- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2011

BASEL, SWITZERLAND (AP) - 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 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 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,” conceded Michele Orfeo, head of marketing for Swiss watchmaker Balmain, part of the Swatch Group, which targets women who would pay $200 to $2,000 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 who come 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 and $3,000-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 is 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.

What’s hot this year, said Tissot CEO Francois Thiebaud, are classic designs of the 1950s and 1960s, Art Deco from the 1920s and 1930s, smaller, rounder models, steel and gold, and dials stripped to essentials but still finely worked.

Inside the convention center, the Hall of Dreams, Hall of Desires and other similarly named halls brimmed with multistory 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 invested in and now helps manage the tiny Swiss watchmaker Urban Juergensen & Soenner.

Crott said there’s “some kind of mythic thing” about well-made watches but smartphones play to a different crowd. He also said tough times might be affecting high-end watch buyers in ways harder to see.

“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 Swiss francs ($27,500 to $660,000), 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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