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Public get their first look at Rolex's new watches at Watches and Wonders.(KEYSTONE/Valentin Flauraud)

Rolex wins landslide public vote

Sell-out public days at Watches and Wonders were a chance to see punters voting with their feet. Inevitably, as Robin Swithinbank witnessed, Rolex won by a mile.

For reasons that felt beyond my control, I spent six days at Watches and Wonders this year. That meant I was there into the weekend. And that I was there with Jean-Paul Public.

In exchange for 70 Swiss francs, on the Saturday and Sunday ordinary folk could pass through the show’s narrow gates – perhaps some of them waited for two hours to get in, too – and walk the cream carpets of Palexpo as Roger Federer, Julia Roberts and David Beckham had done only days before.

I’m sure some of them were very excited.

With the public came the pushchairs and toddlers of Baselworld, a trigger for those of us who once petitioned for journalist lanes so we could get to meetings on time without tripping over a Bugaboo.

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I do hope the child that ran screaming from the Oris stand having knocked over something heavy is alright. And more, that its parents have learned never to visit a watch fair with small children ever again.

Those threats aside, I’m all for public days at the show. And I’m very all for them being bunched over the weekend, by which time most trade types (should) have gone home.

Without the end consumer (a ghastly, dehumanizing term), the whole shebang would be pointless willy-waving. It is still willy-waving. Just with a point.

But what I hadn’t really expected was the crystal clear illustration they’d give of what the market actually wants.

Which is Rolex. Of course, it’s Rolex.

Oh, how they queued. Zig-zagging away from the green and gold like giddy X-Factor auditionees, clogging up those cream carpets for a glimpse of….

Actually, what was it they expected to see? Was Becks still on the stand hoping for a promotion? Maybe Jean-Frederic Dufour was offering fireside chats on a first-come basis? Or perhaps the very tall ladies in beige were dishing out those Rolex chocolates everyone always talks about. There’s no crime in getting in line for those.

Outside at least, the Jean-Pauls stood four, five even six deep, peering through the vitrines for a glimpse of that watch with an emoji date window that they saw on Instagram but that they’ll never get their hands on.

Just as with the prospect of overnight fame and fortune, hope frequently dawns but rarely sets in the insentient.

The rest of the show was echoey.

At the other end, SIHH in old money, where Monday through Friday you could scarcely move for rings of bowing Japanese and chin-stroking men in blue suits talking about very important things, suddenly empty tables.

I had 10 seats to myself for lunch. Which, horror of horrors, I had to pay for. As did exhibitors, who having been told they couldn’t serve food on their stands were no doubt delighted at having to pay twice over for a poke bowl of salmon.

Maybe Lange was too far to walk for Monsieur Public. Perhaps Cartier came over a bit French.

As it was, the public patterns were a lesson. Both for the show and for the brands themselves.

Let’s deal with the show first, because it’s easier.

Watches and Wonders remains a hybrid of two events, yet to find a personality of its own.

Turn left on arrival for the colourful Baselworld brand temples of Rolex, Tudor, Patek et al; and right for the bland, uniform pillars of SIHH.

The crowds will always flock to Rolex first, but in years to come if they want to attract peacocking non-industry folk who like things that look good on TikTok, the Richemont brands will need to rethink their plumage.

For the brands and their watches, the takeaway from Watches and Wonders is the same: go big before the punters go home.

This year, more than ever, the limelight fell squarely on popping-candy watches conceived with a generation of influencers in mind.

As we know, Rolex set tongues wagging with the did-they-really-just-do-that pairing of the Day-Date Emoji and the Oyster Perpetual Bubbles, pieces whose stories lurched around Geneva like a matronly headmistress who’d turned up at sports day drunk on scotch.

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Rolex Oyster Perpetual Bubble.

Or what about Oris, never once on the watch fair podium until now, and yet last seen chasing down Rolex for notoriety with its green-dialed Kermit watch?

Et9aeruf propilot x kermit edition hdAdd to that TAG Heuer’s pink Carrera, IWC’s teal Ingenieur (was that for form of function?), Hublot’s half-a-million-dollar blue sapphire Big Bang and a bearded lady, and you have all the ingredients of a traveling carnival poster.

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TAG Heuer Carrera.

Almost as attention-grabbing were the brands that fed the frenzy by launching nothing. Lange’s Odysseus Chronograph was a showstopper, but the 100 pieces set for production won’t be with us until next year.

Roger Dubuis managed a concept watch.

Ulysse Nardin went full eggs-in-one-basket with the Freak One.

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Ulysse Nardin Freak One.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t to criticize either approach. They seemed to work.

Patek Philippe had 17 new references (or was it 18? Or 16?), but even after a few moments’ thought, I’m not sure which I’d label the social-media standout.

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s rotunda was peppered with a blizzard of more-is-more Reversos, while Frederique Constant addled minds by showcasing embargoed pieces alongside stuff they wanted us to talk about now. I’ve forgotten all of them.

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Frederique Constant’s Classic Tourbillon Manufacture, which was presented under embargo at Watches and Wonders.

But let’s not be surprised. This is an industry shrinking its output while asking us to pay more for it, so it’s going to have to find new ways of amping up the hype from now on.

S8pakyvp ioyykl06 robin swithinbank about the authorThe sugar-rush strategy taken up by the winners of Watches and Wonders was the industry putting on a short skirt and blowing kisses at passers-by, for fear they might look the other way.

And honestly, for as long as Switzerland is intent on making fewer and fewer watches and making itself more and more exclusive, I don’t see what other choice it’s got.

Heck, tell some cheap jokes, scream ‘fire!’ at the top of your voice, run down the taupe-balmed halls of Palexpo with your trousers round your ankles.

Because if you don’t, someone else – not necessarily a watchmaker – will.

And then before you know it, the pushchairs will be gone. And even I’d be sad about that.

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