By Tom Miles
CORGEMONT, Switzerland (Reuters) - The world's largest watchmaker unveiled its riposte to Apple Inc's smartwatch on Thursday, announcing a plan to put cheap programmable chips in watches that will let wearers from China to Chicago make payments with a swipe of the wrist.
Swatch Group will start offering watches with near field communication (NFC) chips within two months, chief executive Nick Hayek said at a news conference on the company's annual results which were released last month.
Apple's move into watches would open up a market where Swatch was already well positioned to compete, he said.
The Swiss company's strategy appears to revolve around including individual tech features in different models rather than going head to head with Apple, the world's most valuable firm, to create all-in-one smartwatches combining many functions.
"We are the world champions of integrating smart functions into a watch," Hayek said. "We don't want to produce a mini mobile phone on your wrist. Others can do that."
At 1600 GMT, Swatch shares were up 2.7 percent at 432.1 Swiss francs.
Apple's watch will go on sale in nine countries starting in April, priced from $349 for the smaller model and $549 for the standard version, although a high-end "Edition" watch will sell for at least $10,000.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for us. It is opening the market. Especially in the U.S., many people are not wearing watches any more. Somebody is opening this up. Let Apple do the work. It's fine. It’s good. I congratulate them."
Both firms' strategies could co-exist and succeed, Hayek said, before adding a dig at the bigger rival: "Upgrading software every year, that's not our business."
For its near-field chips, which will cost around 2 francs ($2) per watch, Swatch has teamed up with China UnionPay, the Chinese credit card association, as well as a Swiss bank and a major credit card company.
The credit card company, described as an Olympics sponsor, is likely to be Visa, a long-time backer of the event. Visa was not immediately available to comment.
Swatch is also launching a range of sports-themed "Swatch Touch" smartwatches which will be able to "buddy up" with a smartphone via a Bluetooth connection.
The first model will retail at 135 francs, about twice the cost of a regular Swatch watch with an NFC chip.
(Writing by Eric Auchard and Josh Franklin; Editing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter)