Christophe Viseux for The New York Times

Christophe Viseux for The New York Times

Dubai Watch Week Accelerates the Industry's Reach in the Middle East

New York Times, Sept. 30, 2015

Over the past 10 years, as collectors from China fueled a sales boom in the luxury watch industry, the Middle East was considered a fledgling market mostly interested in brands and bling: So many diamond-encrusted Rolexes, so little time.

But now, as the Chinese economy is faltering, industry observers say buyers in the Middle East — and in the United Arab Emirates, in particular — are poised to become the industry’s newest set of serious collectors.

“In the last four to five years, I’ve seen enormous change,” said Maximilian Büsser, founder and creative director of the Geneva-based independent watch brand MB&F. “I have met so many knowledgeable collectors in Dubai — people who have collections of great interest, the right references in the right brands.”

Mr. Büsser, a resident of the emirate since January, attributed its market’s increasing sophistication largely to social media. He also cited the efforts of Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons, a 65-year-old family-owned retail operation with 65 outlets throughout the United Arab Emirates. He described the company as “the greatest, most important retailer in the Middle East,” owing to its wide selection of watches from both well-known brands and independent makers.

On Oct. 18, the company will formalize its role in transforming the United Arab Emirates’ watch landscape — and that of global industry events — with the debut of Dubai Watch Week, a five-day educational and cultural gathering featuring exhibitions, forums and master classes.

Created through a partnership of the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons and the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, an annual watchmaking competition, Dubai Watch Week is to hold events in several venues in the Dubai International Financial Center and nearby Dubai Mall. Admission will be free, and sessions generally are to be public; some will require advance registration online, while others are reserved for the week’s V.I.P. program members.

“Public demand to know more about the watch industry is now at its peak,” said Hind Seddiqi, chief marketing officer for Seddiqi Holdings, the retail operation’s parent company. “Now is the right time for us to launch a platform such as Dubai Watch Week.”

The event joins the watch world’s busy fall calendar, from Watches & Wonders, opening Sept. 30 in Hong Kong, to the seventh edition of SalonQP, to be held in mid-November in the Saatchi Gallery in London. The roster of international trade events has been growing in step with the market.

In 2014, Switzerland exported a record $24.3 billion in timepieces, 4.6 percent of which went to the United Arab Emirates, an increase of 8.9 percent over 2013.

The tally for the first seven months of 2015, however, reflects a more difficult environment: Exports to the United Arab Emirates are down 11.8 percent compared with the same period in 2014. In Hong Kong, the luxury watch industry’s largest market, they have declined 20.8 percent.

As the global economy grows more challenging, many people contend that such face-to-face events become even more critical to driving interest among buyers.

“Organic growth is in new markets with nouveau millionaires and a growing middle class with a taste for luxury,” said William Rohr, managing director of the online watch forum TimeZone.com and a Dubai Watch Week speaker. “Events create an environment for these potential clients where they can play with the watches and learn about them, asking directly the questions to the experts and watchmakers.”

At the Dubai event, about 30 speakers are scheduled for what is called the Art of Horology Forum, including Aurel Bacs, president of the watch consultancy Bacs & Russo, which recently forged an association with Phillips auction house’s new watch department (story, page S10). He is to lead a panel on the opening day, Oct. 19, on how to buy watches at auction. And on the closing day, Oct. 22, Mr. Büsser is to moderate a session with the renowned watchmaker Philippe Dufour on watchmaking’s future. Organizers said they are expecting 400 visitors to the forum each day.

They also say Dubai’s readiness for a high-profile watch event of its own became clear in 2013, when the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève’s annual traveling exhibition made its inaugural stop in the city. A number of excited collectors “showed up with their collections in their pockets,” said Melika Yazdjeri, head of corporate communications for Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons. She also noted that more than 200 people attended the opening reception, surpassing expectations.

The Grand Prix director, Carine Maillard, said she felt the enthusiasm, too. “Two years ago, we saw there was a real hunger to understand better the culture and passion around watchmaking,” she said. “Because it was so successful, we wanted to do a bigger event.”

One of the Dubai exhibitions will feature the 72 timepieces vying for the Grand Prix’s 16 annual prizes, to be presented in Geneva on Oct. 29. And the Seddiqi retail operation plans to showcase timepieces by independent makers it calls “the rebels of horology” — including Stephen Forsey, co-founder of Greubel Forsey, and Felix Baumgartner, co-founder of Urwerk — part of its effort to define independence in an industry dominated by global luxury groups.

“Anybody can have Rolex,” said Elizabeth Doerr, editor in chief of the watch website Quill & Pad, another speaker. “But to have that refined taste to carry independents, and to understand and sell them — that’s spectacular.”

It’s also risky, considering their brand-oriented clientele. But the Seddiqis’ commitment to independent makers is, to borrow a term beloved by luxury product marketers, part of the company’s DNA. “The Seddiqi family trusted us and invested in our brand well before our present success,” Mr. Baumgartner said.

Mohammed Seddiqi, the retail company’s senior vice president of sales and retail, is, by all accounts, the family’s resident watch guru. “You sit down with him and you realize it’s a love affair with timepieces,” said Ms. Yazdjeri, the company’s communications chief.

Framing the Seddiqis as evangelists of fine watchmaking helps explain why the company is ready to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in Dubai Watch Week, even as they take pains to describe the event as a noncommercial endeavor intended to promote a market once overlooked by people serious about the business. “Prior to the big recession in 2007-8, the tendency to purchase here was very different,” Ms. Yazdjeri acknowledged. “We had clients saying, ‘Show me the most expensive watch, or with more diamonds.’ Over the past seven, eight years, we’ve taken time to educate.”

Now, she continued, “we have 40 to 70 events per year organized by Seddiqi. Craftsmanship is something people need to understand and learn, and only then do they have a real appreciation for timepieces.”