GENEVA — It seems time does heal all wounds — Switzerland’s beleaguered luxury watch sector is on the mend.

Retailers attending the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, which ended its five-day run here Jan. 22, were upbeat and cited an uplifting, busier show with brisker activity. SIHH is considered a barometer for the industry and for Baselworld, scheduled for March 18 to 25.

“The mood is better than last year, but there’s still a clear understanding that the war is not over,” said François-Henry Bennahmias, president and chief executive officer of Audermars Piguet. “Our main challenge is to keep the momentum going.”

Reflecting the depth of the financial crisis, Bennahmias said the firm’s sales were down 45 percent in the first quarter of 2009, but the company was able to end the year with just a 15 percent dip.

“Our retailers are really behind the brand as they saw we were able to weather the storm,” he said.

The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry on Thursday forecast a modest turnaround for foreign sales of Swiss watches in 2010, which will likely be felt in the second half. Watch sales fell 22.3 percent in 2009 to 13.2 billion Swiss francs, or $12.8 billion at current exchange, their lowest level since 2005. For a complete report, see story below.

Panerai president Angelo Bonati said business in Asia, notably China, counterbalanced a slump in sales in the U.S. and Japan.

“We’re starting to see the affect in tourist sites in Europe,” Bonati said. “It’s the Chinese that are traveling.”

Mark Udell, owner of Northeastern U.S. retailer London Jewelers, said, “There’s definitely been a rebound in the luxury market, with an uptick in business.”

Udell noted that with demand lower for novelty pieces, brands have cut back on production, making them more limited. That means pieces available on allocation at SIHH “were getting eaten up quickly.”

“You have to make sure that for whoever is looking for the watch it’s very difficult to get,” he said.

Udell cited a particular frenzy for Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore Grand Prix Selfwinding chronograph in a forged carbon case with black ceramic and forged carbon bezel. Retailing at $34,500, the style is limited to 1,750 pieces and is also available in rose gold and platinum editions.

Talking points at the show included the return to classic styling. Slimmer timepieces, in particular, are back in vogue.

A number of retailers saluted Piaget’s Altiplano Automatic 43mm, which the brand claims has set two world records: for the thinnest automatic movement, at 2.3mm, and for the thinnest case, at 5.25mm. Among other dedicated slimmers were Vacheron Constantin, which presented its Vacheron Constantin Historique 1955, originally introduced in 1955, that it claims is the thinnest manual-winding watch in the world, with a movement only 1.64 millimeters thick. Baume & Mercier launched its ultra thin Classima Executives style, which is 4.4 millimeters thick and 39 millimeters in size.



Among 11 novelties, Ralph Lauren introduced six new references for its Slim Classique collection that was launched last year.

Also getting attention at SIHH was Cartier’s broad offering, which included 16 new references and six new movements in high watchmaking, the results, according to Cartier president Bernard Fornas, of a three-year plan to become one of the critical players in the watchmaking industry.

“We didn’t get the right quantities to get the right visibility,” he said. “Three years ago, we made the decision to push this segment. It has come to reality now and there will be another acceleration next year.”

Highlights included the Rotonde de Cartier Astrotourbillon watch, Rotonde de Cartier skeleton flying tourbillon watch, and the non-commercialized showpiece concept watch, ID one, billed as the world’s first adjustment-free watch. The piece features a nonmagnetic case made from nobium titanium. All of its regulating components — carbon crystal, zerodur and titanium — are insensitive to magnetic fields. Cartier, which will launch an e-commerce site in the U.S. over the next couple of months, believes the watch represents what could be the future of mechanical movements.

Panerai also flexed its expertise with Panerai Jupiterium, a planetarium clock with perpetual calendar that shows the positions of the sun, moon and Jupiter in relation to the so-called Medicean planets — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the four main satellites observed for the first time by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Three clocks have been produced. One will tour the world, one will be exhibited at Florence’s Institute & Museum of the History of Science, where Galileo’s telescope is usually displayed, and one will be sold, priced at over $2 million. Comparing the invention to a couture creation, Panerai’s Bonati said it would inspire future complications and movements in the brand’s collections.

Montblanc showcased its innovative two-in-one Montblanc Metamorphosis watch, with two faces and two functions, marking the first time it has developed a concept conceived by young watchmakers based at its Institut Minerva de Recherche en Haute Horlogerie, a research center founded by Montblanc for fostering young watchmaking talent. Designed by Franck Orny and Johnny Girardin, the watch transforms from one watch face to another at the touch of a button.

“Retailers want to start afresh this new decade. Everyone will be reinventing,” said Stanislas de Quercize, worldwide president and ceo of Van Cleef & Arpels.

The company’s introductions included a “power and minute” retrograde addition to the house’s “Poetic Complication” series, dubbed “Pont des Amoureux.” Conceived by Jean Marc Wiederrecht, with enameling by Dominique Barron, the piece features two lovers —the man represents the minutes, the woman the hours — that take 12 hours to cross a Parisian bridge before kissing at midnight and again at noon for exactly one minute.

“The sentiment of the whole fair was very considered. There’s a real flight to quality,” said John Robinson, director of high-end British jeweler David M. Robinson. “Our policy is to work even closer with brands we stock. It’s a time for staying in contact with people.”

In tandem with a shift to classics over flash, Swiss watchmakers are trumpeting heritage. Girard-Perregaux, for instance, said it is moving away from sports watches back to its roots: true manufacturing pieces.

“We’ll even be taking end customers to the factory to show them what it means to make a watch,” said Marcia Mazzocchi, the brand’s U.S. president.

This month, the brand will open its first freestanding store on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

Several brands confirmed they were broadening their assortment to accommodate a wider range of prices. IWC, for instance, introduced the Portuguese Yacht Club Chronograph in stainless steel that retails for $12,600, while Jaeger-LeCoultre launched a steel version of its Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Memovox, priced at around $9,600.

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