Do you have the right to sell your watches?

The craziest thing happened as I was about to complete this post – Ben @koreahasseoul1 called me and said “hey bro, I have a question for you… how do you define a flipper” – gotta love watchfam buddies! The timing was unbelievable – and after that impromptu 30-minute conversation, I ended up adding a section on that alone. Here’s where the rest of the post began…

Anyone who has been collecting watches for more than a couple of years will recall a time when they were able to buy today’s most desirable watches right out an authorised dealer’s display cabinet. You could find yourself walking by a boutique, spot a watch you liked such as a Rolex GMT Master 2, and simply go in and buy it. What’s worse is roughly 5 or so years ago, you could even blag a discount if you were lucky. As far back as I can recall, the only piece you’d ever wait for, was a Rolex Daytona, and even that was a mere 6 months. Now I won’t bother going into the detail regarding how this has changed, because if you’re reading this you are probably well aware of the situation. If you aren’t, then @nycwatchguy has already described it in his article here; In short, secondary market prices are now level with retail prices for many watches, and multiples above retail price for the most desirable watches.

How do I define a flipper?

I must start by saying, the term ‘flipper‘ has been universally categorised as a kind of insult in the watch community … and this is perhaps unwarranted. Remember, this section was added after the original post was nearly done – so I’m going to try and integrate it on the fly. This question is insanely nuanced, because as Ben and I both agreed, it is all about a person’s intentions when buying a watch, and nobody will ever know the truth except the person themselves. The scale from “genuine watch collector” to “emotionless watch trader” is a very nuanced spectrum.

With that in mind, let’s start with a comparison of the opposite ends of the spectrum. Ben used cryptocurrency as a great analogy… some people buy bitcoin, and their sole intention is to make money… it is speculative, and it might be a decision driven by belief in the future of crypto, or by reading some technical analysis charts on support levels and peaks, who knows… the fact of the matter is, nobody deeply loves bitcoin – they buy crypto to speculate on the potential upside, and everyone has their own reasons for doing so.

On the opposite end, there’s the so-called ‘genuine’ watch enthusiast… who buys what they like, and doesn’t care about prices in the secondary market… and that’s because they never had any intention of selling it anyway – they planned to keep it, and enjoy it for the rest of their lives. Ben and I discussed this for a while, and the conclusion we reached is that a large portion of watch enthusiasts, especially the ones who aren’t working with abundant wealth to spend on watches, almost always buy watches with the intention of selling them eventually.

To put it another way – they don’t buy with the intention to ‘keep things forever’. What we agreed upon, is there are certain pieces we would never want to sell, and the rest were potentially for sale at the right price – provided we were selling them in order to be able to access another ‘better’ or ‘more coveted’ piece. It isn’t primarily about ‘taking profits’ – but rather, about knowing when you have found a replacement piece which you love even more than the one you’re about to sell. As I have said before, the ones you sell, will still live on in the memory of the new one you buy.

Does that make us ‘flippers’? Surely not. We aren’t buying pieces in an emotionless way like bitcoin – we’re buying pieces which we like, and we enjoy. We wear them, love them and appreciate them for what they are. That doesn’t mean that we are somehow obliged to keep them forever. Tastes change, preferences change, style changes… granted, we discussed certain watches which we both believed we would never be able to sell – based on how they make us feel, or the relationships that allowed us to buy them in the first place were too valuable to jeopardise over a sum of money… but aside from these special cases, the point here is simple: any ‘genuine’ watch collector who operates with a limited watch collecting budget, and who aspires to ‘ascend the collecting ladder’, is almost always buying without the intention to keep it forever. Does that make them a flipper? I don’t think so.

The people who are branded a ‘flipper‘ in the most negative sense, are the people who buy watches like they would buy bitcoin – as a speculative asset, with no emotional attachment or actual desire to wear and enjoy the piece. To me, these folks should be called ‘traders’ not ‘collectors’ – that’s how I would differentiate between the two.

