The city of Basel becomes the watch and jewellery capital of the world this week, hosting the glitter and glamour of the annual Baselworld exhibition.
The event is the world’s leading meeting place for specialists in watches, jewellery and precious gems, and this year looks set to give a further boost to the luxury sector.
"This exhibition is of significant importance for both national and international economies," commented Jacques Duchêne, president of the exhibitors’ committee.
"Very significant revenues are achieved and they are of the highest importance to the Swiss economy," he added.
Baselworld generates no fewer than 800,000 overnight stays in hotels between the French city of Strasbourg and Zurich, with 30,000 staff needed to get the event up and running.
Almost 2,200 exhibitors from 45 countries will be in Basel to show what they have been creating over the past 12 months.
But Duchêne warned on the eve of the official opening on Thursday that it is not the aim of the organisers to increase exhibition space.
"On the contrary, what we want is to increase the quality of both our exhibitors and their products," he said.
Sylvie Ritter, the show’s director, explained that the exhibition area of 160,000 square metres would allow exhibitors to "showcase products that have been the stuff of dreams for centuries".
While watches are traditionally the centrepieces of the show, the precious stone and pearl sector now has a suitably sumptuous area for products that embody refinement in the new Hall of Elements.
"For several months the watchmakers and jewellers have been creating new pieces, dreaming up original shapes, movements that will go down in history, awe-inspiring jewels," she said.
But while Swiss watch exports reached a record level of SFr11.1 billion ($9.28 billion) in 2004 and the boom has continued so far this year, there are words of caution.
"We must not be carried away by euphoria, nor must we gloat," commented Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
"We know that export figures are not sales figures and that the weakness of the dollar erodes the margins of our businesses."
"We can nevertheless be satisfied by developments over the past 12 months and confident in the future of our sector," he added.
Pasche said the watchmaking business relied on events like Basel to encourage potential customers not only to buy a watch, but a Swiss watch.
"We know that our customers are fickle and idiosyncratic, and while objectively we may have the best products, this point still needs driving home," he said.
"Such exhibitions are the baptism of fire for many collections and on them ride the hopes and fears of their creators."
"For products like watches, which convey an intrinsically emotional appeal, promotional events are a must," he added.
To prove this point, another watch fair is opening its doors to retailers and wholesalers from all over the world at the other end of Switzerland in Geneva.
The exhibition by the Richemont group and its allies takes place from April 4-10, featuring such luxury brand names as Cartier, Piaget, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin.
"Ninety per cent of Swiss production is presented in Basel," explained Baselworld’s Ritter. "We have very good relations with the exhibition in Geneva. There is no competition. We complement each other."
Baselworld will no doubt, like every year, attract its fair share of sports and Hollywood stars who come to "sell" the brands that sponsor them to the outside world.
But the show’s management is not allowed to say who is coming or even at what time.
swissinfo with agencies
Baselworld and the Geneva exhibition are not open to the public, only to retailers and wholesalers.
Many new collections will be on display in both cities.
Baselworld has a total of 2,197 watch and jewellery exhibitors who will present their latest models and collections.
About 90,000 visitors are expected to visit the Basel show, which runs from March 31 to April 7.
Swiss exports of watches and movements reached a record SFr11.1 billion ($9.28 billion) in 2004, up 9.2% on the previous year.
The value of Swiss watchmaking exports in January and February was SFr1.51 billion, up 13.3% over the first two months of 2004.
Figures released by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry are values of exports and do not represent actual sales.
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