A look at the US watch market


Tiny Jewel Box: watchmaking in Washington DC

TRAVEL NOTES 🇺🇸 UNITED STATES

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August 2018


Tiny Jewel Box: watchmaking in Washington DC

Since Roosevelt in the 1930s, the American political establishment has been buying jewellery from a specific retailer: Tiny Jewel Box. This historic address has succesfully added watches to its portfolio since 2001. It proves that, even in the age of the internet and new technologies, not everything translates to the virtual world; patiently building one’s reputation around uncompromising principles pays off in the long run. All the more so with new generations exhausted by mass consumption. Visit.

“W

e’re always very happy when we get a call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!” Matthew Rosenheim has a rare privilege in the watch industry: the president and owner of the Tiny Jewel Box boutique, which has sold timepieces for 17 years, is Rolex’s exclusive representative in central Washington DC – the most internationally sought-after brand, in the political heart of the most powerful country on the planet. While many fear for the survival of the “bricks-and-mortar” model, such a competitive advantage is difficult to beat!

But above all, the historic jewellery marketplace in Washington seems to have been practising for a very long time what is now the key word on everyone’s lips in the industry: the best customer experience. “In many ways and despite all the technological developments, my job remains very similar to that of my grandparents,” Matthew Rosenheim emphasises. “We do business based on human relations. Of course, we develop new strategies, but sometimes the simplest things work best.” Here, each new product entry is meticulously thought out by the Rosenheim family (see Inside The Box).

“In many ways and despite all the technological developments, my job remains very similar to that of my grandparents.”

Tiny Jewel Box, which was expanded three years ago, occupies a historic building in downtown Washington DC
Tiny Jewel Box, which was expanded three years ago, occupies a historic building in downtown Washington DC

Tiny is beautiful

Unlike many of their competitors, the Rosenheim family systematically refused to open other stores, which turned their only boutique, which now occupies a historic building in the city centre, into an impregnable bastion of jewellery and watchmaking. Its history began – unusually in the industry – with a woman, Roz Rosenheim, who opened her jewellery store in Washington in 1930 and counted Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a regular customer. And today, as was the case in the past, the owner is always present.

“We like the idea of a single destination, embodied by familiar faces, with the owner on site to welcome you,” Matthew Rosenheim explains. “When you operate a family business, it is difficult to separate the business from your personal interests. And if we expanded, I believe we would dilute our business on the one hand, and on the other hand impact our daily personal pleasure. It would be for purely commercial reasons and that is not the only reason we do this job!”

“We have a special location and a single watch operations centre. This concentration of strengths and knowledge offers the richest possible customer experience,” adds the retailer. It should be noted that the exhibition space is no longer confined to the 100 square feet of the original shop (hence the name of the boutique); its area has multiplied by 80 in 80 years, as the Washington Post underlined in a portrait of this iconic store.

“We like the idea of a single destination, embodied by familiar faces, with the owner on site to welcome you,” Matthew Rosenheim explains. “When you operate a family business, it’s hard to separate business from personal interests.”

CBS report on Tiny Jewel Box

Watchmaking and “understatement”

It should also be noted that, unlike other retailers who face fierce competition on their doorstep, the basic conditions are rather favourable to Tiny Jewel Box. This unique location, a stone’s throw from the White House, has always determined its destiny. Moreover, few brands have opened their own boutiques in the American capital. The proximity of New York probably plays a role, but also the profile of their (rather conservative) clientele. “I believe that there is a whole fringe of watchmaking clientele that is not necessarily ready to adhere to the concept of a single-brand boutique. The concept of ‘brand loyalty’ is now more in question than ever,” says Matthew Rosenheim.

Over and above the advantages of its location, it was Tiny Jewel Box’s cautious and highly selective strategy that paid off. Initially a jeweller, Tiny Jewel Box expanded into watchmaking quite late, at the turn of the year 2000. It has since caught up quickly, forging successive partnerships with Rolex in 2001, Cartier in 2015 (which coincided with the expansion of the boutique, taking over premises previously occupied by Burberry, and freeing up a lot of space for the new watchmaking section) and Patek Philippe in 2016.

For Matthew Rosenheim, who has several decades’ experience serving this clientele, watch lovers in Washington are among the most educated... and the most traditional in the country. We will certainly see fewer Richard Milles or Hublots than in New York or Miami. There are several reasons for this. Washington is a traditional city of history and heritage. It is a focus of the political establishment of the United States; it is a place where one moves in circles of influence, discreetly, rather than in ostentatious luxury. “Here, the local currency is not money, but your network, who will take your call or not!”

