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BaselWorld 2012: Swiss watch industry poised for another record-breaking year

By Jacquie De Almeida

Cindy Livingston glides about the Guess/Gc booth, moving from case to case as she describes the main features of the lines’ newest watches. She has them down pat, and can elaborate effortlessly when asked about a certain design or why the choice of a particular material. Prices come just as easily to the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Sequel, the brands’ worldwide distributor. You can tell she’s done this before, and still enjoys it.

A fellow journalist interrupts a product presentation to say hello, quickly letting Livingston know he will come by the next day. It’s pretty clear she will not refuse him, despite the seemingly never-ending appointments booked for BaselWorld 2012, the event many exhibitors here consider the most important selling opportunity of the year.

On the heels of a record-breaking year for Swiss watch exports, 2012 appears to be off to an equally good start, with more than 104,000 people gathering for BaselWorld. The collective hope is it will build on 2011’s momentum, a banner year for Swiss watches.

According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), exports reached nearly 19.3 billion CHF ($20.7 billion Cdn), surpassing the previous year’s results by 19.2 per cent. The number of watches leaving Switzerland also saw a marked increase of 13.8 per cent to nearly 30 million pieces.

Addressing the international press, Jacques J. Duchêne, chair of the exhibitors’ committee, emphasized the growth happened against a backdrop of continued economic problems in Europe, the overvaluation of the Swiss franc, and uncertainties in regions experiencing political instability or conflict.

“2011 was a historic year for the Swiss watch industry, which is not simply something to be put down to chance,” Duchêne said. “It is true that demand was very buoyant in Asia, but the watch industry has built up a good reputation in all the emerging countries and succeeded in creating demand, especially in the luxury-products segment.”

Duchêne credited growth in certain markets to watch companies investing in people and resources to create new sales opportunities, distribution networks, training facilities, and customer service centres. The word of the past three years—’adaptability’—is one many used to describe ongoing efforts to remain profitable and ensure demand for Swiss watches remains high.

“More than ever before in history, this industry is experiencing a thorough transformation,” Duchêne said. “The concentration of manufacturing capability, as well as distribution, is well on the way to causing radical change in the habits of our sectors. Each and every one must be aware of this new reality and continue to display flexibility, creativity, and competence to be able to adapt to this situation in the years to come. In an ever-more globalized economy, we must be champions of change, whilst retaining our particularities. This is, without doubt, one of the keys to maintaining our success in the future, too.”

The growth experienced by the Swiss watch industry mirrored somewhat the changes taking place at BaselWorld itself, now in its 40th year. Work continues on updating the fair grounds and increasing exhibition space. The first phase of the project saw 2500 tonnes of steel and 7300 tonnes of concrete turned into part of what will become a new three-storey hall measuring 420 m in length and creating 141,000 m2 of exhibition space. Crews suspended construction during the show, but work resumed in April, with the start of phase two and the demolition of the front of the old main entrance and Hall 3. Work will be completed by the start of BaselWorld 2013.

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