Fashion of the time: Swiss watchmakers are maintaining their reputation for luxury watches and remain world market leaders in terms of export value. But they will be scouting out the foreign competition as Baselworld Watch and Jewellery Show kicks off at the Basel Messe, March 31 to April 7.

AuteurMeen, Elizabeth
Fonction Business

It's one of the largest watch and jewellery shows in the world. And even though you can't buy anything, rumour has it that up to half of global wholesale business is generated during these eight days. About 2200 exhibitors from 44 countries come for a glimpse of what's new and different.

Fashion Over Quality

The Swiss may be especially interested in the competition these days. Some analysts say Swiss watches--the country's third largest industry, worth 11 billion CHF last year--could be relegated to a niche market by a global trend to fashion over quality. These days, most people are said to own about lour watches--more than ever before. And they are being wooed by the millions by mass producers in Asia, where labour is cheap and the watches, cheaper.

Decline In Production

The number of watches produced in Switzerland has fallen to a critical point since 1999, to 25 million CHF a year from 31 million. Declining production likely signals the industry's continuing respect for a time-consuming creative process in fine watches, while the lower end of the market, representing watches worth less than 250 CHF, lags under the pressure of intense competition. A Swiss watchmaker's 60 employees might produce 700 watches a year, investing several weeks or months in a creation. Apprentices can train for eight months just to master a beginner model.

Works Of Art

Seasoned buyers typically greet the watches as works of art. Consider the creative appeal of Switzerland's Franck Muller's, Long Island Crazy Numbers Watch, in which numbers on the face are out of order; the hour hand jumps around, seeming to dash madly into the new position as each hour changes.

Created as a visual illustration that times change--literally--Muller says he wanted to encourage people to question traditions and assumptions. The prototype took 18 months to perfect using repeated computer simulations, "and it's been one of our more successful models," marketing spokeswoman Nadine Brodin tells Swiss News.

People pay five figure sums for those Crazy Numbers. But given the buying trends, industry analysts have said the Swiss watch industry must also sense the lower end of the market to remain a market leader in 10 years. Some have warned that current production must not be allowed to decline further.

The Watch Wars

Despite their international reputation, Swiss watchmakers are no strangers to these kinds of warning bells. Back in the 1970s, they were dragged into a war for survival after...

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