Piaget banks on most luxurious of luxury watches

GENEVA (Reuters) - Rising demand for million-dollar watches has prompted Piaget to expand the range of products it offers at the top end of the market, its chief executive said on Tuesday.

The luxury watch and jewelry maker owned by Richemont already sells 20 to 25 watches a year costing more than 1 million Swiss francs ($825,000), mainly to customers in Russia, Asia and the Middle East, Philippe Leopold-Metzger told reporters during a presentation of Piaget’s new products at a Geneva industry fair.

Those wanting to buy the most luxurious of luxury watches, such as the 3-million-franc Piaget Emperador, a 106-carat diamond watch unveiled at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, are often young and tend to own several high-end items, he said.

“They are people around the world who have a lot of money, and they want a product that is distinctive,” he said, noting that mainland China accounts for a quarter of Piaget’s business and many of the brand’s key clients are in their early 30s.

Asked if he was concerned such cash-rich clientele could disappear if global market conditions darken, the Piaget chief said he thought demand for the most expensive luxury goods had not yet peaked. “I think it will grow,” he said.

In a research note released on Tuesday, the British bank HSBC said luxury goods brands were still enjoying exceptionally strong sales though results would likely cool from the sector’s buoyant run that extended through 2005 and 2006.

Foreign exchange shifts, including the recent weakening of the dollar and other major currencies against the euro, could well affect luxury goods companies such as Richemont and Swatch, as well as Bulgari, HSBC said.

Leopold-Metzger said sales so far in 2007 represented “very very easily double-digit growth” over the same period last year but declined to offer any figures ahead of a trading statement due on April 24.

The Swiss-based parent company, whose watch and jewelry brands also include Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Van Cleef & Arpels, is due to release full-year results on May 24.

Piaget’s 2007 collection includes sparkling watches, rings and necklaces designed after vinyl records, poker chips, and dice, as well as classical designs such as ultra-thin watches and watches with multiple faces for frequent travelers.

While the most expensive models are of increasing importance to the brand -- Leopold-Metzger called them “a nice part of the business, definitely” -- Piaget is also expanding its cheaper items, priced from 4,500 francs, he said.

Piaget runs 46 retail shops, and plans to open 10 more this year in locations including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Las Vegas and Russia.