The world's biggest watch fair opened in the Swiss city of Basel on Thursday as a slumping luxury market and the soaring popularity of connected timepieces cast gloom over the industry.

Baselworld is the highlight of the year for watch and jewellery makers, with retailers flooding in to snap up the latest eye-candy for their showcases.

The show this year boasts around 1,500 exhibitors, including leading watch brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breguet and Omega, alongside high-end jewellers like Graff and Harry Winston, and is expected to draw some 150,000 visitors.

But this year's 44th edition is opening on a sour note, after global exports of Swiss watches plunged 3.3 percent -- marking their first fall since 2009.

"The atmosphere is not great," Tag Heuer chief executive Jean-Claude Biver acknowledged to AFP Wednesday during a media preview of the show.

"In general, I think (this year's) Baselworld will not be that bad, but it won't be one of the best," he said.

The industry legend who also leads the watch division of TAG Heuer's owners LVMH, meanwhile voiced confidence for his own watch brand, which he said had seen double-digit growth during the first two months of the year.

This, he said, was mainly thanks to the fact that the company is not among the most exposed in China.

After years of euphoric growth, the market there has suffered a severe hit since Beijing in 2013 began cracking down on corruption by banning extravagant gifts like expensive watches to public officials.

And since then, the storm clouds have multiplied, with the volatility around the Russian ruble and the pro-democracy Umbrella protests in Hong Kong -- the biggest market for Swiss watch exports -- also chipping away at sales.

And just as watchmakers were seeing sales shift more towards Europe, the deadly attacks in Paris last November frightened off tourists that usually flock to the continent to buy pricy gifts ahead of the holidays.

'Crisis of confidence'

The uncertainty wracking the industry was palpable in Basel, acknowledged Baselworld chief Sylvie Ritter, telling reporters that "small businesses do not always have the means to stand up to dropping sales."

Francois Thiebaud, head of the Swiss exhibitors and chief executive of Tissot watches, however insisted that there was "no reason to be alarmist".

"Today, there is more a crisis of confidence than an economic crisis," he said.

"If you are a retailer and you hear about new catastrophes every day, you no longer want to buy," he explained.

Luxury watch makers have also been following with apprehension the arrival of technology giants onto the scene peddling smartwatches.

A number of the traditional Swiss watchmakers have also climbed onto the connected-watch bandwagon in a bid to appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy generation.

According to a study by Strategy Analytics, global deliveries of connected watches rose 316 percent in the last quarter of 2015 to 8.1 million units, as deliveries of Swiss watches fell five percent to 7.9 million pieces.

Apple, the California tech behemoth, grabbed the lion's share of the new market, with its Apple Watch accounting for 63 percent of the smartwatch deliveries.

Jean-Daniel Pasche, head of the Swiss Watch Industry Federation, insisted though that these numbers should be seen in perspective.

Most watches today are produced in Asia, with Swiss watches representing only 2-3 percent of the market in terms of volume.

But Swiss watchmakers, which specialise in high-end, luxury products, account for more than 50 percent of the market it terms of value, he said.

"Connected and traditional watches can co-exist," he told AFP, insisting smartwatches "will not obliterate Swiss watchmakers."