The simple yet complex question: where do I buy a watch?
A lot of the time you’d think going out to buy a watch is a simple task, like just popping into your local retailer and snatching that new Rolex Submariner steel no date (hint to our editor Felix). Frankly, the process can be this straightforward when you know exactly what you want and what your budget is. However, there are many times when you may not be so sure where to find the right watch at the right price. More in-depth research is needed, and therefore it’s essential to have a brief overview of some of your options.
Unless money is no object, the official brand boutique is not your average place to start your watch purchase. Brand boutiques are usually opened and run by the group or the manufacturer, and are easily the plushest places to buy a watch. They are usually located in famous districts around the world and have some of the nicest interior designs. You will usually find the location of an official brand boutique on the respective watch brands website. When purchasing a piece at a brand boutique, it is common that no, to very limited discounts, are offered. However, they do accommodate the newest models of their brand, and also accommodate novelty pieces that may not be available at most retailers.
The argument for brand boutiques is usually one of ‘the prestige of buying it directly from the manufacturer’. You will always be in their database as a customer and this can matter in the long run if you hope to be a specialist collector of a certain brand because being a well-known customer will mean preferential access to novelty pieces. It is also possible that if you are getting a first watch as a birthday gift or commemorating a certain milestone, buying your watch directly from the boutique may have somewhat more of a sentimental value, however, that is to each person’s taste and preference because at the end of the day you aren’t really buying the experience of buying a watch, rather, you’re paying for an impeccable timepiece. It’s also a case of the length of warranty (not always). In brand boutiques, the watch warranty period can be as much as five years compared to two years in most authorized retailers and online stores. If this is something that concerns you, then definitely check your options at both a brand boutique and an authorized retailer.
If you do end up buying a watch at a brand boutique and aren’t offered much of a discount, you should not forget to ask for an extra strap for your watch because they will throw it in if you insist (unless of course it’s a steel bracelet watch e.g. Rolex GMT Master II). Depending on the brand you buy, watch straps can be a huge cost in the future so best to have a spare one on the side.
Audemars Piguet Boutique in IFC Mall - Hong Kong
Authorized retailers are a personal favorite of mine because they’re a hybrid of almost everything mentioned in this article. You can get a similar purchasing experience as at the brand boutique and benefit from nearly as much price negotiation space as you’d get at a used watch dealer (but for a brand new watch). I won’t beat around the bush – the main reason I like the idea of authorized dealers is simply the flexibility one can get with discounts – it is satisfying to know that if I walk down 50 meters from the Audemars Piguet boutique in Central Hong Kong into an authorized retailer, I could get the same Royal Oak at 15-20% cheaper than the boutique’s retail price. This provides you with an experience where you get to interact and ask questions to a sales staff (some who may or may not know much about the watch, so don’t depend heavily on them!) but you always have a base to go back to when something goes wrong with your watch. A lot of the time these establishments aim for volume of sales rather than high margins on a single sale, and so you tend to get a good deal.
Some authorized dealers may look exactly like a brand boutique but the main difference is that it wasn’t opened by the brand’s head office. This is not so much of an issue because the watch is coming from the same place at the end of the day. Some authorized retailers don’t just stock one brand but may be a multi-store with multiple brands and multiple discount offers. They are definitely a good option for initial browsing and testing of pieces you are considering. They also offer a great and safe bet for buying an initial watch as you get deeper and deeper into the world of horology.
Watches of Switzerland multi store - London, United Kingdom
Used watch dealers
The main question you must ask yourself is whether you strictly want a brand new watch or don’t mind owning a used one. Living in Hong Kong for the past 4 years, and recently receiving a relatively rare Breitling reference as a birthday present that was bought in an establishment like this, has made me feel quite personally nostalgic towards (notable) used watch dealers. In Hong Kong for example, used watch dealers are a big market because there’s simply excess supply in the market, and a lot of people tend to trade in watches for something different. Sometimes prospective buyers have just had enough of a piece and want to get some of their money back. With used watch dealers you can usually find just about anything, depending on where you look, and whether it’s an establishment that specializes in modern, vintage or both. On many instances, you can find exactly what you are looking for and sometimes, more excitingly, you can come across a piece from a brand that you may not have seriously considered but the feel and price of the watch may be just to your liking. Options are abundant at most used watch dealers.
