Geneva’s Luxury Watch Fairs Enjoy Record Sales

About a dozen luxury watch shows, presentations, and exhibitions were held April 3–9 in Geneva. A center for fine watchmaking since the 1700s, the city more recently has become an important annual stage for new creations and innovations in Swiss hautehorlogerie, especially by smaller watchmakers.

The best known and oldest is the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, which launched in 1990. It stars 16 of the world’s top luxury brands, and its importance to Swiss watchmaking was underscored at this year’s opening by the presence of several top regional and federal government officials as well as the chairman of the Swiss Watchmaking Federation. But SIHH’s growing importance has in recent years generated additional events in Geneva by other watchmakers, which are held simultaneously with SIHH to capitalize on its press attention and foreign retail visitors. That was noted by Franco Cologni, former executive chairman of Cartier International and chairman of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, organizer of SIHH. Because it can’t increase its current area or exhibitors—“though tomorrow, who knows,” he said—other prestigious brands that can’t get in “have erected permanent or makeshift buildings around the walls of our city [SIHH],” he said at SIHH 2006.

It isn’t only small watchmakers taking advantage of SIHH. It has become such “a pole of attraction” for clients and makers of fine watches and the press covering them that this year “a great emperor from the north of Switzerland” came to town, Cologni said slyly. He was referring to the Swatch Group, the world’s largest watchmaker, whose luxury brands include Blancpain, Breguet, Glashütte, Jaquet Droz, and Léon Hatot. Swatch not only opened its new City of Time exhibit center in Geneva during SIHH but also held its annual press conference to announce fiscal-year results for the first time in Geneva. “I welcome him, and hope this won’t be an invasion, but the start of a neighborly relationship,” said Cologni.

Here’s a recap of Geneva’s spring fairs.

SIHH

The 16th SIHH, held at Geneva’s Palexpo convention center, enjoyed its largest attendance yet, along with healthy business results.

An 11 percent increase in visitors (about 13,000, including 1,300 journalists) boosted business and sparked what the postshow report called the “ambient optimism” of visitors and exhibitors in its crowded halls. While the participating brands don’t release sales results, “overall business was very good,” Anne Biéler, spokeswoman for the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, told JCK.

“The prestigious watchmaking trend is particularly positive at the moment,” Cologni said. “As long as analysts’ graphs and gurus’ reflections continue to be optimistic, records will be broken year on year.” Using Swiss Watchmaking Federation figures, he noted that in addition to record exports, Swiss watchmakers in 2005 produced 1.8 million luxury watches with a retail price of 5,000 Swiss francs or more, a 10 percent increase, and a total value of 7.5 billion Swiss francs, a 17 percent gain. Even more impressive, 650,000 watches retailing for 10,000 Swiss francs or more were produced, a 25 percent increase, for a value of 4.9 billion Swiss francs, a 24 percent increase.

Though Western Europe provides most visitors to the trade-only event, SIHH is “taking on a multicultural dimension,” noted its post-show report. Retailers and suppliers from the Americas and the Middle East have increased participation, said Cologni, who also cited fresh impetus in attendance from China, Eastern Europe, India, and Russia.

Eleven of SIHH’s 16 exhibitors are owned by Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods group that launched SIHH. They include A. Dunhill Ltd., A. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Officine Panerai, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, and Van Cleef & Arpels. The rest—Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, Jean Richard, Parmigiani, and Roger Dubuis—are well-known independent brands or owned by other companies.

A number of debuts marked anniversaries, including Jaeger-LeCoultre’s titanium Reverso Squadra world chronograph, for the 75th anniversary of the watch; Montblanc’s Star Chrono GMT perpetual calendar, with the brand’s patented logo diamond on its crown, to mark Montblanc’s 100th anniversary; and Van Cleef & Arpels’s Lady Arpels Centenaire, with a revolving painted dial representing the four seasons, for its centenary.

Other highlights included Piaget’s Polo Tourbillon Relatif, with its tourbillon on the end of the minute hand; Vacheron Constantin’s limited-edition Skeleton minute repeater, with a 3.28 mm movement, the slimmest in the world; and A. Dunhill’s A-Centric Pantograph, with five hands (including a second time zone), driven from the dial’s center.

