: The New, Improved, and Now Crowded Secondary Watch Market
Text Elizabeth Doerr

“In the ideal world, we’d all still be trading directly with other known collectors on forums like Purists and Timezone with no middlemen!” well-known watch collector Gary Getz remarked, as we spoke about the recent surge in availability of pre-owned luxury timepieces now available from a variety of sources. “A lot of my ‘shopping’ for pre-owned watches as well as selling is in fact within my own network and a small number of private dealers,” he added.

However, not everyone in the market for a pre-owned watch has such experience and relationships, but these people are still in luck: there have never been so many places to buy certified, refurbished, and generally trustworthy second-hand watches as there are now.

Watchbox’s US office is certainly a far cry from the second-hand dealers we’ve seen until now (© Watchbox)

Pre-owned specialists

“I’d certainly consider Watchbox, Truefacet, or other certified pre-owned outlets as sources for previously owned watches; the emergence of additional marketplaces and increased liquidity in the watch marketplace is to me a good thing”, Getz continued in answer to my question about where he might safely buy. “That said, there are already a lot of established dealers out there, including bricks-and-clicks operations like European Watch Company in Boston, broad-offering resellers like Analogshift, and high-end, highly selective online shops like A Collected Man”.

To tap the growing needs of a curated, certified secondary market and its implications, Danny Govberg, head of 106-year-old Govberg Jewelers, joining forces with Tay Liam Wee, who was instrumental in building Sincere Watch in Singapore, and Justin Reis, an experienced investor and entrepreneur, founded WatchBox, an e-commerce platform for buying, selling, and trading pre-owned watches with brick-and-mortar locations in Philadelphia, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and South Africa. Trading in pre-owned is one of the fastest-growing segments in the watch industry, well-proven by Govberg, who reported his sales of second-hand watches have grown on average by 40 percent every year for the past five years (to compare, his sales of new watches have increased about 3-5 percent in the same time frame). Govberg predicts that it will only take another five years for the size of the secondary market to exceed the market for new watches. “We recognize that Watchbox’s business plan suits today’s business climate…Today, the customer is looking to buy, sell, and trade with ease without having to worry about authenticity or condition; that is what we do best. We operate under the premise that time is your number one luxury”, says Govberg.

Watchbox Hong Kong went to great lengths to create a lounge atmosphere, rather than a retail space (© Watchbox)

“The process of sourcing, servicing, and preparing the right inventory for sale is critical to Watchbox’s success,” Govberg continued. “Watchbox’s global inventory represents the largest owned inventory of pristine condition, pre-owned luxury watches available for sale or trade worldwide, with an extraordinary range of collectable and in-demand models. The average consumer doesn’t realise just how much inventory is ‘out there’, and it is easy to misunderstand its origins. We are the principal in every transaction: we inspect, authenticate, purchase, and warranty every watch in our inventory”. More than 90 percent of the pre-owned watches Watchbox offers have been directly purchased from consumers. “We actively purchase and procure watches from private customers, collections, individual estates, and discover unique opportunities in the market. This does include collections purchased directly from brands – never grey market dealers – retired and discontinued timepieces, and case-worn models similar to an auto dealer’s demo cars. These pieces go through the same intake, inspection, and service processes to ensure they meet our global standards – with new straps and case refinishing when necessary – before being presented for sale in our pre-owned inventory”.

While Watchbox is one of the more high-profile providers, thanks in great part to its popular YouTube show, it is not the only secondary-market specialist; a number of retailers of luxury timepieces have also offered pre-owned and trade-in services for many years, and even Amazon.com recently entered the certified pre-owned luxury watch space. And not to forget established services like Crown & Caliber and Rolex specialist Bob’s Watches, which has been in business since the mid-1990s. Multi-channels for luxury pre-owned such as the Realreal, Grailed.com, and Collector’s Square also offer name-brand pre-owned watches among other luxury items. Collector’s Square, launched by the founder of Artcurial, Nicolas Orlowski, and digital entrepreneur Loïc Bocher, additionally offers an interesting tool to help clients and prospective clients understand the value of pre-owned watches better: its LuxPrice-Index has gathered and analysed data on thousands of auction results over the last 15 years. In addition to the digital marketplace, the duo maintains a brick-and-mortar showroom in Paris.

