time-business


The crisis-proof side of watchmaking

INTERVIEW

Français
August 2020


The crisis-proof side of watchmaking

While the turnover of the Swiss watch industry collapsed in the first half of the year, the online platform for rare watches A Collected Man announced that it had doubled its sales over the same period. The crisis is accelerating the concentration of the market around a few “crisis-proof” brands and models, while increasingly legitimising e-commerce and the pre-owned sector. We interviewed Silas Walton, the founder of the British company launched in 2014.

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fter several months of activity and adaptation in the context of the pandemic, Silas Walton, the founder of A Collected Man], is relieved to be on vacation. He explains that, since he founded the platform for selling collectible watches in 2014, he has experienced continuous growth. And this year is no exception. Even better, in fact: “Between December and July, we achieved the same turnover as in the whole of 2019,” he says.

It was at the age of 26 that the Briton launched A Collected Man, after completing a law degree at University College London and gaining experience in mergers and acquisitions and luxury distribution. Passionate about horology, he discovered a niche that was still under-exploited: the online sale of pre-owned models from independent watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour, Roger W. Smith, Kari Voutilainen and F.P. Journe, for whom A Collected Man is an international reference.

The platform is known for the care it takes in the presentation of collectors' items.
The platform is known for the care it takes in the presentation of collectors’ items.

In 2014 Silas Walton saw a niche that was still under-exploited: the online sale of pre-owned models from independent watchmakers such as Philippe Dufour, Roger W. Smith, Kari Voutilainen and F.P. Journe.

The platform stands out, in a pre-owned landscape comprising often obscure websites and layouts, with its careful presentation and in-depth content that encourage confidence and credibility. While the segment has gained in transparency and legitimacy in recent years, the growth gap is widening with the modern watch market, which has been stagnating since 2015 due to an over-dependence on Asian customers and shopping tourists.

If the industry is to reconquer the local market – a more-than-necessary development following the pandemic-led horological crisis – we need to see more of this type of platform, which has managed to build up credibility and an audience of connoisseurs in just a few years. Silas Walton firmly believes in an “inevitable collaboration, in the long term, between brands and operators in the secondary market.” In fact, isn’t the fusion of past and present encoded in the genes of the industry that measures time? Here’s our interview.

This illustration by artist Julie Kraulis, featuring François-Paul Journe's first watch, was sold by A Collected Man to support research into Covid-19.
This illustration by artist Julie Kraulis, featuring François-Paul Journe’s first watch, was sold by A Collected Man to support research into Covid-19.

Europa Star: In a nutshell, what’s the story of A Collected Man?

Silas Walton: I started the company under a different name six years ago: “WATCHXCHANGE”. The idea was to approach the watch market via a consignment sale system (Ed: payment is only made to the original seller in the case of an actual sale, minus commission). Only auction houses practised this mode of transaction. Watchfinder had abandoned it because it was not economically viable for them. There was room for a new player. We seized this opportunity. Today, we operate on both consignment and direct purchase models.

The platform stands out, in a pre-owned landscape comprising often obscure websites and layouts, with its careful presentation and in-depth content that encourage confidence and credibility.

Silas Walton founded A Collected Man in 2014.
Silas Walton founded A Collected Man in 2014.

Did you start the platform focusing on vintage models?

No. We started the platform with a focus on contemporary luxury watches in the premium range. But very quickly, we reoriented towards rare watches from independent brands, which still form the core of our business. Vintage, strictly speaking, represents less than a third of our sales today. In fact, we define ourselves as “agnostic” on the brand or age of timepieces: our selection criteria are rare and/or complicated models. On the same day, we can sell a vintage Vacheron Constantin and a contemporary Grönefeld.

The Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire, a rare model offered by A Collected Man.
The Grönefeld 1941 Remontoire, a rare model offered by A Collected Man.

Independent brands with low output and high demand, such as F.P. Journe, are very present in your portfolio. Is that the product of a privileged relationship with these watchmakers?

Above all, it’s the result of an observation made six years ago, that there were almost no digital sales platform focusing on the pre-owned segment of this type of watchmaker. Since then, the market has corrected on the real, largely underestimated, value of some of these watchmakers. Little by little, we have in fact established privileged relationships with them: for example, we have very good relations with Roger W. Smith, Philippe Dufour and Kari Voutilainen for servicing their models. They do not hesitate to recommend us when a collector approaches them.

“The independent watchmakers we work with don’t hesitate to recommend us when a collector approaches them.”

Since then, more and more of these watchmakers (including F.P. Journe, MB&F and Urwerk) have set up their own pre-owned services.

That’s good! What struck me six years ago was how undervalued the digital market was for second-hand collectors’ watches, and how it was considered a “fad”, only good for specialist forums. A platform such as Watchfinder gained its legitimacy in part through the fact that it owned physical stores. The industry’s reluctance was ridiculous and unfounded. Our growth proves it: our turnover has gone from £680,000 in 2015 to a forecast £10 million this year. The average price on our platform today is around £35,000-40,000.

“Combining independence, rarity, digital and pre-owned is a winning formula today.”

A Collected Man is particularly renowned for its selection of F.P. Journe models, such as the pink gold Chronomètre à Résonance illustrated here.
A Collected Man is particularly renowned for its selection of F.P. Journe models, such as the pink gold Chronomètre à Résonance illustrated here.