FRANCK MULLER GROUP

The ninth World Presentation of Haute Horlogerie of the Franck Muller Group, one of the better-known luxury watchmakers and a growing miniconglomerate, reported “record sales” for its five luxury brands: Franck Muller, Pierre Kunz, ECW (European Company Watch), Rodolphe watches and jewelry, and Alexis Barthelay.

The last two, acquired in 2005, had exhibited in BaselWorld but moved to WPHH this year. To accommodate them, the Group added 1,200 square meters to its exhibition area (for 3,600) at its headquarters and main production site on Lake Geneva, outside the city.

Sales turnover at this year’s WPHH rose 15 percent for the Franck Muller brand, and more than doubled for Rodolphe and Alexis Barthelay (compared with results at past BaselWorlds). Pierre Kunz’s sales increased 30 percent, and ECW was up 20 percent. World premieres included the Franck Muller Aeternitas, which has 16 complications, including a 999-year perpetual calendar.

During its seven days, WPHH welcomed more than 5,500 visitors, a gain of over 25 percent, and about 450 international journalists. “What started as a ‘Let’s give it a try’ experience [in 1997] has become a masterpiece,” said a clearly satisfied Vartan Sirmakes, chief executive officer of the Franck Muller Group.

TIME EVOLUTION

The second annual edition of Time Evolution, featuring a number of Geneva’s small luxury watchmakers and jewelry manufacturers that couldn’t get into BaselWorld or SIHH, drew 1,450 visitors, 40 percent more than for 2005’s maiden event. Those included not only industry professionals (distributors, retailers, suppliers, and journalists) but also many private enthusiasts.

This year’s show featured 16 exhibitors—a gain of five— including Alexis Garin, Burgond, Cédric Johner, Fabien Ettori, Golay Spierer, Georges Daniel Rémy, Instruments & Mesures du Temps, Jean-Pierre Lépine, La Manufacture CSC, Luna’s, Olivier Roux, petit chaperon noir, Prano, Veni Vidi Vici, West End, and Zandidoust. Most said they met their targets for the event in terms of sales, contacts, or brand promotion. For a few, it was their first significant contact with sales professionals and the public. Overall, said a postshow report, it was “an encouraging second edition.”

Unlike SIHH, Time Evolution was free and open to anyone. Visitors saw not only some impressive limited editions and original creations by both known craftsmen and young talents but also ongoing demonstrations of watchmaking and jewelry creation.

A third Time Evolution is planned for 2007, most likely again in the Event Center, above the Ramada Encore Hotel in Geneva.

MONTRES JOURNE S.A.

François Paul Journe, one of Geneva’s best-known luxury watchmakers, received a high honor—the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of France—at his annual press conference preceding the four-day exhibition at his watchmaking facility. Nicolas Mettra, Frances’s consul general in Geneva, presented the award to Journe, who was born in France, on behalf of the French minister of culture.

Calling Journe’s career “an exemplary success story,” Mettra cited his “passion for watchmaking,” which began years ago in the Parisian workshop of his uncle; his “quest for quality”; and his “defense of ancient techniques reinvented in the light of today’s technology.”

Journe made a presentation of his own—one of his Tourbillon Souverains to Geneva’s Musée de l’Horlogerie et de l’Émaillerie to help rebuild its collections, which robbers decimated in 2002.

He then showed his Sonnerie Souveraine, the result of six years’ research and 10 patents. (A grande sonnerie, the most complex of watch complications, chimes hours, quarter-hours and—on demand—minutes elapsed since the last quarter-hour.) Journe will produce three to five a year. The first has been delivered to a Portuguese collector.

The company makes about 800 watches annually, but Journe plans to increase that somewhat, as a result of international demand.

OTHER LUXURY WATCHMAKERS

Other companies and brands that held events in Geneva to pre-sent their high-end watches included Bovet; HD3 (the new brand of watch designer Jorg Hysek and two associates); Jean Dunand, a new brand in its second year; Cvstos, whose U.S. distributor, Hratch Kaprielian, also handles Franck Muller; Antoine Preziuso’s, for his sixth Geneva exhibition; and Swiss brand Michel Jordi.