FINANCIAL TIMES | RICHARD MILNE

One in four bankers at Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, owns three to five luxury watches, according to Allegra Perry, the bank's luxury goods analyst.

It is statistics like that which make the luxury goods industry boast about its potential and at the same time worry about the impact of the financial crisis.

The credit crunch is likely to answer the question: are luxury goods companies subject to the same consumer pressures as other retailers or are they in a sector of their own catering to the super-rich?

Luxury goods companies have traditionally been hard hit in economic downturns. Already evidence is amassing that after a difficult Christmas for many, the new year has not started as positively as some expected. The Gucci brand provided the first real sign on Thursday when its like-for-like sales growth in the first quarter reached only 2.4 per cent (in reported terms it was even down 3 per cent).

That comes after Bulgari, the Italian jewellery company, warned of soft sales in March. But it contrasts with solid figures from Richemont, LVMH and Herm├Ęs.

"The luxury goods sector is impacted by the financial crisis but to a much lesser extent than normal retail. The traditional, high-end brands will do well. The more accessible ones will struggle more," says Rogerio Fujimori, analyst at Credit Suisse.

Gerard Aquilina, head of international private banking at Barclays Wealth, says there is no sign whatsoever of a slowdown of spending among the ultra-wealthy - perhaps it is even the opposite. Gucci's best-performing brand Bottega Veneta is its most expensive.

More of the super-rich are coming from emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia or eastern Europe.

That in turn means those luxury goods companies most exposed to these regions seem to have the best chance of avoiding the slowdown. LVMH, for instance, more than tripled its revenues in Vietnam last year while Richemont is seeing growth across Asia.

In contrast, those companies most exposed to developed markets such as the US and Europe will feel the most pain.

Francesco Trapani, chief executive of Bulgari, told the FT last month: "We are seeing a pretty soft business in the US and in some important European countries . . . [But] almost all of Asia is going extremely well and counterbalancing [that softness]."

Robert Burke, a former luxury retail executive who now heads the Robert Burke Associates consultancy, says brands which cannot offer the consumer anything special will suffer particularly. "Product is paramount. The true luxury shopper is going to be more discerning than in the past," he says. "They are going to buy fewer things and more selectively and that means second-tier and less sophisticated luxury companies will suffer."

Industry watchers are divided as to who will suffer most. Luxury stores in the US report sales declines across the spectrum - not just with aspirational buyers but also very affluent customers.

However, names such as Chanel and Prada seem the most secure. Mr Fujimori points to two other issues that play a role on luxury goods as well as the economy: tourism and currency. Anecdotal evidence suggests that wealthy tourists are not just heading to the US to buy, taking advantage of the weak dollar, but also to London because of the weak pound.

Ms Perry underlines that the strength of the euro leaves companies with the dilemma of either raising prices and thus lose sales or not pass on the full impact of the currency, which will affect margins.