With the rise of e-commerce and retro fashion trends, watches – which, unlike most consumer objects, are rarely thrown out – are finding a second life around new wrists.
Both chic and understated, the rising trend of vintage watches offers “fashionistas” and amateurs in the know some serious opportunities: certain specialist websites are offering discounts of up to 60%, while the original owners are happy to pocket some extra cash.
“The second-hand watch responds to the desire to acquire a unique object which has already had its own story,” says Vanessa Chicha, director of Iconeekexternal link, a Geneva based retailer specialised in second-hand watches. “It also fits the concept of intelligent and sustainable consumption which is trending in every aspect of society today.”
After having managed boutiques for prestige brands which retailed new products, Chicha and her husband launched their second-hand watch business five years ago.
“At the time, there was already a palpable craze for second-hand watches. Today, the trend is developing at full speed,” she says.
While Iconeek targets watch aficionados with a curated, high-end offer, Chicha also points out that today’s market of prestige and high-end watches is subject to a process of “democratisation”.
Beyond collectors’ items which increase in value with time like unique – or almost unique – models of master Swiss watchmaking from brands like Rolex, Richard Mille or Vacheron Constantin, timepieces purchased at a few hundred or a few thousand francs are also in demand.
The market for these models, which are often forgotten by owners at the bottom of drawers, could be worth up to $500 billion (CHF501 billion), according to some optimistic estimates. That’s 25 times more than Switzerland’s total annual watch exports (see chart).
European and US demand
“It’s a significant evolution for Swiss watchmaking in a context which is marked by a strong increase in sales of watches online,” says Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industryexternal link (FH).
In his view, the attraction of consumers to pre-loved watches is a confirmation of “the quality and the strength of ‘Swiss Made’ watch products”, and proof that they “can live several lives without a problem”.
Nevertheless, the question remains: does this new trend represent a threat for traditional industry actors, with the risk that second-hand watches will replace the purchasing of new watches?
Industry observers say that while it is obvious that both markets will collide sooner or later, it is difficult to predict the real impact of the new competition.
“The second-hand watche trend is booming in Europe and North America but not in Asia, where social distinction is measured by the purchase of new timepieces. This very strong segmentation will once again accentuate the dependence of the Swiss watch industry on China,” says Serge Maillard, journalist and co-director of specialist publisher Europa Star HBMexternal link.
But although the Chinese appetite for luxury products remains strong, the market is no longer the holy grail it was for watchmakers ten years ago. Slowing economic growth, a series of government anti-corruption measures, the trade war between Washington and Beijing, and evolving Chinese consumption habits have injected a significant amount of uncertainty into Switzerland’s largest watch export market.
It’s a jungle out there
Often criticised for its conservatism, the Swiss watchmaking industry has not let the booming trend for used watches pass it by, as evidenced by two major acquisitions last year.
Luxury group Richemontexternal link (Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin) announced the buying (for an undisclosed sum) of 100% of British company Watchfinderexternal link, a world leader in the purchase and sale of second-hand prestige watches.
Meanwhile, Lucerne-based multinational retailer and the world’s main reseller of Rolex watches, Bucherer Groupexternal link, acquired American retailer Tourneauexternal link which specialises in the sale of new and second-hand watches in North America.
“This market is still a jungle, but the classic watch brands have understood that it is better to play the game rather than leave it to others,” says Maillard. The majors also have a key asset: their know-how in the revision and CPO (certified pre-owned) certificates which guarantee the consumer security, traceability and authenticity in a market which is rife with scams and counterfeit products.
Piece of the pie
Small players are also trying to take a piece of the pie. Moha Samraoui is founder and director of sovogue.chexternal link, which has made a name for itself in recent years by selling new luxury watches in Switzerland online. Sensing the change in the wind, the “Robin Hood of Swiss Watches”, as he is known in the media, moved into selling second-hand watches last year.
“Of the one million francs revenue that we predict for 2019, we hope to make around 20% with second-hand watches,” says Samraoui.
Initial sales are convincing; Samraoui has already sold some 40 second-hand watches of various brands since October. Amongst the resellers are retirees, inheritors, and former watch industry employees selling timepieces that were acquired at good prices when they were employed by the brand.
The buyers, for the most part, are regular clients of the site.
“Trust is paramount when it comes to selling objects worth several thousand francs on the internet. As a credible and recognised intermediary, we guarantee the quality of all the watches that we sell, something that is not offered by traditional classified ads sites,” says Samraoui.
In relation to the large players like Watchfinder or Watchbox, which has recently established European offices in Neuchâtel, sovogue.ch competes by offering better prices.
“With our smaller, flexible and cost-efficient structure [six people], we don’t need to make big margins. We charge a unique commission of CHF180 ($180) on each transaction,” says Samraoui.
And the competition, doesn't scare the “self-made man” – on the contrary, he laughs.
“The more players there are in the market, the more the purchase of second-hand watches on the internet will become commonplace,” he predicts.
Translated from French by Sophie Douez, swissinfo.ch