SECOND TIME’S A CHARM
Pre-owned watches are coming up strong in very big ways and market players are ready to supply the demand.
Sporting a used, vintage 1970s Omega or vintage Glashütte on someone’s wrist says more about their horological aptitude and suave, than their bank accounts.
Dustin Lam, a 20-something engineer and recent transplant from Vancouver flaunts a just-acquired 1950s Glashütte Spezimatic, a simple three-hand watch that, albeit a little roughed up, stands out among a crowd of shiny new Rolexes and Panerais.
Unlike the vintage 1970s Rolex Day-date (equally interesting of course) on the wrist of a fellow Vancourite sitting across from him, Lam didn’t inherit the Glashütte from his grandfather. Lam’s watch was bought from the most unassuming of places. “I bought this off ebay for 4000 bucks!” He was clearly enthused and “super psyched” about this find.
The last place one would associate with vintage watches 20 years ago, ebay is now one of the most popular, and accessible, platforms for vintage watch buyers and collectors. This form of online buying and selling has sparked the popularity of C2C platforms and the rise of sites like Chrono24.
For this new generation that values experiences over material goods, it is the hunt that makes buying watches interesting. “I’m not necessarily looking to have the most expensive watch in the room, but I want to be that guy who wears a watch people might not immediately be able to place and want to ask questions about,” says Lam.
Information is so readily available; forum users seem to be able to provide each other with answers to even the most obscure of questions about origin, history and even provenance. It also helps that millennials are now much less likely than generations previous to purchase big-ticket items with the intention of owning them forever, and are more ready to trade up and buy pre-owned.
Tim Bourne, international director of watches, Asia at Bonhams, believes that the online platform is one that’s contributed to the growing knowledge that’s circulated amongst collectors. “People are becoming wiser, more educated all the time and scholarship changes over time, so it’s always important to keep up with the market analysis and trends, so one is able to capitalise and be ahead of the curve when it comes to collecting and investing carefully.”
The prevalence of online sales has prompted the traditional auction house to dish out their versions of e-shopping channels. Bourne sees parallels between their online lots and those available through more traditional online bidding sources. “The auction houses have a role to play in the online auctions for sure, but they are just a small slice of the pre-owned watch market that is currently being offered to collectors and traders and the general consumer. It is not too dissimilar to what ebay has been doing for years; slightly more curated but ultimately it is offering the same product.”
TAKING IT IN-HOUSE
Selling pre-owned isn’t an entirely new concept that’s targeted at those with smaller budgets, however. The biggest players in jewellery have embraced it for decades. Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, all have legacy collections that they’ve acquired, refurbished and resold to customers, and these collections often include timepieces as well.
Audemars Piguet’s CEO Francois-henry Bennahmias at this year’s SIHH has rolled out a selection of used watches to be sold in its boutiques, with the option for customers to trade in their old timepieces. Bennahmias believes, according to an interview with Reuters earlier in the year, that the preown trend will be the next shake-up for the industry.
Justin Reis, co-founder and director of Watchbox, an American online platform buying and selling pre-owned watches that has recently expanded to Hong Kong with a brick and mortar gallery in Central’s Duddell Street, for one, is excited about
“THE AUCTION HOUSES HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY IN THE ONLINE AUCTIONS FOR SURE, BUT THEY ARE JUST A SMALL SLICE OF THE PRE-OWNED WATCH MARKET.”
-Tim Bourne, Bonhams
this new direction. “We’re very excited about the announcement. We are currently the only authorised pre-own dealer for Audemars Piguet, and we’re hopeful that other brands like Greubel Forsey, Hublot and Breitling will start doing the same.”
As for Bourne, this move signifies an industry that’s willing to adapt to the times. “It will be interesting to see the different strategies of the manufacturers cope with their evolving market. It’s good to know they are wanting to be creative, as the traditional model of retail is not as powerful and relevant as it was. The brands have to change and move their targets as to how to maintain market leadership. It is all positive, as this represents the two huge industries of primary and preowned becoming closer together.”
In comparison to the sales of brand new watches that are worth US$ 45.3 billion a year, according to consultancy Bain & Company, co-founder and chairman of Watchbox Tay Liam Wee figures there’s about US$ 5 billion worth of used watches that are
“BUYING AND SELLING PRE-OWN ALLOWS THEM TO EXPERIENCE MORE WATCHES. THEY CAN HAVE 15 WATCHES OVER THE SPAN OF A FEW YEARS” - Justin Reis, Watchbox
looking for buyers annually. And while there are plenty of pre-own dealers in Hong Kong, that’s not the case for other parts of the world. For markets like the US, says Liam, where it is so geographically spread out, a lot of people do not have access to reliable resell partners.
Add to that a new set of buyers eager to discover luxury watches without paying the premium; the pre-own option is a smart one for many. “For young people who might be just starting to build their watch collection, buying and selling pre-own allows them to experience more watches. They can have 15 watches over the span of a few years this way,” Reis says. With an inventory of around 18,000 pieces amassed from clients who sell, about 40 per cent of customers who sell walk out with another watch.
Others, Reis says, might be liquidating to redirect their collection. “We had someone come in with a collection with 500 Panerais. Serious watch collectors rarely turn to collecting something else entirely. It might be that they want to shift their focus to vintage pieces, for example.”
DEALING IN TRUST
For many people, the big auction houses are still the go-to place to entrust their collections, and there’s a good reason for that. “In the world of collecting fine art and objects such as watches and jewellery this is highly important in terms of establishing a reputation and longevity in the market place,” says Bourne. Watch brands that buy historical pieces to add to their archives, like Breguet, will only buy at auctions for this reason. Trust and transparency are essential when it comes to setting a precedent for prices; the excitement and publicity that’s drawn from an ultrarare lot factors into its price, after all.
Watchbox’s approach is vastly different from that of traditional auction houses and resellers in that they’ve abandoned the consignment approach and instead owns its entire pre-loved inventory. “We want to be able to stand by all of our watches and to provide a 15-month warranty. But this also means we are able to complete a transaction in 48 hours whereas you can expect to wait nine months at an auction house,” says Reis.
Whatever the approach, the common denominator is to build trust between buyer and seller, something that is a little hard to do through the likes of ebay for items in the hundred thousand dollar region.
As for Lam, he reveals that after purchasing four watches off the platform, he’s since graduated from ebay and now scrolls through the pages of Sotheby’s online auctions, as well as B2C sites. “I’m on the lookout for a vintage Patek; I don’t want to keep borrowing my dad’s every time I have something special come up.”