How did you get through the first half of 2020, which was marked by the pandemic crisis?

Between December and July, we achieved the same turnover as for the whole of 2019. Combining independence, rarity, digital and pre-owned is a winning formula today. It’s impressive to see the extent to which the digital world has been legitimised, particularly under the impact of the pandemic. But it was really Richemont’s takeover of Watchfinder in 2018 that gave the boost of legitimacy that our segment lacked.

Do you think this buyout was a clever move on Richemont’s part?

Absolutely. Even if it could take them some time before they know exactly what they want to do with Watchfinder, they have a strategic player in a market that is bound to grow in any case. Remember Facebook’s takeover of Instagram in 2012: it was only later that they realised its immense value.

“Richemont’s takeover of Watchfinder reminds me of Facebook’s takeover of Instagram: only after a few years did they realise the platform’s full potential.”

Aside from the ingrained reluctance to buy online, which is gradually being overcome, a traditional barrier in your segment is uncertainty over provenance and quality. How is the market evolving on this point?

In 2014, I spent six months studying the watch market before launching my start-up. One thing was clear: the second-hand watchmaking segment resembled the automotive sector in the 1980s. There was a lot of opacity, behind-the-scenes transactions and uncertainty. Since then, fortunately, the lines have shifted. A platform such as Chrono24 offers a much higher degree of transparency and security, in particular through the use of escrow payments (Ed: the transaction is only effective when the watch has reached its buyer and been “validated”). It is becoming increasingly difficult for ill-intentioned people to get through these barriers. Standards are now much higher.

Offered by the platform in a limited edition of 10 pieces, Urban Jürgensen's Big 8 ‘London Edition' model was sold to raise money to combat the pandemic.
Offered by the platform in a limited edition of 10 pieces, Urban Jürgensen’s Big 8 ‘London Edition’ model was sold to raise money to combat the pandemic.

How do you source the timepieces offered on A Collected Man?

For pre-owned, it’s a large majority of private vendors. This has changed a lot since I started: back then, I used to go to auctions to find undervalued “gems”. Today, most of the models we sell are offered to us proactively, we don’t have to go looking for them any more. This is the benefit of the reputation we have built up since 2014. And the quality is getting better and better: today we only turn down about half of the offers we receive, compared to 90% in the past.

“The standards of second-hand and e-commerce are now much higher. It’s getting harder and harder for people with bad intentions to get through the market barriers.”

You’ve also become an official retailer for certain brands. Who do you represent today?

Akrivia, Urban Jürgensen, and we’ve just concluded an agreement with the independent brand Petermann Bédat.

Indeed, the new and pre-owned segments seem to be merging, especially on the online platforms.

These two markets feed off each other: the more confidence customers have in the secondary market, the better it will be for the new market. Hence the importance of legitimising this segment, which is evolving towards greater transparency and becoming more structured. Today, this also applies to the presentation of the models: we have taken great care to design a clear, elegant and convincing platform that offers added-value content such as interviews, videos or guides to help our customers. The quality of the photographs and visuals is key, as is social media presence. In fact, the best sales platforms must also become media!

“The two markets feed off each other: the more confidence customers have in the secondary market, the better it is for the new market.”

 Unique piece 217QRS Retrograde Date created by Kari Voutilainen for A Collected Man, celebrating five years of collaboration between the independent watchmaker and the platform.
Unique piece 217QRS Retrograde Date created by Kari Voutilainen for A Collected Man, celebrating five years of collaboration between the independent watchmaker and the platform.

We’re also seeing the opposite happening: more and more media outlets are becoming sales platforms.

That’s more problematic, for ethical reasons. As far as we’re concerned, this transition will be less criticised, because we are first and foremost a sales platform. We mandate well-known journalists to deliver quality content, not just to promote a product. At the end of the day, if they have a choice, customers will buy from those who have the highest degree of credibility and legitimacy. It’s about building an authentic community, without superficiality or purely financial interests.

The rare Blue Tourbillon by British watchmaker George Daniels (made by his heir Roger W. Smith) was sold by A Collected Man for £1 million in 2019.
The rare Blue Tourbillon by British watchmaker George Daniels (made by his heir Roger W. Smith) was sold by A Collected Man for £1 million in 2019.

Have you ever been or are you still sometimes considered a contributor to the “grey market”?

We’ve been one of the few platforms that clearly distanced ourselves from the grey market from the beginning. Some models can still slip through the cracks, but we regularly refuse watches when we have doubts about their provenance. It’s a question of credibility. Of course, the problem of liquidating unsold inventories is still acute. Today, you see brands that have managed to get past the point where the value of second hand is equal to or higher than the value of their new timepieces. While they were still contributing to the grey market a few years ago, they have started to actively fight it. Basically, it’s an existential question for brands: those that cannot get rid of this practice will eventually disappear.

“The best sales platforms will also become media. Ultimately, given the choice, customers will buy from those with the highest credibility and legitimacy.”

How do you see the future of the relationship between watch brands and platforms like yours?

On the one hand, competition encourages good practices and is beneficial for the end customer: I therefore find it positive that brands are now entering online sales and pre-owned. This segment as a whole will legitimise itself and grow further. Above all, however, I believe that in the long term, direct partnerships will be established between brands and operators specialising in collector watches. For them, there will always be an interest in working with independent structures such as auction houses or pure players like us.

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