Another high-profile marketplace is Germany’s Chrono24, a 15-year-old company that can accurately be described as the eBay of the watch world with more than 400,000 watches currently available through its digital marketplace. It is important to note that these wares are not owned by the entity like WatchBox’s offerings, and that they come from a variety of private and professional sellers. The Karlsruhe-based company under CEO Tim Stracke, whose transaction numbers are approximately divided into one-third new watches and two-thirds pre-owned and vintage timepieces, reached around €1.3 billion in transaction volume in 2018. A major advantage of buying and selling through this platform (as opposed to eBay) is the support provided to safely transact across international borders. “Our free escrow service and global customer support in 15 different languages bring trust to the customer”, according to Stracke.

Tim Stracke, Chrono 24’s CEO, has transformed the website into a major watch trading platform (© Chrono 24)

“Currently we’re seeing a major shift within the industry of watch brands entering the pre-owned market”, Stracke continued in answer to my question regarding brands certifying their own pre-owned watches. “Brands realize that if they are open to trading in a pre-owned watch from a customer, this specific customer might also be willing to do his or her next acquisition – whether a new or another pre-owned watch – with them. For companies used to manufacturing and selling [only] new watches, this is quite a new business approach. And this might be one of the reasons why there is a growing interest by Swiss brands to get into talks with us.”

Brands now certifying and selling their own pre-owned watches

“I have always thought that a strong brand is one with a strong pre-owned market and that it is the brand’s responsibility to help the secondary market as much in fluidity as in value,” said Maximilian Büsser, founder and owner of boutique brand MB&F, which offers completely refurbished and serviced timepieces no longer available from retailers – even coming with a two-year factory warranty, thus completely reassuring buyers of their state and aiding the sellers in finding new homes for them. “The pre-owned market is truly very tricky to navigate, and not only because of how badly some people treat their pieces”, Büsser continued. “Over the last years, a few customers were conned into buying stolen pieces. Swiss law is clear: if the piece has been officially declared stolen, and we get it in after-sales service, we are obliged to confiscate the piece and give it to the police. These customers therefore lost their pre-owned MB&Fs when they sent them in for service.”

Büsser was careful about finding the right price for his brand’s pre-owned watches as it is crucial that a secondary-market price reflect the piece’s rarity as well as the value of the refurbishing and servicing of these sometimes quite complicated timepieces. MB&F offered the first five pre-owned pieces on its website in June 2018, where prices ranged between the original full Swiss retail to –22 percent. Four of the five sold immediately.

F. P. Journe also offers a similar service it calls Patrimoine that differs from other brands’ certified pre-owned programs only in that François-Paul Journe personally evaluates each offer and validates the buyback before having his team completely restore and update these timepieces in his Geneva workshop. Unlike MB&F’s pre-owned web presence, the prices for the watches from past collections no longer in production are not publicly shown and must be requested through one of the brand boutique locations, though the available timepieces are displayed online.

FP Journe was one of the first brands to respond to client demand for pre-owned, hard-to-find models

Audemars Piguet, Breitling and other well-known brands plan to follow suit with as-yet unveiled concepts, while Urwerk and H. Moser & Cie. have already put programs into practice. Moser CEO Edouard Meylan instituted his program in order to better control the grey market, as consumers had complained of buying fakes or damaged watches. “We also had people asking us what we think of this or that model available on a parallel platform. Before we would simply say that there is no guarantee and we would explain the risks. Today we can guide them to a more secured platform: our own.” Urwerk displays the pre-owned watches available for sale on its website along with pricing, while Moser does not.

The Richemont group, owner of 12 luxury watch brands, acquired pre-owned shopping site Watchfinder & Co, though as of yet no further information on the acquisition and the watch giant’s plans for it have been released. It has gone so quiet around what watch industry insiders considered a shocking event in June 2018 that it may even leave one wondering if the acquisition wasn’t a move designed as a response to the recent years’ overproduction (which in turn has caused more active grey market for its brands) to instill more faith.

In the end, trust will determine whether these business models succeed. And trust only comes through good business practices over extended periods of time – meaning that time will ultimately prove whether this new model sustainably works. But please remember to do your comparison shopping while you’re at it not everything you find online as a secondary-market watch is going to be cheaper than retail – something that can be due to the rarity of the timepiece in question or just the shrewd business sense of the seller. And do weigh price versus trustworthiness, in my opinion the most important ingredient; this is, in fact, one of the key factors that is driving brands to establish their own pre-owned programs, and clients want the reassurance that the watches are still looked after by the brand itself.