Very high-end watches are one reason for the surprising buoyancy of luxury watches this year. The total market for personal luxury goods in 2020 is expected to plummet 23% versus its 2019 level, according to a forecast from management consultancy Bain & Company in partnership with Altagamma, an association of Italian luxury manufacturers. The market for luxury watches—most of them Swiss, but including all origins—will decline 30%. It’s one of the luxury categories anticipated to be hit hardest, though it could have gone much worse.

“In 2020 actually we would have expected an even deeper drop of the watch market,” says Federica Levato, a partner at Bain and leader of its global consumer products and retail practice. “The watch market has proven to be resilient.”

Luxury watches have been under pressure for some time, Levato says, due to watches losing their place as timekeepers to digital devices and because of a generational shift in the makeup of luxury shoppers. Watch companies have also largely continued relying on networks of retailers while much of the rest of luxury has invested in stores, e-commerce, and digital marketing to connect directly to customers. Watch brands missed these opportunities to forge stronger relationships with shoppers.

Given these shortcomings, luxury watches could be expected to fall further behind in a pandemic, but companies have taken measures to mitigate the damage. Many have accelerated efforts to expand their sales online and connect to customers digitally. Some, such as Patek Philippe and Rolex, have also reissued highly sought vintage styles. Luxury’s ongoing rally in China is also helping, as is a shift among luxury shoppers toward so-called hard luxury items such as jewelry and watches that retain value well.

For a few years now, the Swiss watch industry has actually exported fewer watches but still seen the total value of exports rise. The reason is the ongoing demand for really expensive watches, which even a pandemic hasn’t stopped.

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