BASEL (Reuters) - Luxury watchmakers expect sales growth to slow this year as a recovery in the United States and buoyant Middle East demand fail to offset a China slump more deep-rooted than a temporary blip caused by anti-corruption moves.
The heads of Swatch Group's UHR.VX biggest brand Omega and LVMH (LVMH.PA) flagship brand TAG Heuer as well as high-end independents Patek Philippe and Ulysse Nardin all said demand in Greater China had tumbled, particularly for high-end models.
A weaker gold price, which hit a two-year low this month after gaining 52 percent over the last three years, was no help as most manufacturers had hedged their purchases.
"I bought my gold a year in advance," Walter von Kaenel, head of Swatch's midrange brand Longines told Reuters at the Baselworld watch fair this week.
Omega chief Stephen Urquhart said a lower gold price also made gold watches less appealing, particularly for those consumers who were buying them as an investment.
Luxury watch makers have expanded at breakneck speed in recent years in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as the mainland - and enjoyed double-digit sales growth rates there until last summer.
But their latest comments reinforce the view that the region, to which luxury group Richemont CFR.VX is the most exposed, is being hit by more than the government's crackdown on gifts for favours, which often involve watches, and is feeling the draught from a wider slowdown in the world's second-largest economy.
"All watches costing more than 1,800 francs are having difficulties in China at the moment," said TAG Heuer Chief Executive Jean-Christophe Babin, soon to be head of LVMH's jewelery brand Bulgari.
TAG Heuer's watches sell for an average price of 4,500 Swiss francs and Omega's and Patek's price tags are well above that.
"We have felt the impact of the anti-corruption campaign in China," Patek Philippe's Thierry Stern said in an interview.
He said Patek had introduced new models at lower prices in Asia to address the drop in demand for pricey items.
But the head of Omega, one of the most popular luxury watches in China, said he was confident sales to Chinese customers worldwide would grow in 2013 - albeit at a slower pace than in 2012 - as they still bought a lot of watches abroad.
One bright note, Urquhart said, was that consumer confidence in mainland China had picked up after this year's leadership transition, meaning single-digit growth should be possible.
Patrik Schwendimann, analylst at Zuercher Kantonalbank, said: "It's a positive surprise that Omega still expects sales growth in single digits in mainland China this year."
Longines's von Kaenel said the midrange price category -- Longines is leader in the 800-3,000 franc segment-- was not affected by China's current frugality and slower sales in mainland China were compensated by strong demand in Hong Kong.
Swiss watch exports to China fell by more than 25 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Sales to Hong Kong, the biggest market for Swiss watches where mainland Chinese buy timepieces to avoid high taxes, were down 9.1 percent.
"We believe China's new President Xi Jinping's tough stance on corruption practices and extravagant spending are likely to limit the recovery of the illegitimate component of luxury demand this year ("gifting")," Citi said in a note.
"This is perhaps likely to have a greater impact on high-end watches as compared to the mid-range segment."
Consultancy Bain & Co is confident about demand for watches costing over 10,000 Swiss francs, forecasting their exports to rise about 9 percent annually until 2015 but high inventories in Greater China may hold back exports this year.
"We did interviews in China with retailers and it seems that in 2012 the sell-out (sales to end customers) rates were growing more slowly than the exports rates from Switzerland," said Gyorgy Konda, a partner at Bain & Co in Milan.
Longines' von Kaenel said Chinese retailers had excessive stock levels for some brands, but not for Longines, whose more affordable watches were not targeted by the anti-corruption drive.
Omega, Longines and Hublot executives agreed a healthy recovery in the United States and buoyant growth in the Middle East, particularly Dubai, would generate single-digit growth this year, a marked slowdown versus 11 percent growth in 2012.
Editing by Astrid Wendlandt and David Cowell