Upstarts Get a Big Stage
New York Times, March 17, 2010
LOS ANGELES — John Simonian, the founder and chief executive of Westime, a watch retailer based in Beverly Hills, California, describes success in the watch business by using a simile that comes naturally to people in this city.
“It’s like Hollywood,” Mr. Simonian said. “You have 100,000 actors and 100 superstars, and I think the odds are the same in watchmaking.”
It would seem appropriate to compare Mr. Simonian to a director or producer.
Over the past decade, he has plucked independent watchmakers with big talent and small marketing budgets from obscurity and given them a worthy stage at his two retail boutiques, and along the way he has anointed them the rising stars of haute horlogerie.
“John’s a true mover and shaker in this industry,” said Thomas Mao, a management consultant in Los Angeles and the founder of ThePuristS.com, a Web site for watch aficionados. “He’s up there with Chronopassion in Paris, Hour Glass in Singapore and Cellini in New York,” Mr. Mao said.
Among those retail temples in the watchmaking community, only Hour Glass and Westime share the distinction of being equally influential as distributors.
In addition to Westime, Mr. Simonian owns Richard Mille U.S.A. and distributes seven niche brands across the Americas through a parent company, Ildico. His brands include Greubel Forsey, Urwerk, HD3, Alain Silberstein, MCT, Vincent Bérard and Roland Iten Mechanical Luxury.
For each brand, Mr. Simonian uses “microdistribution” to preserve a cult following among collectors. He perfected the sales tactic through his relationship with Richard Mille, the enfant terrible of high watchmaking, whose forward thinking in the business made a big impression on Mr. Simonian around the turn of the millennium.
“Until Richard Mille, there was the bean counter looking over the creative guy as he made a watch to fit the market,” Mr. Simonian said. “Richard Mille came along and said, ‘I’m going to make the finest mechanical watch, and if it’s superexpensive, it’s superexpensive.’ So he comes to the market with a tourbillon that’s $140,000.”
That was shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and not everyone in the business shared Mr. Simonian’s enthusiasm for the upstart brand. But that did not matter. He had already fallen in love with it.
The appreciation was mutual. Six months after Richard Mille named Westime his first North American retailer, in November 2001, he gave Mr. Simonian the distribution business for the United States and Canada. That was followed in 2005 by the rights to the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
Mr. Simonian, who was born in Beirut in 1956 to parents who belonged to the Armenian diaspora, made his first trip to Switzerland at the age of 12 with his father, a Swiss watch importer. Although he had a great uncle who specialized in watchmaking, he gravitated to the business side of the industry.
In 1986, he and his Swiss wife, Barbara Simonian, moved with their two children to Los Angeles, where he briefly owned the largest Swatch store in the United States.
In 1987, Mr. Simonian opened Westime in the Westside Pavilion, an upscale mall in West Los Angeles.
“Americans were superignorant about watches at the time,” he said. “They knew Rolex and Timex and nothing in between.”
As the economy revved up, Westime’s success in cultivating collectors also picked up.
“One of the reasons I went with all these independent brands is because after selling watches to all my good customers, I had nothing else to sell them,” he said.
“They had their Breguet, their Vacheron, their Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille. So I brought them something new,” he added.
Today, between the West Los Angeles location and a salon on Rodeo Drive that opened in 2003, Westime stocks about 50 brands, from an inexpensive surfer’s watch called Nixon to far-out creations from Guy Ellia and MB&F.
Mr. Simonian’s son, Greg Simonian, 24, the chief operating officer of Westime, runs the retail operation, and he follows his father’s commitment to exotic but little-known brands. The elder Mr. Simonian focuses on distribution and the growing Latin American market, where a new group of collectors awaits.