This year, China accounted for 7.8 percent of Swiss watch exports in terms of value, experts say
With the Chinese increasingly coveting European luxury goods, Swiss watchmakers are eyeing a huge new market for their wares, but disagree on the best way of capturing it.
The question being mulled by famous Swiss watch brands is whether to create more specialty editions aimed at appealing specifically to the Chinese or instead simply wait for fast-shifting Chinese tastes to adapt to European fashion.
At a Hublot workshop in Nyon, a small town set on the shores of Lake Geneva between Geneva and Lausanne, workers clad in white lab coats huddle around an extra slim watch conceived specially for the Chinese market.
As they carefully place the dainty hands on the titanium face, Hublot spokeswoman Anais Treand insists that the watch, priced at 14,300 Swiss francs ($15,100, 12,700 euros), will be a hit in China since it is "light and delicate".
This year, China accounted for 7.8 percent of Swiss watch exports in terms of value, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, and watchmakers claim there is plenty of room for expansion.
"My 32-year-old son has been over there for 10 years. He is beginning to have a good feel for Chinese trends," Hublot chief Jean-Claude Biver told AFP, nodding towards a jade-faced watch made with Chinese consumers in mind.
The company, which since 2008 belongs to French group LVMH, has decided to adapt to the Chinese with special marketing and products in a bid to capture a chunk of this massive potential market, he said.
Other brands have also jumped on the Chinese bandwagon, producing often very limited and exclusive models inspired by Chinese culture.
Geneva watchmaker Vacheron Constantin has thus just launched the "Legend of the Chinese Zodiac" -- a series of luxury timepieces based on a 12-year cycle beginning with the Year of the Snake.
Crafted in pink gold or platinum, two models have so far been issued in separate, limited 12-piece series: one with a blue water snake slithering across the face, and the other with a brown one symbolising the wood snake, whose next year won't come around until 2025.
In famous watchmaking city La Chaux-de-Fonds, in western Switzerland, Jaquet Droz has meanwhile just launched two limited series featuring two orange tigers and two yellow dragons hand-painted on off-white enamel baked at more than 800 degrees Celsius -- a traditional Chinese technique.
"These kinds of pieces are very successful in Asia, but not only there," said Jenna Racine, a spokeswoman for the brand, which has a long history of catering to Chinese desires; back in the 18th century it was the first to ever import watches into the Forbidden City.
But others in the industry caution against pandering to Chinese tastes, which they say are changing quickly.
"The extreme focus on China is dangerous," said Thierry Stern, the head of Geneva watchmaker Patek Philippe, in an interview with Swiss daily Le Temps earlier this year.
Biver of Hublot agreed that "you shouldn't adapt too much to (the Chinese), because when they evolve, you won't be on their wavelength any longer."
While his brand was making specialty watches for the Chinese, he said, such special models accounted for just a couple of the around 100 new Hublot models created each year.
According to Marc Hayek, the head of Blancpain, another brand belonging to Swatch, future sales depend not only on the Chinese market itself but also on wealthy Chinese tourists abroad.
"In that area, there has been more progress than we would have thought," he told AFP.
Swiss financial daily Handelszeitung has for instance calculated that each Chinese tourist visiting the central Swiss city of Lucern -- around 90,000 last year alone -- spends an average of 2,000 Swiss francs on Swiss watches.
Hayek, the grandson of Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek, is himself wearing a Blancpain watch specially made for the Chinese, crafted in platinum and equipped with a traditional Chinese calendar and hours, one of which corresponds to 120 minutes, along with Zodiac symbols and lunar phases.
But despite his own delicate timepiece worth 82,000 Swiss francs, he insists catering to Chinese tastes should be undertaken with care, since watches should "remain truly 100 percent within the DNA of the brand".
Heyek said he would never have agreed to simply decorating watches with drawings of Chinese animals, but had given his consent to specialty Chinese models that themselves were technically revolutionary and required years of research to develop.
While Swiss watchmakers face off against each other, the biggest threat to their Chinese ambitions may just come from within the country.
In a recent interview with Swiss trade publication Watch Around, Bruce Du, who heads Chinese watch brand FIYTA, stressed his company was focusing heavily on producing luxury watches with quality matching the famous Swiss brands.
And with its recent purchase of Geneva brand Montres Chouriet, FIYTA may just have the means to be a fierce competitor.