Moreover, sporting timepieces with a disruptive design or covered with precious materials do not necessarily fit in with the electoral base and the public service mission of its representatives. The word “understatement” takes on its full meaning here – and has nothing to do with purchasing power... “There are actually a lot of watch collectors in Washington, but they are very discreet on the spot,” Matthew Rosenheim points out. “If they show their collection, it’ll be outside the capital!”

“Here, the local currency is not money, but your network, who will take your call or not.”

Matthew Rosenheim, president and owner of Tiny Jewel Box, representing the third generation at the helm of the American retailer
Matthew Rosenheim, president and owner of Tiny Jewel Box, representing the third generation at the helm of the American retailer

When Obama and Bush meet

Political elites are the primary clientele of this prestigious address, including a series of American presidents. During the 2008 presidential transition, Michelle Obama presented Laura Bush with a gift from Tiny Jewel Box. It was also a vintage brooch that the Obamas presented to the Queen of England in 2011. Jim Rosenheim, who represents the second generation, is still active in the shop and was awarded the GEM Award for Lifetime Achievement a year ago.

In addition to customers and institutions from the political world, the shop also attracts businessmen visiting the American capital, which is a lobbying hotspot, and – this is a recurring refrain in the industry – more and more Chinese tourists, who visit Washington on their American trips.

During the 2008 presidential transition, Michelle Obama presented Laura Bush with a gift from Tiny Jewel Box.

Tiny Jewel Box: watchmaking in Washington DC Tiny Jewel Box: watchmaking in Washington DC

Washington is gentrifying

The demographic structure of the city itself is changing. While the middle to wealthy classes settled in the suburbs from the 1960s onwards, as they did in many other American cities, we are now witnessing the opposite phenomenon, with the corollary of a real estate boom. Washington is gentrifying.

“I no longer recognise my childhood neighbourhood,” explains Matthew Rosenheim. “The new generations no longer necessarily want to live far from the centre, in the quiet suburbs of Virginia or Maryland. They don’t want a long daily commute and often do not own a car. In addition, the political centre continues to attract people. Even though people continue to talk about government cuts, that’s not the reality!”

The retailer generally makes the acquaintance of this new millennial clientele – Washington is also an important university centre, notably with Georgetown – through the sale of engagement and wedding rings. That’s one advantage of combining jewellery and watchmaking! “It is often at this time that new generations first set foot here. Demand is increasing. More and more spouses want a watch as a wedding gift.”

This is where the boutique can count on its ancestral recipes for personalised and local advice. “The quality of a watch is greatly enhanced in an environment where everything is disposable, from the phone to the car. In this context, one appreciates all the more an object that lasts for a whole lifetime! The new generations want fewer objects, but better quality objects. I think that’s what really defines the new state of mind... and in that sense too, it’s in line with my grandmother’s philosophy!”

The store has maintained this state of mind, opting for a form of strategic prudence – and it continues to pay off. “Our goal is not to represent twenty brands like other retailers – which is much more difficult to manage – but to have the best.”

“New generations want fewer objects, but better quality objects. I think that’s what really defines the new state of mind... and in that sense too, it’s in line with my grandmother’s philosophy!”

Smooth move towards the online world

The big question of the moment remains how brands will integrate all the potential opened up by new technologies. “Today, everyone recognises that the status quo is not sustainable for watch distribution chains,” says Matthew Rosenheim. “I think, however, given the brands we represent, that the digital transition will advance gradually and not by sudden breaks.”

“Rolex and Patek Philippe already have long waiting lists. Are these brands going to embark on e-commerce while not being able to deliver to customers immediately, when digital is the reign of the instant?”

The retailer has also noticed that brands are pulling back somewhat in terms of the initiatives their representatives can undertake online. “We can, for example, migrate communication and marketing actions to the digital world.” Tiny Jewel Box does not (yet) sell watches online. “We see e-commerce as inevitable in the long run. But right now, I don’t think we’re losing much by not being active. On the contrary, brands have refined their strategies and reassessed their partnerships in recent years: in this sense, our ties are stronger than ever. On the one hand, the opening of mono-brand boutiques is decreasing, and on the other hand, online sales are still in their infancy.”

Matthew Rosenheim still sees a paradox at a time when everyone seems to be pressing watchmakers to rush online: “Rolex and Patek Philippe already have long waiting lists. We can’t get the models we’d like. Are these brands going to engage in e-commerce while not being able to deliver to customers immediately, when digital is the reign of the instant?”

Tiny Jewel Box: watchmaking in Washington DC

Address: 1155 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036

Brands: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Longines, Frédérique Constant, TAG Heuer