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Swiss say time right for luxury watches

Leading makers expand presence by opening stores across America


Insoo Hyun, left, and his wife, Leneigh Hyun, of Cleveland, Ohio, visit the Omega boutique at The Westin in Chicago, Illinois, on Saturday, July 16, 2011.


CHICAGO -- Walking into a jewelry store or high-end watch department can be intimidating: The timepieces are under glass. The room is hushed. The guard is staring.

No wonder so many shoppers are buying luxury watches at wholesale clubs or on the Internet, where they can compare brands and maybe even find a lower price.

Almost every American carries a mobile phone that always shows the time. But watchmakers aren't ready to let generations of young consumers live without a watch.

The Swiss, the world's largest producers of watches, are leading a campaign to revive the watch as a status symbol in the United States, particularly among men, who make up the bulk of the market.

"We decided the best way to get into the U.S. market would be to make a strong statement," said Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, a division of Bienne, Switzerland-based Swatch Group AG, the world's largest watchmaker.

During the past year, the watchmaker has opened 16 boutiques in the United States, starting with a store in New York in 2009. Rolex and Tag Heuer, both Swiss companies, unveiled their first freestanding stores in the United States this year.

Shopping for a watch has been an old-line business for too long, said Jim Seuss, chief executive officer of Tourneau, which sells dozens of luxury watch brands, from its namesake to Breitling to Dior and operates 34 namesake stores in the United States.

"If you're going to spend $5,000 on a watch, you should have a great experience," he said. "If you think about what a great experience you have in going into an Apple store, we want to bring the same kind of experience to the world of watches."

So far, most Americans are less interested than their European and Asian counterparts in status watches, experts said.

President Obama wears a $350 Jorg Gray 6500 Chronometer. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sports a $30 Timex Ironman. Tween heartthrob Justin Bieber wears a Casio G-Shock G-Lide, which sells for less than $100.

The United States fell in 2008 from its perch as the biggest watch market in the world, a position it had held for a decade. Hong Kong now ranks as the largest consumer market for watches, importing $7.4 billion worth in 2010, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. The United States ranked No. 2, with imports totaling $3.7 billion.

One sign has watchmakers hopeful: urban hipsters who are discovering old-fashioned, mechanical watches as a novelty.

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