A lot of people have this notion that it may be unsafe to buy a watch at a used watch dealer because of the recent emergence of fake watches. This is something to be mildly cautious about whenever you deal with used items but also remember that all these dealers do this for a living and they are not out to scam you. Definitely do your research prior to purchasing the watch, but watches at any well-known dealer in your vicinity have been through rigorous checks prior to being displayed to the public. These guys have a reputation to protect as much as you do. Another myth to debunk is simply that it is “uncool to buy from a used dealer” or “cheap.” Used dealers sometimes carry novelty pieces that are impossible to find anywhere else and, depending on the level of watch you are aiming to purchase, the used dealer option may prove to be the most realistic chance of getting something special. It’s also important to remember you can always negotiate prices much more flexibly in these sorts of establishments. All in all, used watches may have had some wear and tear over the years by a previous owner, but with that they carry its own story and history. If you are into vintage pieces, think about the Rolex 5513, which was typically used by the United Kingdom Royal Navy in the 1970s. It was very much a tool-watch and when you come across one at a used dealer, it may very well have been owned formerly by someone who wore it while in the Navy. It carries a degree of history on it and you can definitely attach yourself to that part of it if that is something to your liking.
The Mecca of mega deals is definitely buying your watch online. This is a process where the greatest part of the experience is typing in your credit card details and visiting the DHL website 7 times a day, tracking your watch delivery progress. You have some big boy online stores on this side of the market. For example, Iconic Watches (www.iconicwatches.co.uk/) and WatchFinder (www.watchfinder.co.uk), based in the United Kingdom, and across the ocean you have Luxury Bazaar (www.luxurybazaar.com/) based in the United States of America. Online stores like these two give you a ton of options, whether new or used, at a fraction of the cost you’d usually find them at a brand boutique or authorized dealer.
Buying your watch on an online store is a very straightforward process – if you are deeply in love with a specific watch and have tried it on and know it’s right, it’s probably best to use this option. You’ll get the watch within a few days at some of the best prices possible. If you are willing to sacrifice the experience of walking into a retailer or boutique and walking out with your watch, then this is a good option.
There are also many more options besides online stores, and it’s a good option to consider finding something through a trusted seller on eBay or Chrono 24. Be wary with independent sellers online - especially eBay - as there is sometimes a risk of being subject to fraud. Do your research on the piece and seller before buying anything from an independent seller.
I will be doing a more in depth article on auctions in the near future. However, if you are buying your first watch, skip this section because you don’t need to worry about this for a while. Come back after that 5th watch (probably a Hublot which you know was a mistake but don’t want to admit it in front of your friends and family) and when you feel like you are ready for a more exhilarating purchase experience.
Auction houses are very much for veterans in the watch game. You can find the rarest, most exclusive pieces on earth at auctions. You can sometimes find pieces that the auction room may not be too interested in and you get a great deal. What you have to remember though is that the price of that piece is set by the demand in the room; it is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. As a result some pieces go for absolute bargains, whilst others smash through their estimated prices. However, auctions do usually have a reserve price that if the bids do not exceed, the piece won’t be sold. A lot of the time, at big auction houses, you find some of the most sought after pieces, for which the world’s foremost collectors will engage in a bidding war to get.
If you go to the preview days and find something where the estimates fit your budget, you should feel comfortable to bid as long as it's within your set budget. Also be cautious at these auctions as on top of the hammer price there is usually an extra commission (known as a buyers premium) that you have to pay, so check with the auction house beforehand.
Some notable auction houses for watches are Phillip’s, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams. They frequently host watch auctions in Geneva, Hong Kong, New York, and London. These guys are absolutely central in the watch auction industry and are very reputable. Placard and bidding registration is also straightforward; all you need is your identification, residence proof and a credit card.
Happy watch buying!
Co-Founder and Editor