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Watchmakers compete for the young, old and rich

EVEN the world's biggest trade fair for watches can't seem to avoid subtly encouraging the use of an alternative timekeeping device favored by younger - and often bare-wristed - consumers: the smartphone.

Baselworld, which took place last month, offered a new app to help people navigate a labyrinth of luxury watches, jewelry and other items shown by 1,892 exhibitors from 45 nations at the event.

The app highlights what everyone, particularly texting teenagers and Web-savvy 20-somethings, knows. The time is posted everywhere: on radios, ovens, microwaves, banks, train stations, street corners and especially on phones. All of which makes it harder to make the case for the traditional wristwatch.

"Now the tendency to go to these kind of devices is very high," said Michele Orfeo, head of marketing for Swiss watchmaker Balmain, part of the Swatch Group, which targets women who would pay 200 to 2,000 Swiss francs (US$222-2,220) for a watch.

So to compete for young people, as with any potential segment of watch-wearers, a watch maker must have a price, a style, even a mood in mind.

"We all have a certain segment and price range, and an image," Orfeo said. "What we sell is not just a watch, but kind of an elegance. They're all having a certain territory of emotion. Everyone can find something where they feel good and at ease, when they're wearing these."

Many of the watches displayed in Basel were aimed at serious money.

Hublot of Geneva offered a US$3 million diamond watch that truly is one of a kind - only one made. The company says it took 13,000 hours to fashion the diamonds, all taken from a Russian mine in Yakutsk, into a 141-carat tourbillon with 637 baguette diamonds and one rose-cut diamond on the crown.

Dealers among visitors to Baselworld could order upscale models such as the US$35,900 Omega Ladymatic or the US$23,000 Breguet Type XXII 10 Hertz chronograph.

More broadly, Swiss watchmakers say, they are seeing particularly fast growth in the 200-500 franc and 3,000-plus franc price ranges. And business is good, they say, despite the uprisings in the Arab world and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, one of the world's biggest buyers of luxury high-tech goods.

The mood was upbeat yet somber.

"We have experienced the months gone by as an alternation of major, unforeseeable upheavals and shocks," said Jacques J. Duchene, who chairs a committee representing Baselworld's 627 watchmakers, 736 jewelry traders and 529 other exhibitors.

"Despite that, the watch and jewelry industry can look back on a truly remarkable year, and the indicators continue to remain excellent," he said.

Baselworld draws watchmakers from around the world including China, Japan, France, Germany and the US.

Starting in the 1970s, Japan's mass-produced watches took a huge bite out of Swiss exports and employment in the Alpine nation's watchmaking sector fell sharply. Then Switzerland struck back in the 1980s, with stylish watches that contained quartz movements plus batteries.

The Swiss watchmaking industry's 16 billion francs in exports last year makes it by far the world's largest in terms of value. But in terms of units sold, Chinese and Hong Kong watchmakers sell hundreds of millions more units than Swiss, German, French and US manufacturers combined, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

Inside the convention center, halls brimmed with extravagant displays for the likes of Breguet, Breitling, Chopard, Omega, Patek Philippe and Rolex.

But there's a difference between luxury and quality, said Dr. Helmut Crott of Luxembourg, a German orthopedic surgeon-turned-watch consultant, who helps manage the tiny Swiss watchmaker Urban Juergensen & Soenner.

Crott said there's "some kind of mythic thing" about well-made watches and smartphones play to a different crowd.

"It's more than an accessory. It's between an object of art, of value, of giving from one generation to the other," he said. "I think with the financial crisis, people are more discreet again. They don't want to show so much what they have."

His company aims to sell only a few hundred of their classic handmade watches a year, ranging from 25,000 to 600,000 francs, he said, but that's just fine by him. The mechanical watches are meant to last for decades, sometimes more than a century, even if they can't compete with the precision of atomic clocks.

"The watch was a symbol for the universe," he said. "There's something magical or mystical in it. I mean, I'm fascinated by it."


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