 1969, two automatic chronograph calibers were displayed, from two separate manufacturers, each vying for the title of first of its kind. In one corner, the Caliber 11 from a conglomerate comprising Heuer, Breitling, Buren and Dubois Dépraz. And in the other, the El Primero from Zenith, later to go on to find lasting acclaim inside Rolex’s legendary Daytona.

Home From Home

For its first 55 years, the Basel Fair had been an exclusively Swiss brand only event. It wasn’t until 1972 that they slackened the reins just a little and let in companies from France, Italy, Germany and the U.K., calling that year’s show ‘Europe’s Meeting Place’. In 1973, the rest of the EU was invited to attend.

In 1983 the expo was given a rebrand, from the Swiss Watch Show to simply BASEL 83 and kept that format, with the number denoting the year, until 1995 when it was renamed again as BASEL 95—The World Watch, Clock and Jewelry Show. The event had become truly international in 1986 when it opened up to watchmakers from all corners of the world. (It was retitled once more to the slightly more concise Baselworld, The Watch and Jewelry Show in 2003).

Basel 1986 (photo: MCH Messe Basel)

As for Rolex, with its status rising with each passing year, so did its position at the fair. From their lowly 30 square meters in 1939, they continued to acquire bigger and bigger spaces inside the main hall until eventually they occupied a huge swathe of prime real estate right at the show’s entrance.

Their dominance, however, was not appreciated by everyone. By the 90s, they had taken over so much space, and the show itself had become so all-inclusive, that several of the other major brands decided to break away and set up their own invite-only trade show.

This splinter group, comprised of Cartier, Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, denouncing what they thought of as bias towards Rolex at Basel, established the SIHH, or the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. It is now seen as a far more exclusive affair compared to Baselworld’s come-one-come-all philosophy.

Modern Times

The recent problems suffered by the Baselworld event are well documented. At its height in the early years of the 2010s, the exhibition spread across more than 1,500,000 square feet and housed some 2,000 attendees, catering to over 100,000 guests.

Rolex brought its largest ever display to the show’s centenary in 2017, when it spread itself across three stories and took up some 13,000 square feet.

But through a combination of the downturn in mechanical watch sales brought on by the Smartwatch invasion, and what some are calling arrogance and mismanagement by the show’s organizers, the latest events have been dramatically scaled back.

Most condemning of all was the withdrawal of the Swatch Group from this year, taking with them 18 of the biggest brands in the business, among them Omega, Longines, Blancpain and Hamilton. They join such big names as A. Lange & Söhne, IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre who all departed in 2001.

Baselworld 2018

As well as a huge drop in numbers, the show has shortened in duration by two days in recent years.

For Rolex though, the event is as crucial as ever, if not more so. It continues to be the place to go to see the world’s most successful watchmaker announce its latest creations, and fans flock in their thousands. In fact, the company has declared in the last few weeks they will take additional space in 2020, expanding into the area held by sister group Tudor, which will be given its own stand in Hall 1.0 for the first time.

What will happen to Baselworld as an event in the long run is up in the air at the moment, but it remains the most important show in the industry for the time being.