ritish entrepreneur James Marks is used to frequenting High Net Worth Individuals. As well as being the grandson of Bernie Ecclestone, he spent two decades working for financial establishments including Merrill Lynch, Paribas and a hedge fund. In 2018, as the watch market was booming, he decided to turn his longstanding passion for fine watchmaking into a career, joining Aurel Bacs at Phillips.
But he didn’t come empty-handed. He had a plan: to make Phillips’ watch offering more accessible – but not just in terms of price. His idea was to set up a network of physical stores, backed up by an online platform to facilitate sales, taking a step back from the hushed and sometimes intimidating world of traditional auctions.
The concept has a name: Perpetual. And the network is growing. After London, Gstaad and Hong Kong, a new boutique is due to open in Zurich this year. At the time of writing, the choice of models on the platform ranged from a Graham Swordfish at £1,950 to a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona SACO at £285,000. The choice is wide, personalised and meticulously presented. We met James Marks.
- James Marks is the initiator and manager of the Phillips Perpetual platform.
Europa Star: How was the concept for the first physical watch boutiques developed at Phillips?
James Marks: I approached Aurel Bacs and told him there was an opportunity to be seized. In most cities in the world, a majority of potential customers are not familiar with the world of auctions. They are more used to going into physical stores and dealing with retailers. The best way to capture the interest of this audience is through a channel they’re already familiar with, such as a brick-and-mortar boutique. I was convinced that in-store sales would be a way of facilitating their introduction to the world of auctions. The gamble paid off and Phillips became the first auction house to have a dedicated watch store.
Where and when did you start?
In London in 2019. Since then we have doubled the size of our boutique in Berkeley Square, which also offers some jewellery pieces. In 2023 we opened a new boutique in the Pedder Building in Hong Kong. We are moving forward step by step, carefully and strategically.
- The new Phillips Perpetual boutique in Hong Kong opened in the Pedder Building in 2023.
Have you been inspired by the concepts of watch brands themselves, like AP Houses for example?
Not specifically. But I made two observations: in cities like London, the very wealthy don’t want to shop on the ground floor, for security reasons. On the other hand, in the luxury sector, customers are increasingly attracted to relaxed spaces that are not too strict. Ground floor retail works well for the most common items, but the real business happens upstairs!
- In 2020, in its second year of operation, Phillips Perpetual announced sales of over £5 million, driven by models by Philippe Dufour and F.P.Journe, among others. The following year, the platform announced the first Charles Frodsham Double Impulse wristwatch in white gold to be publicly offered for sale.
Other auction houses have also opened their own watch boutiques.
We must have inspired them! What counts is having access to the right customers, offering the utmost convenience and a service that is accessible at all times. We’ve added another string to our bow with the Perpetual boutiques, as part of this overall mission. Today, you can buy a watch in a sale room, in a boutique or online.
What’s the difference between the watches that are available through the Perpetual network, and those sold at Phillips auctions?
Any watch sold at Perpetual would have a place in a Phillips auction catalogue. We don’t skimp on quality, provenance or rarity. And we deal in real collections: for example, we have offered models by Charles Frodsham and the Simplicity by Philippe Dufour. What sets us apart from the rest of Phillips is our customer base: 70% of our customers are new to Phillips. And half of them will go on to buy at auction. We have become a real showcase for new Phillips customers.
- In 2022 Phillips Perpetual organised the “Made in Germany” exhibition in London, a retrospective of A. Lange & Söhne’s Lange 1 and Datograph watches produced between 1994 and 2008.
What percentage of pieces you are offered do you accept for sale?
Between 10% and 20%. We concentrate on the most interesting pieces, we don’t do volume. This drastic selection also protects us from the waves of speculation we have seen in watchmaking. At any one time we have an average of between 25 and 50 pieces for sale. Rarity is a criterion, but we cover the whole spectrum of watches, including some fairly affordable models. They can be seen on our website and in our boutiques in London and Hong Kong, as well as in Gstaad, where we also have a space in high season. All the models are offered at a fixed price, there is no auction system. And there’s something special for everyone!
- Several pieces in the Hommage II series, a collaboration between Laurent Ferrier and Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo, were offered by Perpetual in 2022.
Do your customers buy more online or in-store?
65% online, because it’s such a convenient way to buy. In this sense, we play our role as a showcase for Phillips to the full. Most of our selections cover the period 2000 to 2020, but for the more vintage pieces a physical boutique still has a major advantage, as it allows you to see these rare pieces with your own eyes before you buy. And none of our pieces is available only online; you can always find them in one of our boutiques. We want our customers to buy from a specialist, not just a salesman.
- Last year, Phillips Perpetual offered the world’s first decimal minute repeater wristwatch, designed by Kari Voutilainen.
Will you be expanding your network of boutiques around the world?
Yes, we’ll be opening a new boutique and offices in Zurich this year, to get closer to the Swiss brands. In fact, I’m leaving London myself to move to Switzerland! We’re also going to expand our range of jewellery, particularly from the most iconic houses.
The relationship between watch brands and auction houses is not always easy. How do you plan to get closer to them?
We are very careful with our selections. We have already produced limited editions of Perpetual in partnership with Zenith, Bulgari, Piaget and Laurent Ferrier. We have also organised an exhibition with A. Lange & Söhne.