Back to the market…

This section was born out of a reply to my previous post, from Nop @nopstar83 – a really thought provoking chat I must add. Given how ‘hype’ has engulfed the watch market, the way brands are treating customers defies logic for all but the most affluent collectors. As described in the previous section… collectors needing to sell watches in order to buy new ones has always been true for any average collector. I’m not talking about the guy who bought a Rolex with money from his first 6 pay checks and then wore it for the rest of his career… I’m talking about the ‘watch guys’ who simply loved collecting watches, and kept as many as they could afford, but often needed to move some along to enable the purchase of a new one. Back in the day, these collectors were simply collecting for the love of watches – there was almost no scenario where they were going to make easy money, save for a handful of ultra rare examples like perhaps a Khanjar Rolex or similar pieces. They never had to worry about the ‘repercussions’ of selling a watch, because it was their own property and they were known to be buying these watches to wear, and to keep for as long as they enjoyed them. There was no risk of being labelled ‘a flipper’ – but they absolutely were flippers. That was part of the game!

Like any free market, they dynamics changed when there was an arbitrage opportunity for those who were buying desirable watches at retail price. The influx of people seeking arbitrage profit, created a problem for boutiques and authorised dealers, because they had no way of distinguishing between genuine collectors and profit seekers or traders as I labeled them earlier; that isn’t to say that profit seeking is wrong, but these were clearly new players joining the game.

Now, with these new players entering the game, the brands which had ‘hyped watches’ decided to make new rules, since they held the stock which people wanted, and ‘ordinary’ customers no longer had any bargaining power – the ADs and boutiques were able to call the shots. Only the customers with deep pockets were able to demand whatever they wanted but ADs and brands were able to use their bargaining power to shift all their undesirable stock; You want a steel Daytona, sure, provided you buy this unwanted Cellini for example. The other downside of this bargaining power, is the level of abuse it gave rise to – I know of at least two grey dealers who have running ‘arrangements’ with ADs for Rolex and Patek – they buy ‘parcels’ of watches which might include two-tone ladies’ Datejusts, and less popular bejewelled watches which don’t sell too easily (at a discount to retail) … and in return for taking all this less-liquid stock, they get a highly desirable watch or two which will resell for multiples of the MSRP. Now I don’t know the intricacies of these arrangements, but there’s a few reasons this works for both parties. The grey dealer can sell the desirable watches for abnormal profits, and potentially even sell the other stuff at retail since they bought that at a slight discount. Next, the ADs might be getting a back-doored kick back from the sale of the hot watch, but more importantly, the AD gets to shift illiquid stock. In case you weren’t aware, brands like Rolex have onerous targets for ADs to meet – they have to do a certain amount of business to keep their status as an AD, and often, access to ‘hot’ pieces is governed by how much business they do. Many smaller ADs only get a handful of ‘hot’ watches a year for this reason.

As a result of all these shenanigans – it became pointless for ADs to sell highly desirable watches to ‘regular’ non-affluent customers since they either 1) wouldn’t buy a lot more from them in a short space of time, or 2) wouldn’t be genuine collectors anyway and would simply sell the watch for a profit after buying it. Clearly the big loser here was the watch loving, regular guy who was happy to buy the watch even if it meant losing money through depreciation after buying it.

Where do we go from here?

What the brands fail to realise is that selling was always a significant part of watch collecting, for the majority of collectors out there. The fact that this now happens to yield a profit instead of a loss, is what creates a problem on both sides. Right now the brands are downright abusive in their treatment of customers who sell, and little to no context is taken into account when it comes to resale… its usually a one-way ticket onto the blacklist if you sell a watch. This is just nonsense.

