By and  on December 22, 2008

Geneva-based Rolex SA is no longer a family affair.The luxury watchmaker last week named Bruno Meier as head of management, replacing Patrick Heiniger, who retired from his position of managing director and chief executive officer last Tuesday. Heiniger had held the position since 1992, when he took the reins from his father, Andre. The younger Heiniger will continue to be associated with the company in a consulting capacity, but his retirement effectively ends 50 years of the brand being overseen by a member of the Heiniger family.Press reports after Heiniger’s retirement announcement last week linked his stepping down to involvement with the Bernard L. Madoff affair, which the company denied.Meier joined Rolex in 2005 as director of finance. He will be responsible for running the luxury Swiss watch firm’s business along with the board of directors and the management of Rolex SA.The company said the brand saw record sales this year. In June, the company opened a 4,320-square-foot Milan flagship dedicated to the brand, designed by architect Claudio Monti and Rolex’s interior designers. The store houses 200 Rolex styles, plus the $630,000 GMT Ice men’s watch entirely covered in top-quality white diamonds.But while Rolex remains the world’s largest luxury watch brand, it, like others in the sector, faces significant challenges in the year ahead. The global recession has seen the skyrocketing watch sector come firmly back to earth, even as the high-end segment continues to perform well. Exports of Swiss watches declined 15.3 percent in November, underscoring the vulnerability of the timepiece market to the economic crisis. Total exports of Swiss watches last month reached 1.52 billion Swiss francs, or $1.43 billion at current exchange, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. The downturn most affected watches made of less expensive materials, including steel watches, which dove 22 percent in the month.Exports of platinum watches jumped 28 percent, suggesting more expensive pieces continue to fare best in the downturn.“We are cautious on watch players,” said HSBC analyst Antoine Belge in a note to investors. “We do not know how far consumer behavior in this downturn will resemble that seen on previous occasions, but historical evidence shows that the watch segment has been more vulnerable than other product categories to deterioration in the psychological component of the ‘feel-good’ factor.”The federation said most markets registered double-digit declines in November, although France, Germany and the United Arab Emirates recorded increases. Watch exports to China remained stable, the federation said.

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