One to Watch

Bedat & Co., the nine-year-old Swiss watchmaker, is ready for its close-up.

By day two, BaselWorld is in full swing. The annual trade show is an international hunting ground for the buying and selling of timepieces and bijoux—it's the Cannes film festival for watches. Spread out in a series of buildings in the center of Basel, Switzerland, the fair takes up more than 39 acres. For five days each April, the concrete office structures are transformed into jewelry and watch vaults with names to match: Hall of Inspirations and Desires, Hall of Universe, Hall of Emotion. The Hall of Dreams houses the heavy hitters. More than 85,000 people visit the massive Rolex booth—a three-story affair complete with gardens and a moat—to witness the premiere of the Rolex Prince. Or they come to see Chopard introduce the 2005 Mille Miglia watch in a stall designed to resemble a small French village, decked out with ivy-strewn trellises and a café that serves croissants and salade niçoise.

Traveling through the fair with Christian Bédat, 41, is a bit like driving around Hollywood with Johnny Depp. The designer and CEO of Bedat & Co., a nine-year-old Geneva-based luxury watch company, is a superstar in these parts—boyishly handsome and dressed with a kind of rock-and-roll glamour. But he couldn't care less. Seriously. He only sees watches.

Admittedly chic, the Bedat booth is small and modest amid those of Breguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling, Chopard. "See that? Too bulky," he says, checking out the competition. At another display: "Look here. That's not the DNA of this brand. Why did they do that?" he says disapprovingly. "Now that," he says, pointing to a vintage Patek Philippe, "is perfection." Bédat's personal collection includes eight vintage Pateks and more than 50 Rolexes. When Christian and his mother, Simone, decided to create a line of watches back in the late nineties, they had this sort of famous—and successful—legacy in mind.

Simone Bédat grew up in the Jura state (ground zero for Swiss watchmaking) and started working in watch production at age 17. She became something of a legend in the business, one of the very few women to rise to the top via watchmaker Raymond Weil, who asked her to join him in building his new company. Twenty years later she sold her share of the firm to the Weil family, and in 1996 she founded Bedat & Co.

Christian (who never knew his father) attended a Swiss boarding school, served in the Swiss army, and then went to business school. His mother never asked him to join the watch world, he says, but "it's all I ever knew or wanted."

And it's worked. To date, the company has sold some 50,000 timepieces to everyone from Catherine Deneuve, who wears the Bedat No. 3 (still the top seller), to Uma Thurman (her favorite is the men's No. 8). Christian says that his inspiration for numbering rather than naming watches was Coco Chanel, who, of course, famously labeled her perfumes the same way.

Three years ago the Bédats sold controlling interest in their company to the Gucci Group. Christian himself is now actually a designer for the Bedat & Co. line as well as the man in charge of revamping Gucci's timepieces. "Gucci was the first fashion house to do watches," he says. Christian plans to bring back the signature Gs with Gucci's new collection, which will be premiering in Basel this year.

After a drop-by at Gucci and a lunch of espresso and peanut M&M's, we duck back into the Bedat booth. "So," I ask, "why would a person choose to spend money on a Bedat when there is already Rolex, Chopard, Audemars Piguet? Do we really need another luxury watch brand?" Not surprisingly, the ever charming Christian has all the answers. Bedat was the first watchmaker, he firmly points out, to set diamonds in steel, a trés modern—if slightly brash—combo, like wearing jeans with fur. A touch of "luxe informal," it's the same confident gesture as pairing a gray flannel strap with a diamond evening watch. Bedat's edge comes, according to one designer, "in the mix of modern and classic elements and its bold proportions. "The competitor points to the massive case, the width of the strap. Christian Bédat, it would seem, understands as well as any new- or old-timer that "it's all in the wrist."
Bedat & Co., 877-233-2826; www.bedat.com.