PARIS Chinese consumers remain passionate about expensive watches, despite a macroeconomic slowdown and a crackdown on government purchases of luxury goods, a survey published today showed.

Total Internet searches for luxury watches jumped 39.3 percent in the first half of 2012 versus the same period a year earlier, according to the study by the Geneva-based Digital Luxury Group (DLG). Prestige watches saw the most rapid growth, with searches booming by 73 percent, it added.

“The interest continues to grow, but there are indicators that the purchase cycle has slowed,” stated Florent Bondoux, head of strategy and intelligence at DLG.

Swiss watch exports to China fell by 12.3 percent in October, while sales to Hong Kong edged up 2.7 percent, reflecting ongoing softness in those key markets, according to the latest statistics published by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

The DLG study found that the top 10 most-searched-for brands in the first half of the year were Omega, Rolex, Longines, Cartier, Rado, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, IWC, Piaget and Chanel, in that order. Rolex pushed Longines out of the number-two spot, while Vacheron Constantin and Chanel both gained two positions.

The top 10 accounted for nearly 80 percent of all searches, indicating that smaller brands still have a tough time in China. To wit, five watch models — the Omega De Ville, Omega Constellation, Cartier Ballon Bleu, Chanel J12 and Longines Master — accounted for more than half of online interest.

Interest in luxury timepieces has spread from the major coastal cities of Shanghai and Beijing to the west of the country. “A retail presence in the coastal cities is not sufficient anymore and as a consequence, smaller brands might be penalized for not being able to develop their retail network in the middle and west region as big brands nowadays do,” the study noted.

In a separate survey published in January, DLG found that in 2011, China for the first time surpassed the U.S. as the leading market for luxury timepieces by the number of Internet searches, accounting for a quarter of all searches mentioning top watch brands.

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