People do tire of watches, and this boredom with watches happens faster today than ever before, because the rate at which newer and cooler watches are released, is also faster than ever before. An example is a collector who bought the recent Vacheron Overseas Everest edition… after all the buzz and surrounding saga with the allocation process… this collector told me they’re already over the watch. Given the nature of the hype surrounding this watch, and the short amount of time that has passed since they bought it, it would be frowned upon if they sold it. It would 100% lead to them never being sold another Vacheron, that’s for sure. So this begs the question… how can it be solved?

Well, I recently posted a story on Instagram asking how long people should be expected to own a watch before they could sell it and not be considered a ‘flipper’ (obviously in the negative sense!) – there were so many responses, more than I’ve ever received to any story. The key insights were:

  • Regardless of the time period, it should be worn, not stored in a safe
  • 6-12 months is plenty of time to know whether you’re loving the watch, or don’t really like it enough to keep it – that said, the overwhelming consensus was around 12-18 months.
  • Given certain watches are ‘as good as cash’ and common enough to try on elsewhere, the lock-in time period should be longer for watches which are more ‘stable’ in their secondary value, and shorter for watches which are ‘more speculative’.

Most of this makes sense to me. There could also be a referral system, where an existing and trusted client of the AD is required to vouch for new clients, and this will help weed out the bad actors to a certain degree. For those naysayers who say “yeah but who would ever take that risk and vouch for someone” – I assure you, these people exist. I have had people do this for me with independents, and I value my own reputation and promise to these friends above ay monetary gain from selling the watches. If nobody will trust you to keep your word, then that’s on you.

There will always be exceptional circumstances… maybe people will land in financial trouble, and these watches being fairly liquid (and superfluous) makes them the perfect way to free up capital – in these instances, where the sale is happening before a ‘reasonable timeframe’ has passed, I think the brand should buy it back. Most independent watchmakers have certified pre-owned programs, why can’t mainstream brands do this too? They can also pay close to market prices, allowing for administrative and/or refurbishment costs. For example, if I wanted to sell my Vacheron 4500v before a period of 18 months had passed since I bought it, and say it was worth £30,000 on the grey market… VC could do an assessment of the watch and determine if it needed a service and/or refurbishment… then deduct these costs, add a restocking fee, and pay me the balance. VC will then take the ‘market risk’ and sell it at the prevailing market price. In this example, say I took a ~15% hit and was paid £26,000 – I think that’s a reasonable deal… I don’t receive the ‘market price’ but I get close enough, PLUS I get to stay in good standing with the brand, and they don’t have to blacklist me. The brand can also keep better records of who’s buying and who’s selling… and they get to issue a new warranty to the new owner, as well as offer them peace of mind with regards to their new ‘pre owned’ purchase – rather than them being forced to deal with grey dealers.

With this system, people who ‘habitually’ sell pieces before 18 months have passed will eventually be flagged on the system and perhaps they might fall lower down any waiting list the company maintains for future watches. What also happens is the brand gets to keep more customers, and customers don’t feel obliged to hold everything for fear of ruining a relationship with the brand. All that’s required is a little transparency from the brands to be clear about what time-period is sufficient to keep the watch, and allow for a reasonable alternative when people have legitimate reasons to break this arrangement.

Conclusion

Selling has always been a significant part of watch collecting, because most people don’t have unlimited money, and tastes or preferences tend to evolve over time. The brands and authorised dealers can continue with the status quo, or embrace this reality and find a way to profit from it. Sure, there are probably a multitude of reasons why the status quo suits them right now – remember the bargaining power I described above? Well, the problem is this only works in a bull market, where they are selling goods which are trading above MSRP on the secondary market.

Any astute trading strategy always includes some sort of risk management, a hedge of sorts. In this case, that would be planning for a downturn. If customers are treated right today, they will have no problem dealing with the brands down the road when the going gets tough… The alternative will be, having to sell everything at 50% off to grey dealers just to keep the lights on, forgoing all R&D and innovation which would likely maintain the brand’s relevance going into the next bull market when it comes. It can be a vicious cycle in the worst case scenario.

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