An exhibition for jewellery and watchmaking pushes through in Geneva

Geneva's jewellery tradition dates back to the 18th century. | Keystone

This article comes from the daily newsletter "Sortir de la crise".

The founders of GemGenève, the Geneva exhibition dedicated to jewellery and precious stones, bravely announced that they would be holding their third edition from November 1 to 4 at Palexpo, "if the health situation permits." In such a gloomy economic situation, the organizers are hoping for positive economic benefits both for Geneva and for an industry that has been "at a standstill" since the onset of the pandemic.

Why we’re talking about it. This small "niche" fair was created in 2018 by two well-known figures in the Geneva gems and jewellery sector, Ronny Totah and Thomas Faerber. Over the past two years, it had already succeeded in attracting jewellers from all over the world and thousands of visitors. Admittedly, it is not a show the size of those in Hong Kong or even in Basel, but it is the only exhibition in the world to be organized "by merchants for merchants." "Elegant without being pretentious," it has come to make up for the gap between the inaccessible top-of-the-range lines and the bazaar versions. A successful gamble for all the small players and an opportunity for Geneva to regain its rightful place in the world of jewellery, precious stones and watchmaking, especially since the announcement of the definitive closure of Baselworld last April.

At a standstill. The founders of GemGeneva have decided to bring forward the dates of their show, initially scheduled between November 5 and 8, to allow exhibitors to leave in time for the Hong Kong show, which should be held in the wake. Nothing is less certain during the Covid period, but out of a "spirit of solidarity" for the industry, they have taken the decision to facilitate business that has been at a standstill since March. An artisan jeweller who wishes to remain anonymous:

"We can no longer do our job. We haven't exported in five months."

If the numbers do not turn up, there will be "substantial" losses, which will then be evaluated once business resumes. Ronny Totah:

"We'll be smiling if we can still stay open."

So in the offices of Faerber Collection and Horovitz and Totah they’re pulling out all the stops so that November — and then May 2021 — will bring the benefits that the industry needs. All this while remaining clear-headed. The only shows to have taken place this year were Miami in early January, and immediately followed by Tucson. Then nothing: the fairs were all cancelled one after the other. Ronny Totah:

"If Americans can't travel and Asians are permanently confined, we'll cancel. But we hope the economic situation will allow both fairs to go ahead and give us the opportunity to end 2020 on a positive note."

Where Basel is hurting. Announcements one after the other over the past few days have betrayed the prevailing nervousness on the watchmaking side. On Monday, July 27, Fabienne Lupo resigned from her post as director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) after fifteen years of service. She will therefore not see the new version of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), also known as "Watches & Wonders", taking place in Shanghai from September 9 to 14. Ida Faerber, daughter of Thomas Faerber and director of the company, was shocked by the announcement:

"Fabienne Lupo helped us considerably to launch GemGeneva. She encouraged us and made it easier for us to get off the ground."

Her departure symbolizes the end of an era. The Basel fair, whose first edition dates back to 1917, was gradually deserted: first by the Richemont group, founders of the SIHH in 1991; then by the players in the watch subcontracting industry, who brought together 850 exhibitors at the EPHJ in 2002; and finally by the last link in the chain, the precious stones and jewellery sector in 2018. Rolex had dealt the final blow last April when they announced that they too were leaving the Basel ship. The owners of Baselworld, the MCH group, as if in a symbolic last stand, finally revealed the name of their new concept on Tuesday: a digital platform, Houruniverse, supplemented by a physical show, half the size of the 2019 version, in Basel in April 2021. Ronny Totah:

"A booth in Basel cost 70 cents a second, double that of GemGeneva, which offers an all-inclusive package. Rolex and Patek are all based in Geneva. Only Oris is based in Basel. Geneva is regaining its legitimacy in the world of watchmaking and jewellery. Going to Basel was ridiculous. It's much more natural to be in Geneva."

Geneva’s place. Tens of billions of diamonds are imported into Switzerland every year, but it is more difficult to put a figure on the volume of trade in precious stones — rubies, sapphires, emeralds — especially since professionals in the industry are reputed to be discreet. A "jeweller's secret" is also what makes the Geneva market so successful. Ronny Totah:

"In terms of volume, Geneva is nothing compared to New York or Hong Kong, but psychologically it is very important. Discretion and trust are the reputation of the Swiss label."

GEMGENEVE_Ronny Totah_ Thomas Faerber_Jasmine Vidal©
Thomas Faerber and Ronny Totah's GemGeneva project has been enthusiastically received by industry professionals.

Many clients prefer the sobriety and intimacy of craftsmen's offices nestled in the floors of buildings on the Rue du Rhône and the Place de la Fusterie rather than the pomp of the prestigious auction houses that also contribute to Geneva's fame. Ida Faerber, at the reins of a family business renowned for its antique jewellery such as the Marie-Louise jewellery set, transported to the Apollon gallery in the Louvres, explains:

"We often think of Place Vendôme, but Geneva has nothing to be ashamed of. The Swiss and Geneva jewellery tradition dates back to the 18th century. The region is particularly famous for its enamels, of which it is the cradle. We, the family businesses with our millenary knowledge, have something to pass on."

Marie-Louise's diamond and emerald set, by François-Regnault Nitot, jeweller of the Emperor Napoleon.

Geneva diamond craftsman Jeremiah Posier and his compatriot George Friedrich Eckart, a Russian court jeweller, for example, created the imperial crown, a unique piece combining 4,936 diamonds, 72 pearls and a 400-carat red spinel, which crowned Catherine the Great and the six Tsars who succeeded her.

Geneva also benefits from logistical advantages with the Cointrin airport next to Palexpo and the free port, facilitating exhibition and import-export. The gradual return of the Baselworld players and its closure could be an opportunity for the city of Calvin, provided that "care will be taken not to make the same mistakes as Basel", warns Ida Faerber. Ronny Totah, for his part, suggests that a more ambitious project could see the light of day if Palexpo accepts it and should the dates worked.

"We are thinking about something more general for a wider range of our businesses. This would put Geneva in a certain position — perhaps not in terms of the volume of business, but in terms of its reputation."

A real springboard for the new generation of designers, GemGeneva 2020 plans to highlight young designers in collaboration with the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD) and the Haute École de Joaillerie (HEJ) in Paris. Vivienne Becker, jewellery historian and renowned author, will also present creations by international independent jewellery designers.