Luxury watches seek solace in glamour of bygone eras

GENEVA Thu Jan 19, 2012 7:02am EST

Watches are pictured at the Jaeger-LeCoultre booth at the ''Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie'' at Palexpo in Geneva January 18, 2011.   REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

Watches are pictured at the Jaeger-LeCoultre booth at the ''Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie'' at Palexpo in Geneva January 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Valentin Flauraud

GENEVA (Reuters) - Simple elegance for debt-ridden Europe, glitzy diamonds and gold for booming Asia.

The pieces being unveiled by Switzerland's luxury watchmakers at the Geneva watch fair harked back to bygone eras with classic shapes, roman numerals and a good dash of gold to lend a sheen to troubled economic and political times.

"The high-end watch industry has a duty to make the world smile," Richard Mille, the founder and CEO of Richard Mille watches, told Reuters.

With 1920/30s fashion on the catwalks ahead of the cinema release of "The Great Gatsby", king of jewelers Cartier presented its first pocket watch in years, a limited edition 18-carat white gold piece with matching chain and stand.

Less of a trinket to be carried around and more an object of desire to be displayed proudly on a desk, the Cartier pocket watch is limited to 10 pieces.

Cartier declined to comment on how much the piece would retail for, saying it was priced on demand only. Watch blogs speculated it could be anywhere upwards of 500,000 euros ($640,800).

Many brands delved through their back catalogues from the 1940s and 50s for inspiration while Parmigiani, a newcomer among high-end watch brands , said a desire for old-style glamour meant its quietly elegant designs were proving more popular than ever.

"We lost out previously because we weren't so 'bling bling' but now consumers are returning to what is more simple and more discreet," the brand's CEO told Reuters.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER

Moving on from all that talk of simplicity and classic lines, there is still plenty for those who like their luxury to be a little more overt.

At Cartier, the dazzle from precious stones adorning its range of 31 jewelry items with hidden watches was almost blinding.

And despite soaring prices for both diamonds and gold, there was no shortage of either in Geneva, with brands saying Asian customers were keen on such pieces.

"We've made a lot of products with diamonds, because the demand is there," Jean-Marc Pontroue of Roger Dubuis, whose watches start from around 13,000 Swiss francs ($13,800), told Reuters.

Piaget unveiled a one-off version of its Emperador Coussin XL model at the show, the watch's face and strap sparkling with 876 baguette-cut diamonds and 983 brilliant-cut diamonds, and said the piece was more likely to go to an Asian customer, rather than someone in Europe.

Luxury growth was driven predominantly by Asia in 2011, but experts see growth in China slowing this year, and brands were quick to point out they were not just sending everything to Asia.

"We cannot deliver to only one country, we will wait until the end of the week to see who will benefit from our pieces," Girard Perregaux CEO Stefano Macaluso said.

Although the brands were keen to emphasize they create pieces for a global audience, there was no denying the influence of Asia on many watches at the fair.

Designs in enamel, a technique that has long been popular in China, were on show at Vacheron Constantin and Van Cleef & Arpels, while Cartier also unveiled a watch with an enameled dragon motif in the traditional Chinese colors of red and black.

SAILING AWAY

Finally, for those wanting to get away from it all on their yacht, or for those seeking an unusual work of art for dry land, Montblanc has the answer for 290,000 euros.

The Regulateur Nautique set consists of a chunky free-standing navigational clock, complete with display stand for a matching wristwatch in either red or white gold.

No shrinking violet, the navigational clock weighs 120 kg (265 lb, is 93 cm (37 inches) tall and 56 cm (22 inches) in diameter. It stands on a heavy granite base and the clock itself tilts to keep it stable in rough seas.

The stand also includes a display case for the wristwatch , a safe-haven to secure it in stormy weather, a sentiment many in Europe will surely appreciate.

($1 = 0.7802 euros)

($1 = 0.9436 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan, Nathalie Olof-Ors and Caroline Copley, editing by Paul Casciato)

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