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In February this year, WatchBox, a global e-commerce platform for buying, selling, and trading pre-owned luxury watches, staged its traveling Retrospective Exhibition in Dubai to allow visitors to experience an unparalleled range of both vintage and current production timepieces from De Bethune, F.P. Journe, and other renowned watch brands.
It was also an opportunity for WatchBox CEO Justin Reis to meet members of the watch collector community in the Middle East, and observe their strong appreciation for watch brands. “The market for pre-owned luxury watches in the UAE is quite strong, with a growing demand for ultra-rare and collectible timepieces by both established, traditional brands, as well as niche independent watchmakers,” Reis says. “Collectors have a consistent eye for quality and intriguing aesthetics, and they are seeking opportunities to engage and just play with watches.” And to give an example of how palpable the fervor for watches is across the GCC region, Reis mentions learning about some super niche behaviors in the UAE, “One particular collection included 37 baguette-set [Rolex] Daytonas,” he says.
Reis is particularly pleased to find such a vibrant community of watch lovers in the region, as they seem to be passionate enough to help him and WatchBox to drive change in the luxury e-commerce sector. That vision -to shape the future of tech-enabled luxury commerce through the strategic use of technology, innovation, and deployment of capital- is why he joined Liam Wee Tay and Danny Govberg to launch WatchBox in 2017. It is also with this premise that Reis devised the company’s global commercial strategy, which has led it through a number of milestones over the years, chief among them being a joint venture with Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, one of the largest authorized dealers of luxury watches in the Middle East, in the UAE in 2019. “We recognize a growing appetite in the region for elite independent watchmaking, a category that is appreciated and shared by a robust community of collectors,” Reis notes. “There’s a special sentiment across the watch community built around knowledge exchange, making experiences like our Retrospective Exhibition particularly in tune with the region.”
While leading WatchBox to establish a footprint in the world’s major watch markets, Reis has gained interesting insights into the preferences of its clients globally- for instance, he describes the collector markets in Singapore and Hong Kong as being incredibly robust, and “with a proclivity for special, limited, rare, and exclusive watches by the most respected brands.” Reis adds, “We’ve had the opportunity to see the most unbelievable watches in our clients’ personal collections -pieces that we’ve only heard rumors of existing- drawing parallels to the realm of high-end art collecting. Mature collectors there have a knack for identifying horological trends before they travel westward, and we’re seeing this now with respect to conservative watch dimensions.”
Meanwhile, clients in Europe prefer classic shapes, sizes, and complications, Reis notes. “European collectors are drawn towards time-honored, established brands celebrated for their rich heritage and exquisite craftsmanship, and there’s also great support for independent watchmakers.”
The limited edition F. P. Journe Ruthenium Chronomètre à Résonance watches. Source: WatchBox
As for the US, Reis says that the market there is characterized by a great diversity in collector interest. “The concept of a ‘collector’ there is more about mindset, and less about the specific watches in one’s personal collection,” he explains. “The American watch community is active and growing, with widespread interest in the major, established brands. The success of the independent category in recent years has given newer collectors the confidence to invest in high-end independent brands and watchmakers, stepping beyond what was once their collecting comfort zone.”
When asked how WatchBox differentiates itself from its competitors in all these markets, Reis points out that the company is structured in a way to be a lifelong partner to its clients. “This is built upon a foundation of trust, education, and a shared passion for watches,” he says. “Our inventory is a perfect complement to this passion. WatchBox is home to the greatest collection of watches –from special pieces by independent brands and watchmakers, to an extensive selection from the top brands– all of which is owned, and in peak condition. As an inventory-based operation, WatchBox authenticates and invests in every piece that we sell, and our global quality standard ensures that each watch will be as close to ‘mint’ condition as possible, without compromising value at the time of sale.”
(L-R) WatchBox MENA GM Luca Bozzano, founder of Revolution Magazine and The Rake Wei Koh, founder of Emirates Watch Club Dr. Malek Bin Easa, and WatchBox PR Sara Barakat.
With a wealth of experience in private equity investing, Reis’ expertise has been particularly valuable for WatchBox securing funds for its growth, including its recent raise of US$165 million. “It’s a milestone investment, because it supports our global expansion efforts, inventory growth, and initiatives to further develop the WatchBox community,” he says. “We entered new markets in 2022, including Zurich, Riyadh, and Shanghai.” At the same time, WatchBox also introduced its Collector’s Lounge concept [an immersive experience that combines a private showroom, a boardroom, a hands-on watch lab, and an event space] to key US markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Boca Raton, Florida. “As of January 2023, we are officially open in each of these cities,” Reis adds.
