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BASEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - Swiss watchmakers are braced for another difficult year as economic woes in major markets curb consumers' appetite for pricey timepieces, industry executives said on Thursday.
Sales in Hong Kong, the biggest market for Swiss watches, have been depressed as China's economic slowdown and Beijing's anti-corruption campaign have hurt spending by mainland Chinese, which shows no signs of rebounding.
Zenith, the upmarket watch brand owned by LVMH (LVMH.PA), sells almost two out of three watches to Chinese customers.
"2016 is very complicated because people no longer have the confidence needed to simply go and buy our products," Zenith's Chief Executive Aldo Magada told Reuters at the Baselworld watch fair.
He said he could not rule out job cuts.
As well as China's slowdown, tourism in Paris, another luxury goods hub, has been hit by the Islamist attacks in November, while Russians travel and spend less because of the weak rouble, the Ukraine crisis and the low oil price - which is also tempering luxury spending in the Middle East.
Like other upscale brands, Zenith has expanded into more affordable watches to meet the demands of more price-conscious consumers, a trend already visible at January's Geneva watch fair dominated by luxury goods group Richemont's (CFR.S) high-end brands.
"Our product mix has changed, we sell fewer gold watches, more steel," said Magada.
Competition from smartwatches is also threatening the luxury watch sector.
Among luxury giant LVMH's watch brands, Zenith has suffered the most with a single-digit decline in sales last year, whereas TAG Heuer and Hublot generated growth thanks to their smaller exposure to China, said LVMH watch and jewelry head Jean-Claude Biver.
"The first quarter makes us think that we'll again outperform the market this year," Biver said, adding TAG Heuer was hiring staff to push ahead with its smartwatch project.
Swiss watch exports, which reflect the value of watches leaving the country but give no indication on what has really been sold to end consumers, tumbled 7.9 percent in January year-on-year after falling 3.3 percent last year.
"I'm hearing from peers that the overall situation has become rather more tense since the beginning of the year," said Laurent Dordet, head of Hermes' (HRMS.PA) watch business, who would not comment on his own company's performance this year.
Tissot and Longines, Swatch Group's (UHR.S) mid-price luxury brands, had slightly negative to flat sales growth last year and see at best a slight improvement this year.
Independent high-end label Patek Philippe, so sought-after by collectors that it can grow sales by 1-3 percent in good times and bad, says many luxury watchmakers made the mistake of focusing too much on China and Chinese travelers.
"They went too quickly. Now stock levels are too high everywhere," said Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern.
Shares of luxury watchmakers and their parent groups have been hit hard in the past year as sales have slowed. However, some analysts say selling may have been overdone as industry executives see some brightspots such as Japan and South Korea, which are drawing more Chinese tourists.
Shares in Swatch, the world's biggest watchmaker, for example, fell 21 percent last year and are down a further 2 percent this year, while Richemont has shed 11 percent this year after sliding nearly 19 percent last year.
"There is of course the special case of Hong Kong, where a lot of wholesalers are still very cautious. Overall, however, the mood has become too negative," said Scilla Huang Sun, portfolio manager of the Julius Baer Luxury Brands fund.
She forecasts 5 percent organic growth for luxury brands this year, but says most of that will come in the second half.
For a graphic on the Swiss watch industry, click on this link: tmsnrt.rs/1XuXPjH
Editing by Susan Fenton