In London, watch enthusiasts who have a favorite brand often head to monobrand boutiques, where collectors befriend managers to get first crack at special watches. But those with a wider range of preferences head to Watches of Switzerland. Launched in 1924, the retailer carries a bevy of luxury watch brands including Patek Philippe, Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, Breitling and IWC. Its 15 stores and showrooms in the U.K. generate approximately 500 million pounds or about $761 million, at current exchange annually, with Rolex among its bestsellers. Aurum Group chief executive officer Brian Duffy joined the company, which owns Watches of Switzerland, Goldsmiths, Mappin & Webb and WatchShop, in 2014. Prior to joining the Apollo-owned company, the Glasgow-born executive was group president of Polo Ralph Lauren Europe and the Middle East. WWD and Duffy discussed luxury watches, smartwatches and trends.
What’s the secret?
There’s no secret — we’ve been doing it for a really long time. This was one of the first retailers and importers of luxury Swiss watches. Our group was first in the U.K. for Rolex. We’ve got tremendous heritage and credibility. We just manage major brands and products very well, and we invest in training.
How do you acquire top watches?
It’s a track record of success, it’s our price, it is our VIP customer list, it’s the expertise of our top salespeople. We have great sales management and staffers, and a VIP sales team who know how to handle that kind of customer. Again, we’ve been doing that for a long time.
What are your most expensive watches?
The most expensive brand we carry is one of the most luxurious brands in the world: Patek Philippe. We have a range of watches, but they really are the experts in terms of high-end complications and rare and exclusive product. The most highly valued products from Patek Philippe would be the Minute Repeaters. The whole wonder of the mechanics is how watchmakers manage to get such complicated mechanics into such a small space…metal bars and small hammers that actually chime every few minutes. It’s a feat of mechanical engineering. It’s very specialized, and very few people in the world can build minute repeaters to such precision.
What’s your typical client like?
It’s very much an eclectic mix. Clearly, people who are successful and wealthy, who have taste, and a real interest in watches. There’s a rationale for buying watches purely for financial investment. And in our experience, there are people who do that. People who buy and collect and invest in watches have a lot of appreciation for them.
What watches are most in demand?
The ones that are most difficult to get. Top Swiss luxury brands restrict production to such high standards of craftsmanship, and by that very definition there are not many watchmakers that can produce such a degree of complexity. So there’s a natural restriction on availability — and immediately demand exceeds supply. Some, like Rolex, professional models like the Daytona or the GMT of a Submariner — there will always be more demand for these products than supply.
What’s your VIP treatment?
We have two stores in London — one on Regent Street and the other on Oxford Street. Both have specialized VIP rooms, where top customers can relax. We talk about opportunities, about products we might be able to get, in a very discrete and private way. We also can meet customers at home or hotel. We initially like to establish a relationship using our stores so we can present our products. Thereafter, it becomes more personalized.
Do collectors buy multiple watches at a time?
That depends on the kind of buyers. Usually it’s difficult to get access to more than one product at a time. The top collectors who really know watches are [told when] watches they’d like to buy become available…when we get access or availability to the watch. Similarly, we have customers who are luxury watch consumers, but not at the very top end: Someone who would frequently spend 15,000 to 25,000 pounds [$23,100 to $38,500 at current exchange], maybe more. We tend to find they have their eye on their next purchase. They make a purchase and enjoy it for a period, and then something else will catch their eye. So the idea of buying multiple watches at once is very unusual, because people tend to get focused on a particular type of watch. There was a time at the height of the Chinese boom that multiple purchases were more common, but honestly, by far, the number of watches per transaction is one.
What about smartwatches?
The Tag Heuer model is going to be available soon, as well as Montblanc’s version, which they presented in Basel [in Switzerland]. I don’t know what luxury watches are doing next in smartwatches. It’s potentially interesting in the market, but I certainly don’t see electronic or plastic competing with the wonderful precious examples of great technical mechanical watches. I think, along with the rest of the industry, I’ll have to wait and see. It’s certainly not the same customer. Luxury watches are expensive and, of course, there’s a natural bias toward an older consumer with greater wealth. Smartwatches are geared toward a younger consumer. At this stage, there’s a lot of talk about smartwatches, a great campaign by Apple. But in terms of impacting our business, there’s absolutely none at all. People are wearing Apple watches are people who traditionally don’t wear watches. Maybe it’s bringing a new generation of wristwatch-wearers into the market.
What are some key watch trends?
Rectangle or square watches continue to sell. The most common color for men is black, but there are significant increases in blue dials, particularly for men, especially in fashion. Average prices continue to go up, although at a slower pace than it was three or four years ago. The proportion of watch sales for men to women is 70 to 30 percent, and it has been like that for the past few years.
What types of watches do customers seek?
There’s a definite trend toward people having more than one watch. I think once you have two, there’s a real path to accumulate watches for different occasions. I think two very interesting trends are that people look at watches as beautiful accessories and therefore look into dial size, material and shape from a fashion standpoint. There’s a converging of genders, a lot of women buy watches intended for men. We see people generally looking for value, substance and looking for technical capability. Maybe less focus on diamonds and gems and more on complications and accuracy. For example, there’s the Omega Master Co-Axial, which resonates because of its accuracy and durability, and a new Rolex movement called the Fleet 255. These are important to develop consumers’ interest.
What about antique watches?
We sell a variety of antique watches. For example, recently we had a Paul Newman [Rolex] Daytona watch — it’s highly sought-after. We also have the Pilot watch. We do get a lot of very unusual and interesting watches.