Swatch buys into Harry Winston in $750m deal

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Swatch Group is buying the luxury jewellery arm of Canada's Harry Winston in a US$750m cash deal to expand into high-end bracelets, rings and necklaces.

"Harry Winston does brilliantly complement the prestige segment of the group," Chairwoman Nayla Hayek said in a statement. "We are proud and happy to welcome Harry Winston to the Swatch Group family - diamonds are still a girl's best friend."

Consolidation has picked up in the luxury goods industry as strong Asian demand for pricey items boosts earnings in the sector, giving companies the firepower to expand their portfolios.

The world's biggest luxury goods group LVMH bagged Italian jewellery maker Bulgari for US$5.2bn in 2011 and took a stake in Hermes in 2010. Rival Richemont acquired online retailer Net-a-Porter in 2010.

Swatch Group is already the biggest watchmaker by sales, including brands such as Omega, and the acquisition of the prestigious diamond jewellery maker allows it to enter high-end jewellery, a market dominated by Richemont with its flagship brand Cartier.

"From a strategic perspective it is positive - Swatch Group has long said it wanted to expand in jewellery," Kepler Capital Markets analyst Jon Cox said. "Details are sketchy but it might also give it a long-term deal on supply of diamonds, something the company has also looked for.

"At first glance it does not look cheap, but that is probably more a reflection of the profitability of Harry Winston at this stage, which is in ramp-up stage in terms of expansion," Cox added.

The acquisition amounts to US$750m plus the assumption of up to US$250m of pro-forma net debt.

The two companies will also explore the opportunities for a joint diamond polishing venture, bringing together the manufacturing and diamond expertise of the two companies.

Reuters reported in October Harry Winston was looking to sell its luxury business and had been approached by potential buyers.

Swatch Group said the transaction, which is subject to the approval of regulatory authorities, did not include the mining activities of Harry Winston Diamond Corp. It comprises 535 employees and a production company in Geneva, Swatch said.

"The Harry Winston brand now has a new home that can provide the skills and support that it deserves to realize its true potential," said Robert A. Gannicott, chairman of the board and chief executive of Harry Winston Diamond Corp.

Harry Winston, which started as a small jeweller in New York in 1924, was made famous by a reference in Marilyn Monroe's song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes".

Every year the firm lends out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of jewels to be worn by movie starts on the red carpet at events like the Oscars.

In addition to its luxury retail brand, Harry Winston also owns a 40 percent stake in the Diavik diamond mine in Canada's Northwest Territories. Rio Tinto holds the remaining 60 percent.

Mergers and acquisitions in the watch making industry have also been boosted by Swatch Group's decision to cut back on watch component and movement deliveries, forcing peers to improve their access to watch making know-how.

Swatch Group itself has bought more than a dozen component makers over the last 10 years, its most recent buys being watch case maker Simon & Membrez and a 60 percent stake in case polisher Termiboites last year.

The last watchmakers it took over were high-end brands Glashuette Original and Jaquet Droz in 2000.

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