Visitors stand in front of the exhibition stand of German watch manufacturer Sinn at the Baselworld watch and jewellery fair in Basel
BASEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - Swiss watchmakers are confident they can grow sales this year even in the face of a cooling Chinese economy, executives told Reuters at an industry fair on Thursday, as demand strengthens in other markets like the United States and Britain.
Switzerland's watch industry, which relies heavily on Chinese customers, has seen exports - the best available indicator for demand - rise only 2.1 percent in the first two months of the year, following a 6.3 percent increase last year.
However, some are confident they will do much better this year.
"We're aiming for double-digit growth in our watch business this year," Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive of LVMH's jeweller Bulgari, said in an interview at the Baselworld show.
His comments were echoed by independent watchmaker Oris, also banking on a double-digit increase, while LVMH stablemate Hublot said it had an exceptional year in 2018 and was counting on 7-8 percent growth this year from a high basis.
Oris said sales in the United States, its biggest market, were growing strongly. That trend was confirmed by retailer Watches of Switzerland, which also reported firm UK demand, particularly for Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet products.
Luxury watch brand Patek Philippe, whose most affordable models cost around 14,000 Swiss francs, said it expected sales this year to be at a similar level to last year as it was again going to deliver around 62,000 pieces.
Its president, Thierry Stern, categorically denied recent speculation the family-owned company could be up for sale.
Swetha Ramachandran, who manages a luxury brands equity fund for GAM, said privately owned brands like Patek or Rolex were seeing better demand than their listed counterparts because they had not given in to the temptation of easy volume growth when Chinese demand boomed a few years ago.
That meant they have avoided the build-up of excess inventory that has hurt some rivals, while protecting the scarcity value of their brands.
"Private players are managing their business for price rather than for volume," she told Reuters in an interview earlier this week.
She said Richemont was still one of her top 10 holdings due to its exposure to faster-growing jewellery, but she had exited Swatch Group shares.
Switzerland's watch industry is going through a period of profound change, notably in distribution, as brands focus on developing their own boutiques -- brick and mortar or online -- while reducing their network of third-party retailers.
This development has led more and more brands to exit the traditional watch fairs in Basel and Geneva, which they had used to build up contacts with distributors. That was reflected in fewer exhibiting brands and much less crowded aisles at the Baselworld fair on Thursday.
Several executives said efforts to hold both watch fairs in April next year, instead of separately in January and March, were going in the right direction, but were not sufficient.
"April is too late in the year," said Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe. "At LVMH, we have not really decided what to do next year. We already signed contracts for Baselworld so we're likely to be in Basel, but we might also organise a separate event in January to present our new models."
(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Jan Harvey)