Not a hint of flair or showmanship from the rostrum. Not an ounce of suspense, not a single “fair warning”. On the eve of the weekend when watch collectors converge on Geneva’s swanky hotels for the spring season of auctions, WatchBox moved into the Beau-Rivage Palace with an exhibition of 80 exceptional timepieces. While others were looking for the highest bidder, the leading e-commerce platform for certified pre-owned luxury watches had other intentions, as Patrik Hoffmann, Executive Vice President of WatchBox Switzerland, explained. “Being part of Geneva Auction Week is an opportunity for us to go out and meet the collectors and watch enthusiasts who aren’t yet familiar with us,” he said. “We want to show them we are an alternative to auctions for buying and selling luxury pre-owned watches, thanks to our powerful platform and our experts’ advice.”
A 15-month warranty
Launched by Danny Govberg, first in the United States then in Asia, WatchBox further expanded when it opened its European branch in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in October 2018. Headed up by Patrik Hoffmann, who with Susanne Hurni jumped ship from Ulysses Nardin to embark on this new adventure, WatchBox Switzerland has arrived all guns blazing, with an online marketplace backed by a mobile app that is enriched and updated in real time by all the WatchBox branches with the latest market trends.
Compared with other big-league players such as Chrono 24 or eBay, WatchBox stands apart for its business model and philosophy. “First off, we curate our watches and buy them to build up our own inventory. Our very high standards of quality allow us to offer a 15-month warranty,” says Hoffmann. “The way we sell is also different. Click and buy doesn’t generally work well in the watch industry. Our watches sell in the region of CHF 15,000 on average. At that price, and knowing that a watch is also an emotional investment, you can rest assured that customers need to speak with someone who can talk with them about the watch and explain it to them. This is why, at our showroom, we emphasise expertise and personal contact to build trust.”
Success is on the cards at a time when vintage watches are drawing an audience well beyond the circle of wealthy collectors.
The formula has proved its worth, right from the early days in Philadelphia. As one of the leading names in the secondary market, business is booming. Employing 175 people worldwide, and having sold 45,000 watches in the past two years and generated revenue of USD 200 million in 2018, WatchBox is growing at an eyewatering 30% to 40% a year, and aims to increase revenue to USD 500 million within the next two to three years. Success is on the cards at a time when vintage watches are drawing an audience well beyond the circle of wealthy collectors. “There were three of us when we started in October 2018,” Hoffmann recalls. “We’re now a team of ten. The Swiss branch currently accounts for less than 10% of WatchBox’s global activity but we’re growing fast, at more than 40%.” It’s been a more than promising start for the Swiss outpost of the Philadelphia tech firm, which benefits from an ideal geographic location at the heart of the industry – perfect for expanding its portfolio of buyers and sellers – and is starting to form partnerships with the major players in traditional distribution channels.
A customer who wants to buy a watch is no longer prepared to wait six months for the next auction.
Speaking of the recent tie-in with luxury watch retailer Les Ambassadeurs, Patrik Hoffmann hints at its potential to become a strong growth opportunity for the firm. “Imagine you want to buy a car. A lot of the time, the dealer will offer to trade in your old car against a new one. In the watch sector, plenty of retailers find themselves in the same situation, selling a new watch and buying back a second-hand one. The question being, how to set prices and, more to the point, how to keep inventory moving? WatchBox has the expertise and the tools to support them.”
Ultimately, WatchBox’s technology could make it the first choice online for anyone looking to buy a pre-owned luxury watch. The platform carries the 50 most prestigious brands as well as rare and collectible models. Geoffroy Ader, the Franco-Swiss auctioneer who was at the Beau-Rivage Palace during Geneva Auction Week, alongside WatchBox representatives, is convinced this will be the case. “Personally, I’ve always believed technology should serve people,” says the founder of Ader Watches. “I think there will be fewer watch auctions in the future but they will always be more impressive. They reassure the business world. Having said that, a customer who wants to buy a watch is no longer prepared to wait six months for the next auction.”