Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… the Basel watch fair

A lifetime in thrall to the wheels and springs of Helvetian clockwork

Swellboy on… the Basel watch fair

Image: Brijesh Patel

April 04 2011
Nick Foulkes

The Basel watch fair is a wonderful time of the year, when I find myself surrounded by like-minded lovers of watches. What I so enjoy about watches is the extraordinary levels of passion that these little objects, often no more than 40 millimetres in diameter, can excite. It is one of the miracles of the modern world that Switzerland has been able to build an industry on the horological addiction of a few fanatical collectors around the world.

The Basel fair is a place where reality as it is experienced by the rest of humanity is suspended and where the pinions, arbors, wheels and springs of Helvetian clockwork dominate one’s waking and sleeping moments. I must say I love it. Chief among the items that no one needed but everyone wanted this year were a minute repeater by Hublot that sounded like a small longcase clock and a mechanical TAG Heuer capable of timing events to the nearest 1/1,000th of a second.

However, my favourite moment came outside the fair when, after a hard day listening to the music of a dozen minute repeaters and admiring the tachymetric scales of heaven knows how many chronographs, I was accosted by one of Switzerland’s top product designers. He gripped my arm and fixed me with a look reminiscent of the glittering eye of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Had I seen the lugs of the latest Patek Philippe, minute repeater chronograph perpetual calendar? Now, as you know, the lugs are the little protrusions from the walls of a watch case, where the strap is fixed; not something that many people expend too much thought on, but they had clearly left a deep impression on my interlocutor.

The following day I sought them out and was duly rewarded by the sight of skeletonised or pierced lugs. I was in effect admiring the absence of a gram or two of precious metal, and yet I knew exactly what my product-designer friend had got so worked up about. It caused me to reflect on a continuing interest for which I am grateful. Even though I am nearer 50 than 40 years old and I have been going to watch fairs for a generation, I can still get excited about something that passes many other people by. And in having such an interest in my life I count myself very lucky indeed.