Mar 30, 2022
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Geneva watch show returns under shadow of Ukraine war

Mar 30, 2022

Switzerland's top luxury watch fair will resurface this week in Geneva after two years of pandemic-induced virtual shows, but Ukraine's raging conflict and Covid lockdowns in China could dampen the mood.

Photo: Patek Philippe - DR

The Watches and Wonders show, taking place from Wednesday until April 5, will this year see 38 of the biggest high-end watch brands, including Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier and Tag Heuer, gathered under one roof.

"We are extremely happy to have succeeded in setting up this major fine-watchmaking event in a difficult health and human context," Emmanuel Perrin, head of the Foundation High Horology (FHH) said in a statement.

"After two years of pandemic and 100 percent digital editions, it was important to be able to gather again the main actors of our industry."

High-end watch fairs have long been a fixture in Switzerland, where nearly 57,500 people work in the country's world-renowned watchmaking industry.

Many retailers make an annual trip to Switzerland during the fair season to put in orders for the year.

But in the digital age, this show has also become a precious communications tool for reaching watch fans, with videos and presentations from the event available to all online.

- Triumphant return? -

The 2022 edition, being held in Geneva's Palexpo conference centre, had been expected to signal the triumphant return of in-person hobnobbing over exquisite timepieces, and booming business for their creators.

After taking a beating during the first pandemic year in 2020, when exports plunged 21.8 percent, the Swiss watchmaking industry saw a spectacular rebound last year.

Watch exports soared 31.2 percent in 2021, according to Swiss customs, surpassing not only their pre-pandemic level, but also the record-high of 2014.

And during the first two months of this year, exports swelled nearly 15.7 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

But the devastating conflict in Ukraine has put a damper on the jubilant mood.

At first glance, Russia's invasion should not have much impact on the industry.

Russia represented only 1.1 percent of Swiss watch exports last year, and a number of brands halted their exports to the country even before luxury goods were included in the European sanctions imposed over the war.

- 'Strong shape' -

However, the sector is heavily dependent on tourism and on consumer confidence, both now dealt a fresh blow after two years of Covid chaos.

And Russia also happens to be a major supplier of diamonds, gold and other precious metals used by high-end watchmakers.

Ongoing large-scale Covid lockdowns in China -- one of the biggest markets for Swiss watches -- has also cast a shadow over the industry and this week's show.

Some analysts have already lowered their 2022 forecasts.

Jon Cox, a top industry analyst with the Kepler Cheuvreux financial services company, recently slashed his outlook for the year from eight-percent growth to five, pointing to the drop in sales in Russia and on wealthy Russians travelling abroad -- plus the conflict's impact on European clients as a whole.

"Psychologically, when you have a war on the doorstep you are probably less likely to go out and buy luxury goods," he said.

However, he insisted Swiss watchmakers still had a lot to celebrate.

"Excluding what's happening in Ukraine, the watch industry is in very strong shape," he said, "probably the strongest it's been for decade or so".

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