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Sold out? Try China!

Sold out? Try China!

Wednesday, 24 April 2019
By Shining Zhu
Shining Zhu

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3 min read

Like anywhere else, China’s watch enthusiasts have their favourites. Patek Philippe’s Nautilus Ref. 5711, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15202, and pretty much anything by Richard Mille or Rolex have proved hugely popular these past four to five years. In contrast, models that sell well in other countries don’t always appeal.

A Chinese collector hoping to acquire a Rolex Daytona with white dial will need both patience and cash. While the official price is RMB 96,700 (~USD 15,000), the market price is a good 60% higher at RMB 160,000 (~USD 24,000). A Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711 costs in excess of RMB 300,000 (~USD 45,000)! And even after paying a premium, customers still have to wait in line. There are, on the other hand, many models which are hugely popular in other countries but hold little appeal for the Chinese. Generally speaking, Chinese watch buyers don’t like dive watches – apart from Rolex – or chronographs – again, Rolex is the exception. Most of the time they look for a three-hander in a round case; more often than not playing safe by choosing the same one that everyone else is wearing.

Nautilus Réf. 5711 © Patek Philippe
Nautilus Réf. 5711 © Patek Philippe

Of course, every market has its preferences, which is why the same products perform differently in different markets. When Zenith launched the El Primero Striking 10th in 2010, the 1,969 pieces of this limited edition were snapped up just about everywhere other than in China, where it ended up selling at a discount. Similarly, TAG Heuer’s Monaco Calibre 12, the ultimate watch for racing fans all over the world, can sit quietly in a retailer’s window for years.

Not so Speedy sales

Despite being a global best-seller, the Omega Speedmaster has never done well in China, whatever the edition. Take the Albino Alaska as an example. It was released in 2008 as a 1,970-piece edition with white dial, rocket hands for the hour and minute totalizers, and a huge red aluminum case. The official price in China was RMB 45,400 (~USD 6,800), later adjusted to RMB 48,800 (~USD 7,300). There were so few takers that almost a decade later, in 2017, plenty of Omega stores still had one tucked away in a corner somewhere. When the Speedmaster shot up in popularity worldwide, a brand-new Albino Alaska, now a rarity, increased in value to around USD 15,000. Omega headquarters responded in late 2018 by relocating stock from China to other countries where it was sure to sell. This isn’t the only case in point involving the Omega Speedmaster. In 2010, a 1,975-piece special edition with meteorite dial was issued to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Whereas Chinese buyers could get a heavy discount on the official price of RMB 60,800 (~USD 9,100), a second-hand one sold at Christie’s for more than USD 10,000. China may be the only market where you can currently find this watch in stock.

As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”!

As an immature watch market, acceptability remains quite low in China and trends that are taking other markets by storm have yet to gain a foothold. Vintage is one such movement that Chinese consumers have still to embrace. This explains why special collections that sold out almost instantly worldwide, such as Collection Privée Cartier Paris or the Museum Collection from Omega, can still be found there. Now small groups of savvy buyers are catching on to the fact and coming to China in search of – and often finding – elusive models such as the Zenith Retrotimer or the Ulysse Nardin 170th Anniversary Limited Edition. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” – and the hundreds of watch retail stores in the vast territory of China could well turn up the treasure collectors have been looking for!

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