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Optimism and opulence characterise Baselworld

Basel is buzzing with the latest watches and jewellery

(Keystone)

The world’s top watch and jewellery fair – featuring 1,815 exhibitors from 41 countries – has opened its doors in Basel.

Now in its 40th year, Baselworld showcases the latest technology and designs over the course of a week. With 456 brands on show, the Swiss watch industry is especially well represented.

“Just as a watch says something about its wearer, the watch industry is a statement about Switzerland,” remarked Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann, who officially opened the fair on Thursday. He even described the watch industry as “a gem in Switzerland’s economic crown”.

Indeed, 2011 was a strong year for Swiss watchmakers – who increased their exports to SFr19.3 billion ($21 billion) last year. Asia accounted for 55 per cent of those exports. Growth was especially strong in China (up 48.7 per cent) as well as in Hong Kong and Singapore (both up by about 28 per cent).

Looking east

“Chinese consumers always appreciate the good reputation, quality and design of Swiss brands,” according to Jane Fountain, managing director of the Harmony World Watch Centre, which operates 267 points of sale in China. “They say Switzerland is the world’s king of watches.”

The past decade has seen rapid development in the Chinese market for Swiss watches, she said. Harmony opened Breguet’s first boutique in China, and it was the first retailer of Ulysse Nardin. Fountain also cited Rado, Omega, Rolex and Longines as especially popular brands among Chinese shoppers.

“The Asian customers are really interested in Swiss watch culture,” Certina CEO Adrian Bosshard told swissinfo.ch. Certina entered the Chinese market in 2007; now China is its second largest market after Switzerland.

“We are quite a young brand in China; you can’t compare Certina with more established brands like Longines, Omega or Tissot, which have histories of 20 or more years there,” he said. Still, the Le Locle-based company has seen a steady increase in market shares and name recognition.

“The Chinese customers really appreciate the design … and the fact that we’re very strong in mechanical watches,” Bosshard said. Certina specialises in sporty and durable styles, including a new diving watch unveiled in time for Baselworld.

Meanwhile, Japan is the biggest market for Century; the Nidau-based brand is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary in that market.

“We know that Japanese customers really appreciate our attention to detail. In terms of size, we produce small, jewellery-style watches which also appeal to them,” Century marketing head Nathalie Kottelat explained. After Japan, China is Century’s fastest growing market, followed by Switzerland.

About 80 per cent of Century’s pieces are for women. Man-made sapphire and alexandrite cases in a rainbow of colours give extra sparkle to the watches as well as the coordinating earrings and necklaces.

“The cases are like gemstones – this is one of the main reasons why we focus on ladies’ watches,” said Century CEO Philip Klingenberg.

Optimistic mood

“It seems like there’s a lot of excitement at this show,” noted Mark Moeller, a Minneapolis-based jeweller and watch dealer who is a Rolex retailer. Watches represent 30 per cent of R.F. Moeller’s business.

“Today we spent a great deal of time looking at the watches, but generally looking for things you don’t see in the States. Rolex’s two-time-zone watch, which is brand-spanking new, is very exciting,” Moeller told swissinfo.ch, adding that he had also visited the Raymond Weil and TAG Heuer stands, in particular.

He said his last visit to Baselworld had been about ten years ago, but that now the plan was to go every three or four years.

“This time, my goal is to get out of here without spending a million dollars,” joked Moeller. “But seriously, the luxury market is good – and that’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”

Benedetto Mauro, co-owner of the Rome-based Hausmann & Co., attends Baselworld every year.

“I’m looking for new technologies – and there are a few who can manage to impress,” Mauro told swissinfo.ch, citing a Breguet timepiece featuring a magnetic regulator. Men’s watches account for about 75 per cent of Hausmann’s offerings.

According to Mauro, Swiss technology pairs well with Italian taste: “In terms of gentlemen’s watches, we’re one of the leaders in taste and design. Whatever is working nicely in Italy will probably go as well in China and anywhere else.”

Fountain of China’s Harmony World Watch Centre did not mention Italian style, but she did say that she loved watches.

“Each brand gives me a different feeling,” she said, but her wrists were bare. Asked why, she confessed that she did not want to favour a particular brand – especially not at such a high-profile event as Baselworld.

Baselworld

The world’s top watch and jewellery fair opened in Basel on March 8, with 1,815 exhibitors from 41 countries taking part.

The Swiss watch industry is well represented, with 456 brands on show.

The fair, which lasts until March 15, is expected to attract some 100,000 visitors and 3,000 media representatives from around the world. Last year’s show saw over 103,000 visitors pass through the turnstiles.

It is the last time the fair is being presented in its current configuration. A new hall complex is currently under construction and will be ready for the 2013 Baselworld fair.

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Swiss exports

Despite the world economic downturn, the Swiss watch industry increased its exports 19.2 per cent to SFr19.3 billion ($21 billion) in 2011, including a 48 per cent rise in China.

For the Swiss economy as a whole, exports only increased 2.1 per cent last year to reach a value of SFr197.6 billion, but remained almost SFr9 billion below their 2008 level.

According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, the trend remained very pronounced throughout the year, with each month showing double-digit rises except for June.

While the steepest increases (above 30 per cent) were apparent in April and May 2011, the fourth quarter was the most favourable period with the three biggest months in the history of Swiss watch exports.

The three biggest markets were Hong Kong (more than 20 per cent of exports), the United States and China. Of the top 15 markets, only Italy and Spain failed to record double-digit growth.

The federation is confident that the market will continue to grow and that this year’s results will exceed those of 2011.

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