The Big Idea: Time Out
Last year, Swiss watch exports reached an all-time high of over $22 billion, according to a report by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Exports to the US were up 55 percent, and January 2022 witnessed a year-on-year increase of 37.5 percent. The industry is clearly in robust health.
Despite this, many collectors can’t get their hands on the watches they want. Walk into any Rolex boutique and you will find almost zero inventory. To hear retailers tell it, pent-up demand due to the pandemic, a general increase in interest in watches and supply-chain issues are all to blame.
Watches from the big three—Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet—are always difficult to come by, but this year all of the makers’ models are experiencing unprecedented demand. If you are lucky enough to snag one at retail, you might still end up on a years-long waiting list. “Demand is going through the roof. Patek has always been that way, but Rolex has been that way since 2018, and it just keeps getting tighter, even though Rolex continues to make more and more product,” says Joe Perez, watch buyer at Seattle-based retailer Ben Bridge Jeweler. “They’ll increase 10 percent, but the demand goes up 30 percent. So it just continues to outpace the increase in product that they’ve been doing.” Audemars Piguet upped its production from 45,000 to 50,000 pieces, with the promise of reserving a “big chunk” for new clients, but even AP ingenues will still have to jockey to purchase. During a press conference earlier this year, Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias advised prospective clients to “create and develop a relationship with us,” meaning significant face time with retail managers is likely required for consideration.
The unattainability of vaunted brands is causing a ripple effect. “A lot of people come to find watches and realize they’re not readily available,” says Ruediger Albers, president of Wempe Jewelers in Manhattan. “However, they’re open for alternatives.” He cites Girard-Perregaux’s Laureato as a recent popular substitute to sports watches like the Nautilus and GMT-Master II.
Ben Bridge’s Perez says he’s seeing similar trends across brands whose wares have been traditionally easier to get, such as Cartier, Tag Heuer, Panerai, IWC and Breitling. “Tag Heuer actually stopped shipping [to] every retailer in November last year and didn’t start shipping again until mid-to late January,” he says. “They even canceled all orders because they just couldn’t supply anybody anymore.”
Ultra-niche brands such as Parmigiani, which makes about 3,000 pieces a year, are seeing unprecedented sales. It has long lead times on its Tonda PF and Tonda GT models. “I’ve been in the industry for 20 plus years and I have not seen anything like this,” says Gustavo Calzadilla, Parmigiani’s managing director. “Clients previously seeking immediate gratification are now okay waiting a year or longer for timepieces.” He added that the craze has caused some of their retail partners to dedicate staff to managing allocation and keeping track of orders, deposits and delivery timelines.
The phenomenon has even trickled down to jewelry sales, where some retailers have seen clients snap up jewels as they vie for VIP status. “A lot of big diamonds are flying out the door,” says Perez. “Prices are going through the roof right now.”
The moral of the story? Have your local authorized dealer not just on speed dial but also over for dinner.