A New And Better Way To Buy, Sell, Or Collect Fine Watches

I’ll probably never buy a new car again. Why? Because I have a friend who runs a quality used car service, specializing in BMW, Audi and Mercedes. He locates specific vehicles for buyers at auction, checks them out at his full-service center, and delivers amazing savings with reliable quality. I’ve bought my last three vehicles from him, saved a lot of money and been very happy. Cars depreciate – by many thousands of dollars – the second you drive them off the lot, and unless you are ordering a rare or heavily customized model, there is little economic sense in buying new, even for higher end models. Other friends have used my dealer for Porsches and Range Rovers, and I’ve had acquaintances drive 250 miles to do business with an honest used car salesman. The main reason not to buy used is because you don’t feel comfortable in the quality, you don’t want some hidden damage or someone else’s problem, which is why in the past two decades the industry has shifted heavily towards much more reputable resale, through manufacturers’ own certified pre-owned programs, verification services like CarFax, and modernized, specialized retailers like CarMax.

It’s the same for watches, except most watches have never been smashed up in accidents. On the other hand, the used car market is not flooded with counterfeit fakes. Watches typically depreciate substantially when you take them out of the box (or store), but whether you wear it for a week or someone else does, it’s going to be the same watch – only a lot cheaper. If there was an efficient model for evaluating, certifying and transparently marketing used Longine watches, a company that could check out the inner workings, quality, verify authenticity and guarantee your purchase, all for a great deal, it would be a home run for watch buyers. That company now exists, and it is called Crown & Caliber. I have not used the service nor received anything from them, but I’ve been researching it and spoke to the owner and some watch loving friends, and I will almost certainly buy my next watch here.

But the thing is, unlike the used car business, where dealers are incentivized to buy as cheaply as possible, Crown & Caliber also offers a big win for those selling watches, especially regular individual owners. If you have a very rare watch or one with special provenance, maybe owned by Neil Armstrong and worn on the moon, an auction is still the best way to go. But if you have your father’s Patek Phillippe in a drawer and your style runs more Breitling, unloading the watch that is collecting dust is surprisingly tricky and costly.

Private equity firm manager Hamilton Powell bought a Rolex online and it turned out to be a fake. But the tipping point for him came when a friend sold a Patek Philippe to a local jewelry and watch dealer for $5,200, and the dealer turned around and flipped it for over $12,000. So three years ago he launched Crown & Caliber, because, as he told me, “He got screwed, and I’ve been there. The watch market is just like the car market was in the Seventies, it’s just starting to mature in terms of preowned. We’re doing what CarMax did, allowing people to shop confidently in the pre-owned market. The only good reason not to buy pre-owned has been because the industry was shaky.” The supply is certainly out there: Powell told another interviewer that he thinks there’s around $100 billion in Rolexes, Breitlings, and Omegas in people’s closets – in the U.S. alone. He saw a $7 billion annual luxury watch market in this country with no scientific or management effort applied to the aftermarket and decided to professionalize it.

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