Watchmakers meet in Geneva to try to nurture recovery

Jean-Christophe Babin, the boss of Bulgari

Luxury watchmakers Bulgari and Breitling and a handful of Swiss brands are gathering in Geneva this week for a scaled-down industry exhibition, braving the coronavirus pandemic to try to revitalise demand.

The big Swiss watch fairs in Basel and Geneva, which usually attract thousands of visitors, were cancelled earlier this year because of the virus. This week’s gathering, the first of what will be known as Geneva Watch Days, will be very different. Instead of using a big exhibition centre, the event will be spread over a number of the city’s luxury hotels.

Jean-Christophe Babin, the boss of Bulgari, who devised the new format to help to “rekindle the flame”, said the new setting along with strict hygiene rules would help to prevent infection.

“It is important to physically meet our customers,” Babin told Reuters in an phone interview. “We hope the event will help us gain market share.” “This is sending a strong signal that we are determined to grow whatever happens.”

Bulgari expects about 60 retailers and 100 journalists, bloggers and influencers to attend.

Demand for luxury watches has collapsed during the pandemic as the Chinese, the industry’s biggest customers, could not travel or shop.

Swiss watch exports plunged 68% in May, but the downturn slowed in June and July as mainland Chinese started shopping again. But Babin said global demand was not back to pre-crisis levels with the virus still very present in North and Latin America. South Korea and mainland China had rebounded nicely, but not enough to make up for declines in America and Europe, he said.

Georges Kern, CEO of Breitling, said on a webcast on Wednesday: “Luckily we are now seeing some of our markets return to a new normal and sales are bouncing back as well.”

Edouard Meylan, chief executive of H.Moser & Cie, said sales of his brand were only down 2% so far this year and demand was encouraging, but he was worried about some of his suppliers.

“We depend on suppliers for cases, dials, straps, and some of them could go out of business because big brands cut their orders, also for next year,” he said.

Babin said Bulgari might buy strategic suppliers, notably in jewellery, if that became necessary.

Rapidly changing quarantine rules in Europe have had an impact on this week’s event.

Babin said visitors from Spain and Belgium had cancelled due to quarantine regulations. But retailers and media from elsewhere in Europe were coming, plus also quite a few people from the United Arab Emirates.

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