Timepieces That Connect With a History of Exploration

New York Times, November 21, 2014

NEW YORK — Randy Brandoff got his first taste of watch one-upmanship when he was a high school student in Jericho, N.Y. The Movado and TAG Heuer wristwatches he owned seemed like sophisticated choices, especially for a teenager, until a friend turned 16 and came to school sporting a Royal Oak, the signature luxury timepiece from the Swiss brand Audemars Piguet.

“I remember looking at his watch and looking at mine,” recalled the 38-year-old entrepreneur. “Much like the Yugo was a car and Rolls Royce was a car, they really weren’t playing the same game.”

As a business-minded 20-something in the heady years of the new millennium, when he became the first employee of Marquis Jet, a company that sold fractional ownership on corporate jets before being acquired by Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets in 2010, Mr. Brandoff experienced a feeling of déjà vu.

“By 30, I had bought three to five nice watches, but I was surrounded by folks with 20 to 30 nice watches,” Mr. Brandoff said. “I realized I couldn’t beat them by owning them but could beat them an alternative way.”

In 2013, Mr. Brandoff founded Eleven James, an annual membership club for luxury timepieces that operates like a timeshare — literally. Members can choose from three tiers of membership, ranging from $2,700 to $17,250 yearly, to gain access to wristwatches for rotations that typically last two to three months. The selection includes basic sport watches by Rolex, sophisticated dress styles by Arnold & Son and complicated models from Patek Philippe.

“There are a whole lot more watches that you would want to date than marry,” Mr. Brandoff said. “We allow you to have that variety.”

That young men with means, like those Mr. Brandoff is targeting with Eleven James, may prefer renting watches as opposed to buying them outright is one of many challenges facing Swiss brands as they attempt to woo millennial buyers this coming holiday season.

From sputtering growth in once-unstoppable markets like China to competition from smartwatches — led by the Apple Watch, expected to be available in stores in early 2015 — the issues confronting high-end watch manufacturers illustrate a rapidly changing landscape that is seeing traditional methods of distribution and promotion crumble, and newer, less conventional models take their place. The shift mirrors what is happening in other retail categories.

“Many years ago, who would have thought you’d sell 30 percent of your men’s suits on a mobile device?” said Keith George, chief merchandising officer at the online retailer Gilt.com, which recently debuted the Michael Bastian Smartwatch, the result of a partnership with the menswear designer and Hewlett-Packard. The 44-mm stainless-steel model has a traditional-looking round dial, yet its capabilities include receiving sports and stock updates, text messages and calendar reminders.

“It became pretty clear to us that there were tech companies doing smart watches in a very tech way, and luxury companies doing luxury watches in a luxury way, but no one was blending those together,” Mr. George said.

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The luxury watch industry may be ripe for an incursion by people preaching the wearable-tech gospel, but technology has already made inroads into how fine timepieces are promoted and sold. That is evident in the realm of social media, where visual platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr are transforming from straightforward promotional vehicles into bona fide sales channels.

This year, Noise/The Intelligence Group, a youth-focused marketing agency in New York, released a report about a survey of 18- to 34-year-olds that indicated 38 percent of them preferred to communicate with pictures instead of words.

That may explain the rise of Instagram personalities who are connecting buyers and sellers in the luxury watch market in novel ways. The photo- and video-sharing service is home to scores of watch-obsessed feeds — Panerai Central and Wristi are two popular accounts — but the most notable one belongs to Watch Anish, whose founder, Anish Bhatt, travels the world, snapping photos of expensive timepieces on his wrist for his 850,000-plus followers.

Usually incorporating a lush backdrop that features fast cars, deluxe yachts, fancy cocktails and/or beautiful women in any number of exotic destinations — recent pit stops have included Beirut, Shanghai and Miami — the watch images are often, but not always, sponsored by brands seeking to catch the attention of social media-savvy consumers.