No growth comes without challenges, and Reis says here that the WatchBox team is trained to handle a whole range of potential obstacles, from practical logistics and keeping their focus on every discerning client, to keeping an eye on the industry’s primary and secondary markets. “WatchBox has a presence in 12 locations across seven countries today, and maintaining a high level of energy, quality standards, and excellence across all touch points has been a learning experience,” he says. “Personal relationships are at the core of everything we do, and while our business is growing at a remarkable rate, we cannot lose sight of each individual client need. This extends from a single phone conversation between a client and client advisor, to creating meaningful, educational content for different markets, different languages, and different cultures, while also maintaining the sense of one global WatchBox community.”
WatchBox’s FPJourne DeBethune collection. Source: WatchBox
As a leader of a company that bills itself to be “home to the greatest collection of pre-owned luxury watches,” it is only natural that Reis is also strongly in favor of promoting the interdependence of the primary and secondary markets, which, he notes, is still challenging for most of the watch industry to accept. “We’ve seen a shift in the mindset and dialogue amongst collectors in the last several years, as they recognize the value and connectedness of both markets, and the industry needs to understand that the complete client experience lies in the merging of these markets,” Reis explains. “This challenge needs to be addressed at an accelerated pace to keep up with customer expectations.”
One sign of this connectedness of the primary watch market and the secondary watch market, Reis explains, is in the easy flow of trends from one to another, with collectors seeking access, quality, and inherent value through trustworthy partners in both. However, there is one specific category that Reis would like us to keep an eye on, and that is the independent segment- watch brands that are independent of any large groups.
“Waiting lists at leading brands have been established to manage the overflow of orders in excess of available production capacity,” he says. “A strong secondary market for independent watch brands has since emerged, resulting in upward market adjustments of the most sought watches. Simultaneously, as consumers learn more about the category, the rare, early examples from leading independent watchmakers are increasingly recognized for their highly collectible status.” From Reis’ perspective, WatchBox is a strong supporter of pioneering independent brands, which include names like De Bethune, F.P. Journe, Greubel Forsey, Grönefeld, H. Moser & Cie., MB&F, and Voutilainen, exactly because they have institutionalized this type of manufacturer. “Volumes have increased as early-adopters no longer comprise the majority client in this segment,” Reis explains. “With a healthy secondary market, buying an independent brand watch no longer feels like the risk it represented when these brands and the independent genre were newly established.”
Looking to the future, Reis says, his team will continue developing the WatchBox community “by bringing together collectors and the world’s most collectible watches, and sharing in experiences of discovery, education, and absolute enjoyment.” He adds, “Events such as our F.P. Journe and De Bethune retrospective exhibition, and informal gatherings across our global locations, will be a centerpiece to this year’s strategy.”
THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Justin Reis, co-founder and CEO of WatchBox, shares his tips for watch collectors
Do your research and enoy the process of collecting and admiring watches
“From the accessibility of information and an educational standpoint, there has never been a better time to be a watch collector. The new entrant consumer has so much at their fingertips, from the history of brands, to models and collections, innovative technologies, materials, endless reference numbers, transparent data, and pricing information. WatchBox is all in on education, and through our in-house media division, we have produced over 7,000 individual hands-on watch reviews (in addition to other programming) to quite literally, bring a brand catalog to life, communicating functions, features, provenance, and context.”
Retrospective Exhibition by WatchBox held in February 2023 in Dubai. Source: WatchBox
Buy watches that you truly like, and trade pieces that no longer bring you enjoyment, or that serve as stepping stones to something else – think beyond resale value.
“While the WatchBox model positions pre-owned watches as a tradeable asset class with the benefits of real-time, market-driven pricing, we do not look at timepieces as ‘financial investments’- this is a hobby of passion. Whenever there is an imbalance or shift between supply and demand, the opportunities to buy great product at great value will rise. Yet, if the market shifts and financial conditions change, and you truly love the watches in your collection, you will be far less disappointed than if you only purchased watches based on hype and speculation.”
Developing a trusting relationship with the seller or dealer is among the most important factors in collecting, whether you are a novice or experienced collector.
“This extends from a guarantee of authenticity to a watch being in the condition described when it arrives at your doorstep, a warranty to cover issues related to mechanical defects, transparency into market value, and a commitment to help you find the right watch for you. Trust is the foundation for so much enjoyment, for both the collector, and a company like WatchBox. Our team is truly obsessed with watches, and we really enjoy sharing in our clients’ collecting journeys.”