Reports are streaming out of Switzerland, all sharing a common thread: the modern watch market is tanking. In July, the Swatch Group, the global conglomerate comprised of major Swiss brands such as Omega, Blancpain, Longines and Breguet, warned of a drop in first-half sales of roughly 12 percent. Richemont, which holds Cartier, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre, among others, reported an 18 percent sales plunge in April and saw shares fall roughly 5.6 percent.
This volatility in the market makes things complex for consumers. The obvious upside is that brands are trying desperately to move merchandise, making it a buyer’s market. Many authorized dealers and resellers are discounting their retail prices to try and entice buyers. But this also means that the values of the watches being bought are at an all-time low. Despite this, there are ways to buy a modern piece, smarter.
Don’t dismiss the boutiques. When markets soften, many people steer clear of the boutiques based on the belief that they will pay “full retail” for a watch that can be had for less elsewhere. Most people don’t know that many boutiques allow their sales staff to take 10-15 percent off the sticker price of a watch; with a little negotiating, the sales manager could save you as much as 25 percent. Some brands are stricter than others, but at the end of the day, a little good old-fashioned bargaining can go a long way. And for some, the peace of mind of getting a watch with a full warranty and full kit is worth paying a little bit more. Plus, being on the client list of a major brand offers ancillary benefits like getting direct access to limited editions, being able to purchase straps and other accoutrement that can be hard to locate elsewhere, and even receiving invitations for special boutique and factory visits.
Cruise the forums. There is a lot — I mean a lot — of bad press out there regarding the gray market. Forums and independent resellers moving pre-owned pieces often get a bad rap; and, while caution should always be exercised when purchasing from unknown sources, there are numerous deals to be had if you know what to look for. You can often get as-new pieces at 25-30 percent off their sticker prices. If you are diligent and patient, you can get a watch that is only lightly worn for much less than retail.
As always, it’s important to work with established and reputable sellers. A good place to start is Watch Recon, and online aggregator for private and dealer-classified listings. Be sure to ask for live pictures of the piece that you’re chasing — some less-than-forthright resellers will attempt to use recycled pictures to “pre-sell” watches to which they don’t have ready access. It’s also a good idea to clarify the parameters of inspection and return; a three- to five-day inspection period is industry standard. Finally, try and work out a split payment, a deposit with the remainder to be sent after a thorough inspection. While this might not always be possible, it protects you from fraudulent dealings.
Skip blue chip. If you are set on buying new, it’s worth looking past the big names and focusing on watches from the smaller brands — think brands like Bremont, Glashütte Original, and even Jaeger-LeCoultre. While these names are fairly widely known, they don’t enjoy as much global recognition as Rolex, Omega and others generally considered blue-chip brands. But where Rolexes and Omegas are respected because of their excellent build quality and value retention, watches produced by the second-tier brands are less common (produced in fewer quantities) and generally more interesting to secondary buyers. Many of these makers offer exceptional watches with movements that are more complicated than their more famous brethren and are often marked by a more interesting design language, meaning you can usually get way more actual watch for your money.
Less money doesn’t equal less watch. Mainstream watch manufactures have convinced most consumers that you must to be willing to spend upwards of $5,000 to get a decent watch. The truth is that there are loads of brands that offer quality watches for hundreds, not thousands. Brands like Seiko, NOMOS, Squale and Sinn have incredible histories and sterling production quality. Seiko’s SRP-777 “Turtle” can be ordered online for less than $400 (on a bracelet) and you can find simple three-hander Sinn models — the Ref. 556 A, for one — retailing for around $1,200. These brands are manufacturing purpose-built watches, unburdened of luxury flourishes like white-gold hour markers and ceramic bezels. For in-depth reports, photos and reviews on the more affordable brands, check out sites that specialize in affordable watches, like Worn & Wound.
Think independently. The Swiss watch market is generally defined by the major watch conglomerates (Swatch Group, Richemont, LVMH, etc.), which produce hundreds of thousands of watches every year. But outside of these manufacturing giants exist a handful of independently owned Swiss watch manufactures. These independents – brands such as F. P. Journe, Habring and Martin Braun — produce anywhere from five to 50 watches a year, employing small teams of watchmakers who design and craft their pieces in-house. In addition to being aesthetically unique and horologically advanced, these timepieces make excellent alternatives to watches in the mainstream market, as they have the potential to hold their value longer and enjoy appreciation sooner.