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Shanghai Watch Festival: when collectors get together

THE FAIR TRADE

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April 2020


Shanghai Watch Festival: when collectors get together

The collector has been the most notable figure to emerge on the watchmaking scene in the first quarter of the 21st century. In China, the nation most hotly pursued by high-end brands, as for many other things, it’s the collector who’s beginning to rule the roost. We recently attended the second edition of the Shanghai Watch Festival, a relaxed, informal event organised by a band of passionate enthusiasts and fashioned after their own vision of a fair keenly attuned to the new sociological realities of the present age.

“T

he rich collect watches, the poor only collect cars” is a Chinese saying and an apparent gibe at the seemingly unbounded passion of some watch collectors. However, it’s true that Chinese passion can sometimes appear obsessive! Understandably, only the wealthy, or indeed the very wealthy, are able to afford timepieces worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

But is it only this segment of the population that can indulge their watchmaking passion? Not necessarily! There is always an air of mystery surrounding the collectors’ world; a kind of game of seduction is played out between the different stakeholders, one that is clearly visible to the public. But what exactly do collectors look for? Europa Star was present at the second edition of the international watchmaking festival held in Shanghai last December. A selection from our watchmaking archives was also featured. The event was organised by a group of collectors known as the Shanghai Watch Gang.

The Shanghai Watch Gang organised the second edition of its annual Festival last December.
The Shanghai Watch Gang organised the second edition of its annual Festival last December.

It was indeed a momentous edition of the fair, with creations by A. Lange & Söhne, Greubel Forsey, Grand Seiko, H. Moser & Cie., Urwerk, De Bethune, MB&F, TAG Heuer and Oris. In total, over a hundred watches were exhibited. Compared to the first event, last December’s edition of the Shanghai Watch Festival was the more pragmatic and user-friendly of the two.

The event this time more closely resembled a huge playground, offering something for every taste, such as the racing cars being thrashed around virtual circuits on the TAG Heuer stand. “Playfulness”, in fact, appeared to be the watchword of the exhibition, the organisers being eager to ensure visitors enjoyed the event to the full. The dress code was therefore “relaxed”, with Kelvin Sa, one of the founders of the Shanghai Watch Festival (上海玩表) and the Shanghai Watch Gang (上海玩表帮), attending our interview dressed in suitably casual attire.

Kelvin Sa, cofounder of the Shanghai Watch Festival
Kelvin Sa, cofounder of the Shanghai Watch Festival

Europa Star: Who organised the second edition of the Shanghai Watch Festival?

Kelvin Sa: Myself, along with Daniel Sum (co-founder of Shanghai Watch Gang) and Kevin Zhou, are the main organiers for the Shanghai Watch Festival. The Shanghai Watch Gang, which now includes around 300 members from all four corners of China and the rest of the world, lends us their support in many ways, including the loan of exclusive models. It’s a diverse group: it includes a lot of experienced collectors, but also a few newcomers who haven’t yet gained any expertise in collecting watches.

“Playfulness”, in fact, appeared to be the watchword of the exhibition, the organisers being eager to ensure visitors enjoyed the event to the full.

What is the purpose of the event?

Our main aim is to create a platform where watch lovers can communicate with each other. In a few years’ time, we hope it will turn into an annual weeklong festival that works as a platform to facilitate dialogue between brands and consumers. The exhibition takes care not to perpetuate the Bishilian or the “chain of contempt” (Ed:“Bishilian” is a new Chinese buzzword referring to a society or club wherein the richest or most experienced members discriminate against newcomers or less moneyed members). Here, everyone is invited to have his or her say: whether you’re a seasoned collector, or an absolute beginner, you’ll be sure to find plenty of interesting information. We’re also keen to convey the idea that watch collecting is not just for the wealthy. True collectors are not judged by the number of pieces in their collection, or its total worth, but rather by their passion.

“True collectors are not judged by the number of pieces in their collection, or its total worth, but rather by their passion.”

Of course, there are a few very well-off collectors who are only interested in famous brands and limited editions, but we don’t want to lose sight of those worthy collectors who have their own personal reasons for collecting. These enthusiasts tend to focus on pieces that are significant in many ways, such as those launched in their year of birth. It’s not necessarily a costly approach, but tracking down these models can sometimes take a while. For the moment, it’s a unique exhibition concept, both in China and the rest of the world.

How do you showcase the watches in such an exhibition?

