Aug 29 2019 · By Chris Mires
Not so long ago, the sphere of pre-owned luxury watches typically only functioned within high-end auction houses or in less-than-reputable pawn shops. But today, a new era of transformation has taken place within the secondary market for luxury watches. Emerging as a strong industry that is commanding attention, what was once a quiet sleeper has now arisen to become a bull market that refuses be ignored.
In a fascinating turn of events, even though the average person is not wearing a watch regularly as they once did (with the entrance of cell phones), the attention and respect given to vintage or modern pre-owned watches has grown significantly. Unlike phones, which are consumer driven and have little lasting value, the watch market focuses on items that are made of superior, lasting quality and are irreplaceable, distinct and often one-of-a kind.
Because the pre-owned watch industry has not been tracked closely, it is hard to say exactly what it is worth. However, experts agree that it is likely much bigger than most people might think. While it is difficult to pin down, estimates show that the secondary market for used watches has surpassed that of new watches—probably even doubling or tripling it.
As the new watch industry hits around $10 billion in the US alone, the pre-owned market is may be valued at up to $30 billion (reference). And that growth is expected to continue in the near future as more and more authentic luxury brands get on board.
This new interest in pre-owned watches could be taken as a compliment by the luxury watchmaking brands. After all, their products are so well-built and attractive that a deep desire for them still exists many decades later. However, some brands might also consider this a problem as worries appear that the secondary market could be cutting into their primary watch sales.
In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the increase in the pre-owned watch business has taken away some customers from the new watch industry. While the sales of the secondary luxury watch market are booming, the numbers for new luxury watches have been lagging in recent years, particularly in the United States. Traditionally, Swiss watchmakers have looked at the secondary market as direct competition. But that may very well be changing.
As it turns out, many of the big luxury brand names are starting to embrace the idea of becoming players in the pre-owned watch game. Not only do some see this as an opportunity to help their bottom line, but they also are looking to protect their reputations. This could be a way to bring monitoring and oversight to the aspects of quality and authenticity to their watches. After all, their brand names are at stake.
In 2014, Maximilian Büsser, decided to take his MB&F brand into the secondary watch market after he was sold a less-than-perfect vintage Rolex through the internet. Dipping his toe into the pre-owned market, while trying not to compete with retailers of their new watch models, the company certifies their pre-owned offerings with a service check-up and manufacturer’s warranty. The idea is essentially to create a better place to buy gently used watches.
Richemont, owner of a host of luxury brands including Cartier, Chloe, Buame et Mercier, and A. Lane & Sohne made a stunning transition into the world of preowned watches in 2018 when it purchased Watchfinder Limited, a British-owned company that provides a platform for buying, selling and researching luxury watches.
Audemars Piguet is another well-respected brand to make it known that they would be adding a subsidiary to focus on trading in secondhand watches. It is expected that the brand will place second hand watches in some, but not all, of its stores in Switzerland.
The head of LVMH, makers of Hublot, TAG Heuer and Zenith, has admitted that the company is considering branching into the pre-owned market. Other luxury watchmaker brands that are moving toward getting involved in the secondary market include Breitling, H. Moser & Cie, and F.P. Journe.
Not surprisingly, larger watch brands such as Patek Philippe, Rolex and Swatch Group have remained silent on whether they might move in the direction of pre-owned watches. But as Richemont and Breitling have moved forward, it would be a natural move to see even the biggest brands stepping into the realm of pre-owned.
You don’t have to be around the secondary watch market for very long before you’ll begin hearing certain names within the industry. Most of these, because of the newness of the industry, are fairly recent on the scene but have made quite an impact within the world of pre-owned watches for one reason or another. Whether owned by individuals or bought out by watchmakers, these are some of the sites you’ll want to pay attention to when it comes to buying and selling.
In response to the growing popularity of pre-owned watches, along with a desire to see the industry more regulated, Crown & Caliber was created in 2012. This online solution for the buying and selling of watches aims to reduce the risk that buyers take with their purchases and investments. Offering purchasing guidance as well as a happiness guarantee and 1-year warranty for every watch sold, the company estimates for last year’s sales were around $45 million.
Focusing almost completely on pre-owned Rolex watches, Bob’s Watches reports income of over $40 million per year in the secondhand watch business. It’s no surprise that Rolex watches hold their value better than most other brands. In extremely high demand, the popular Rolex brand brings a great amount of trade business and notoriety in the second hand and vintage watch market.
This online company was created when Danny Govberg decided it was time to diversify from many years of his family business only in the new watch sector. Govberg saw the up-and-coming potential of the second hand watch market and began WatchBox online to cater to the unique needs of these customers. With global locations in North America, Europe and Asia, the company has reached sales of more than $200 million in less than two decades of operation.
Spanning hundreds of thousands of watches in more than 100 countries, Chrono 24 is a German company that offers secure buyer protection and personalized support. This leading marketplace doesn’t carry its own inventory but, instead, the sellers ship the watches directly to the buyers. Chrono 24 simply acts as a matchmaker to help buyers find what they want. Chorno 24 is estimated to have done more than $1.25 billion in transactions last year.
This company doesn’t just focus on watches, but buys and sells on consignment in all different types of wearable designer vintage items. But the watch sector is certainly a factor within the RealReal branding and it’s a company to watch as they focus on reducing waste by re-using designer products.
Founded in 2002, Watchfinder set out to create a source for finding premium watches within the pre-owned market. Sourcing dozens of brands names such as Rolex and Cartier, Watchfinder not only offers online sales but also provides a service center that is manufacturer certified. A return policy and satisfaction guarantee help to keep watch buyers satisfied. Notably, Watchfinder was recently purchased by Richemont.
Many people are wondering how to get started with buying and selling in the second hand luxury watch market. Consider these tips before you make that first purchase:
It might cost more but it’s completely worth it to know that you aren’t getting scammed. Fakes are definitely out there and you want to be sure that you can trust the authenticity of your newly acquired vintage watch.
Do what you can to get as much information as possible on the types/brands of watches you are interested in before deciding on which purchase to make. A large amount of useful information about prices, quality and authenticity of luxury watches can be found online for free (starting with many of the buying and selling websites listed above). Instead of just jumping in with both feet like you might when buying a new watch, it is important to get your research done first. Then you can make a wise decision when it is time.
So far, the performance of men’s watches in the luxury secondary watch market is significantly higher than that of women’s watches. Plus, in many cases, women can wear a vintage men’s watch as a style statement piece.
No matter the value, the best watch is the one that gets worn and enjoyed because of its beauty and purpose. If you don’t think it looks nice, you won’t wear it and its beauty will be wasted by simply sitting in the box.
Maybe you’ve been interested in the world of pre-owned watches for some time, or maybe you’re just getting started. In any case, it seems as if the buying and selling on this secondary market is just now coming into its own. Only time will tell how much further this recently materializing industry can go, but it seems to have a long life ahead.