Mr. Bhatt got the idea for Watch Anish in 2011, when he moved back to London, where he grew up, and started a Tumblr devoted to watches. “I wanted to create my own images and have a visual language,” he said. “That way you’re not restricted by a language barrier. A picture is the same in Mandarin as it is in English.”

Mr. Bhatt’s lifestyle-oriented approach — and a hedonist’s life at that — has inspired numerous copycat feeds, but in 2012, when Mr. Bhatt was just starting out, the freshness of his style impressed Jorn Werdelin, founder of the watch brand Linde Werdelin in London.

“In a very short space of time, Anish has become the man of the watch world,” Mr. Werdelin said. “It’s taken only two years to completely transform the way that even some print people communicate. Where there was a lot of talk about the intricacies of watchmaking, that has changed to become a little bit more fun.”

Exhibit A: The decadent Instagram photos Watch Anish posted in late July, when Linde Werdelin hosted a three-day celebration in Marbella, Spain, to mark the opening of a new boutique with the brand’s local retail partner, Anil Arjandas.

“People came from London and the Middle East to join us,” Mr. Werdelin said.

He remarked on the power of social media — and Instagram, in particular — to foster a direct dialogue between brands and consumers.

“It goes back to the origins of high-quality luxury and specialty products, when the makers would be in direct communication with the end consumer,” Mr. Werdelin said. “Members of the growing merchant class or the aristocracy would go to the shop or factory and buy the stock. Only in the last 30 to 40 years have we seen that huge distance between brands and consumers.”

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At Marcus, a high-end watch retailer on Bond Street in London, the most powerful aspect of using social media as a sales tool is its ability to convey accessibility.

“I don’t use posh sales language — it’s just me chatting away about why I like a particular watch,” said the firm’s digital retail manager, Alex Rose, who handles the Marcus Watches Instagram feed. “That’s why our followers like us. When people message me, they know they’re talking to Alex, not a faceless company.”

Mr. Rose has formed close relationships with potential clients around the world, sight unseen — so much so that, when they finally make it to London, many of them greet him as if he were a longstanding friend.

“I have a client from Indonesia and we get on so well on social media that when he visits, he invites me to dinner with his family,” Mr. Rose said.

As the high-end watch trade gears up for the holiday season and beyond, the conventional wisdom is that in a world beset by geopolitical instability, changing mores and the relentless pull of social media, buying a fine mechanical timepiece is the ultimate way to embrace the present moment.

“In a very chaotic world where you have destabilization, where people cannot grip things anymore, a true watch with 250 years of tradition is something meaningful,” said Georges Kern, the chief executive of IWC Schaffhausen. “It’s something you can keep and collect and give to your children. Very traditional values — I don’t think they’re weakening, I think they’re strengthening.”

The research substantiates Mr. Kern’s claim. Sixty-seven percent of millennial buyers want to strike a balance between maintaining tradition and being modern, according to Noise/The Intelligence Group. Seen from that perspective, a fractional ownership service like Eleven James may actually work in the watch industry’s favor.

“I joined the club to figure out what I’m going to invest in,” said Lee Levine, director of sales at Tour GCX Partners, a sports marketing company in New York. Since subscribing to Eleven James about six months ago, he has tried out three watches: a Breitling Bentley Barnato that served as his primary summer watch, a Breguet Transatlantique Type XXI Flyback that helped him through wedding season and a Panerai Radiomir Chronograph PAM288.

Mr. Levine, 27, said he traces his interest in watches to his first boss, who wore a Breitling. “Some guys are wearing a $5,000 suit while others are in business meetings wearing, essentially, a car on their wrist,” he said. “You see people with similar interests, and it’s something that can break the ice.”

That sentiment applies also to the Apple Watch, which Mr. Levine said he intends to buy. Having a smart watch, however, won’t stop him from coveting mechanical watches that run on old-fashioned analog technology.

“Not everyone just has one watch,” Mr. Levine said. “People want their variety. The Apple Watch will be a great talking piece and the people who buy it early will wear it often. Whereas there will always be a time and place for traditional watches, whether at a formal occasion or a business meeting.”