BASEL, Switzerland — The world's biggest watch fair is set to open in an optimistic mood, with Swiss watchmakers -- the industry's barometer -- expecting 2012 demand to beat 2011's, when exports hit a record.
"The watchmaking sector is probably a unique case," said Jacques Duchene, who heads the exhibitors' committee of the Baselworld fair, which opens Thursday.
A day ahead of the show, Francois Thiebaud, who heads the Swiss exhibitors' committee, said that "if exports reach between 20 and 25 billion francs in 2012, we would be satisfied."
Swiss exports reached a record 19.3 billion francs (11.5 billion euros) in 2011, soaring 19.2 percent from a year earlier.
Thiebaud said that the pace of growth was likely to be slower than in 2011, adding that "if growth approaches two digits, that would be good."
Demand in January was encouraging and February "looks good" thanks to Chinese New Year, he said, adding that even if the global economic outlook appeared tough, "the potential of Swiss watchmaking is still there."
"There are still good markets, notably in Asia and emerging countries," he added.
These markets have helped the sector resist consecutive economic crises, which have hit developped markets the hardest.
Swiss exports to Asia alone exceeded 10 billion francs in 2011, just over half of the year's revenues.
According to the company Digital Luxury Group, China has become the biggest market for the luxury watch industry, topping US demand.
Thanks to Asian appetite, Swiss giant Swatch posted record sales of 7.1 billion Swiss francs (5.8 billion euros, $7.4 billion) in 2011 and saw a 18.1 percent jump in net profit to 1.3 billion francs
The Bienne-based giant, owner of numerous brands such as Omega and Tissot, said 2012 had got off to a similarly good start with double-digit growth in January in February, although for the full year the figure is expected to even out to between five and 10 percent.
Some 1,815 exhibitors, including leading brands Rolex, Chopard and Omega, from 41 countries are showcasing their latest creations at the Baselworld fair.
A highlight of this year's event is Swiss brand Hublot's $5 million watch -- the show's most expensive and encrusted with 1,282 diamonds, including six stones which are more than three carats each.
It took over 14 months of work to mount the diamonds -- totalling 140 carats -- on the white gold watch strap, said the firm.
Hublot chairman Jean-Claude Biver believes that it would be hard to make a more expensive watch than that.
"It will be more difficult to go further because the surface of the watch is limited," he explained.
About 100,000 visitors are expected at the show which opens to the public Thursday and closes on March 15.
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