I do not know the prefix to “-archy” that denotes rule by guild, but that is essentially what happened in Basel at the start of the Reformation, when the reign of the bishops came to an end and the trade associations ran the show – until the French took over in the years following their Revolution. They seemed to do a better job of it than Great Britain’s trade unions when they ran the country during the 1970s.
Anyway, it is this dedication to commerce that seems to account for the fact that, while Geneva and its environs are home to a great many watch companies, it is the city of Basel that is the locus classicus of the famous watch fair – or BaselWorld, as we are encouraged to call it these days.
I still like to show my age and refer to it as the Basel Fair. I have been going for a good 20 years (I forget how long exactly), but I seem to remember that on my second or third visit I attended the 125th birthday celebrations of IWC. These included, among other things, a Swiss-German comedian and a man who got up on stage and dextrously tore newspapers into decorative garlands. Maybe the newspaper ripper and the comedian were one and the same man. I cannot recall. If they were the same individual, it shows a great level of sophistication and refinement in Swiss humour. It is only a few years until the 150th anniversary of IWC, and I hope that they have the good sense to ask this genius back.
However, even if they do, this event will not be held at Basel, as IWC no longer exhibits here. Not that one suffers a shortage of events to attend. My favourite in recent years was an early-evening display put on by Breitling, featuring flamethrowers, pomp rock and dozens of gun-toting models, which took place on the roof and upper stories of the building opposite the main hall last year. Rather like those elaborate mechanical clocks in medieval European cities that accompany the chiming of the hour with a display of clockwork figures, this was an audiovisual prompt to leave the fair and begin the bacchanal.
Alas, this year the wall space facing the fair was already enshrouded by the scaffolding that betokened work on the new, expanded exhibition hall. From the fact that the extensive scaffolding spanned over half the Messeplatz (think of someone throwing a roof over the better part of Eaton Square), this confidence in the enduring power of commerce and mercantilism is encouraging and even slightly uplifting.
Next year’s Basel Fair will be a little later to allow time to complete the building work, and there was much talk this year of the new stands that the brands would be designing. I am sure that there will be much hoopla and celebration involved, although something tells me that the city fathers of Basel will be looking to mark this important event with something a little less… how shall we say… niche than an exhibition of newspaper tearing. However clever and conceptual it may be, that sort of thing is far better left to the intellectual crowd attending the Ascot of the contemporary art world: Art Basel.