Watchmakers compete for the young, old and rich

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By JOHN HEILPRIN
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 7:47 AM

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

Baselworld, which opened Thursday and runs through the end of the month, is offering a new app to help people navigate a labyrinth of luxury watches, jewelry and other items shown by 1,892 exhibitors from 45 nations in 1.7 million square feet (160,000 square meters) of convention space.

The app highlights what everyone, particularly texting teenagers and Web-savvy 20-somethings, knows. The time posted is 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, the trend 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 ($222 to $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 are aimed at serious money.

Hublot of Geneva is offering a $3 million diamond watch that truly is one of a kind - just 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 the expected 100,000 visitors to Baselworld can order upscale models like the $35,900 Omega Ladymatic or the $23,000 Breguet Type XXII 10 Hertz chronograph.

More broadly, Swiss watchmakers say, they are seeing particularly fast growth in the 200-500 franc ($222-$555) and 3,000-plus franc ($3,330-plus) price ranges. And business is good, they say, despite the uprisings in the Arab world and the earthquake and tsumani 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.


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© 2011 The Associated Press

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