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Aspects of the UK watch trade in 2009 and prospects for 2010

Aspects of the UK watch trade in 2009 and prospects for 2010

Wednesday, 24 February 2010
By Michael Balfour
Michael Balfour

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5 min read

The final report of the successful 20th edition of the SIHH last January provided a good reflection of how things have been for the trade in the United Kingdom in 2009. The summary words are a cliché, but apply very much, hurting in places: ‘belt tightening’.

One outstanding example in London is the closure by Theo Fennell of its entire watch department, which was a special interest of the eponymous founder. He has relinquished his interest in the Watch Room in Harrrods and brought back a previous managing director, Barbara Snoad, while he retains his substantial shareholding in this publicly quoted company and concentrates now on his international design business.

A main beneficiary of this news is the Veso Group. This is controlled by Alastair Laidlaw, the founder of Jura Watches in Mayfair and the owner of the Watch Gallery, down the road from Theo Fennell, since May 2009. Jura Watches began stocking Sinn timepieces late last year and this has become a strong brand for his small but always very busy shop. The brands he stocks at the Watch Gallery offer a wide selection. They include Bell & Ross, Bremont, Chronoswiss, Girard-Perregaux, Graham, Jaeger-LeCoultre (JLC), Panerai, Parmigiani, Speake-Marin, TAG Heuer, and Zenith. Laidlaw reports that JLC and Panerai are doing particularly well. The Watch Gallery will once again be stocking IWC from April 2010.

Successful online business

The third company in the Veso Group is www.thewatchdepartment.co.uk, which Laidlaw has set up in response to increasing enquiries online. Here he experienced strong pre-Christmas trading which inclined towards lower-priced gift purchases rather than higher-priced and possibly more eclectic luxury models. One new brand he is doing well with online is Jorg Gray, a demand perhaps stimulated by the fact that President Obama has been known to wear a Jorg Gray 6500 Chronograph.

Goldsmith was the UK’s very first appointed stockist of Rolex watches, and remains one.

Such is successful private enterprise. A much more public creation is Goldsmith’s chain of 160 stores. It was founded back in 1779, and its very first shop remains in the same place, in Newcastle. Early on it fashioned the FA Cup, a major annual football event in the UK, and also our Rugby League Trophy. Goldsmith was the UK’s very first appointed stockist of Rolex watches, and remains one. It too now conducts a flourishing online business, which was very much a developing feature of UK watch retailing last year. Its most searched brands online were, in order, TAG Heuer, Omega, Emporio Armani, Gucci, Tissot, Raymond Weil, and Longines. Ebel has just joined the facility.

An exciting sign of our times is that TAG Heuer and Tissot, and probably other brands, are actively exploring the potential of Holition, a recently introduced London-based online webcam system that allows you at home to ‘virtually’ try on a watch, as you move your wrist around as you wish.

In mid-February this year the FH reported that eight out of ten watch and jewellery brands still do not have monobrand online outlets. So that market is wide open.

Quiet confidence for 2010

The publicly quoted Goldsmiths Group also runs a ‘pre-owned’ department, and is an official agent for this business for most leading Swiss watch brands, including Breitling, Cartier, Patek Philippe and Rolex. A smaller and specialist private dealer in ‘pre-owned’ watches, long-established and well respected, is David Duggan in Burlington Arcade in Mayfair. He handles only leading brands, but has been finding it more difficult to compete over the last year in the auction rooms against buyers from Asia, China and India. But he has managed to hold his price levels, in spite, for example, of rarer Rolex pieces having dropped slightly in value but now rising again. He also insists that early 1950s and 1960s models from Longines, Omega and Vacheron Constantin remain undervalued, even in these difficult times.

As we all know exports of high-end timepieces from Switzerland have been dramatically down, month-on-month for a year or more. The UK’s Swiss total watch and clock imports in 2009 were down 15.1%, at SWf.544.5m. This has caused some top private watch retailers in the UK to take a closer look at smaller brands offering unusual and complicated pieces in limited editions. One of them is Marcus, in Old Bond Street. In June this year owner Marcus Margulies, in what appears to be a clever marketing ploy, launches a series of limited editions, in different numbers but all under 200, with uniformly branded dials in his familiar red designs. They will include special wristwatches by Audemars Piguet, Corum, F.-P. Journe, Greubel Forsey, HD3, Hublot and Ikepod. This year, his very classy shop also starts stocking the MCT brand.

William & Son is another Mayfair store offering expensive timepieces. William Asprey stocks brands such as Arnold, Audemars Piguet, Charles Oudin (ladies), De Bethune (the exclusive UK stockist), F.‑P. Journe (exclusive), Graham, H. Moser & Cie (exclusive), Jaeger-LeCoultre, Romain Gauthier (exclusive), and Piaget.

What about top-end independent Swiss brands with their own distribution network here in the UK? Leonard Thompson, CEO of Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard: ‘G-P had a better 2009 than I feared. Our “1966” range, in gold choices, starting at £7,400, pleased me a lot.’

Quiet confidence in our market’s prospects for 2010, expressed in our national understated way, is my summary of what I see and hear.

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