As opposed to traditional trade shows, we actually want to make watches more fun, accessible and more relevant to the Chinese consumers and their spending mindset. We wanted to create a festival to celebrate watches as part of a lifestyle, an extension of the buyer’s own personality, which all comes down to self-awareness and social group recognition. This is why during the festival we show watches as part of a lifestyle, among other items such as cigars, cars, or arts. We want every visitor to turn into a 6-year old in a candy store!

“As opposed to traditional trade shows, we actually want to make watches more fun, accessible and more relevant to the Chinese consumers and their spending mindset.”

We also carefully curated each dedicated space. For instance, Grand Seiko was built into a Japanese garden with full Samurai armour wearing a snowflake. We built a VR hybrid racetrack for TAG Heuer, where the 1:10 sized RC cars have a HD camera, which the drivers physically drive on a racing simulator with the cars running around the track. Urwerk and De Bethune’s booth was completely immersed in an art gallery with watches displaying alongside rare collectables. Our title sponsor Infiniti Cars also let us design their space at the grand entrance where we made a 8m by 4m wall print of a mosaic nighttime skyline of Shanghai, with 3800 tiles, every one being a wrist shot from the guys in the Shanghai Watch Gang.

What opportunities do you offer the brands who decide to exhibit with you?

Many brands today reach out wherever possible to private collectors and in doing so create more opportunities for interaction and communication. For example, the founder of MB&F, Maximilian Büsser, was at the fair answering questions from ardent watch enthusiasts. But it’s actually a hybrid fair concept: four of the brands present (H. Moser & Cie, A. Lange & Söhne, Greubel Forsey and MB&F) were there in their official capacity as independent exhibitors. The other stands were those belonging to the members of the Shanghai Watch Gang who were exhibiting their own collections.

Tell us a bit about your own history as a watch collector…

My passion for collecting started around twelve years ago and went through three phases. The first was when I started following famous brands or iconic pieces. It was only when I discovered the Blancpain L-evolution that I understood why a piece of fine watchmaking commanded such a high price and once I’d understood, I treated myself to an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore.

The second phase is the one I’m involved in at the moment. I started to develop a particular fascination with independent watchmaking and two of my personal favourite brands are Urwerk and De Bethune. In fact, whenever they bring out a new model, I’m quick off the mark to do any research and if it happens to match my expectations, I buy it.

The third phase is the one I have in mind for the future. I’d like to ask an independent brand to design me a custom timepiece to my own specifications, which would thus make it a unique piece. I see this approach as a kind of culminating point after so many years of collecting. In actual fact, in private collectors’ circles, everyone’s experience is different and most of them will not get beyond these three phases. But, to my mind, most collectors prefer to stick to phase one in order to avoid any pitfalls, or the risk of devaluation.

How many pieces do you have in your current collection?

At the moment, my collection is limited to eight pieces. So if I want to add a new piece, I’ll have to sell one from my collection. Primarily for financial reasons, but also out of respect for my wife, who thinks that my collection is already big enough… Finally, I must say that I’ve been very lucky in my career as a watch collector not to have had any issues and I genuinely love every piece I’ve bought.

Would you be willing to buy any Chinese watchmaking pieces, for instance those belonging to the AHCI (Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants)?

The association’s members undoubtedly excel at watchmaking, but as independent watchmakers, the longevity of their pieces, especially the movements, remains to be proven. Renowned manufactures devote a lot of time and energy to researching and developing movements that undergo tests for years. And even then, sometimes those brands will come up against a design defect or quality issue. So, I don’t think a simple human being can compete with the quality control capabilities of the powerful manufactures. As far as Chinese watchmaking pieces are concerned, I have the utmost respect for them. After all, winning the approval of the Swiss watchmaking industry is no mean feat. However, in terms of watchmaking aesthetics, there’s still a very wide gap between the independent Swiss watchmakers and their Chinese counterparts.

“In terms of watchmaking aesthetics, there’s still a very wide gap between the independent Swiss watchmakers and their Chinese counterparts.”

To conclude, what would you recommend to a new collector?

It’s quite simple: join the Shanghai Watch Gang and we’ll be able to give you plenty of useful advice on how to avoid the pitfalls in watchmaking! There are lots of experienced collectors in our club and they all like to share their collecting experiences with others. I’d just like to say that the members of our association in no way nurture the infamous “chain of contempt”. Each collector has his/her own particular style and goal.

If, for example, there was something I didn’t know about a brand, I could find another member who did and who was willing to share the full details with me directly. I can assure any new member wishing to join us that they would avoid any unnecessary waste of time or money. Everyone in the association is respectful of one another in our common goal of joint progress.

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