Luxury Watch Shortage Drives Growth of $20 Billion Secondhand Market as Start-Ups Rush to Cash in

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  • Demand for high-end watches has surged since the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The explosion in online watch buying is lifting the fortunes of a growing number of start-ups, all aiming to become the dominant digital marketplace for pre-owned watches.
  • Start-ups in the space have been raising money or flirting with the possibility of an IPO.

A rush of companies are vying to become the eBay of high-end horology — including the storied online marketplace itself.

Demand for high-end watches exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the Big Four watch brands — Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille — are holding firm on the limited production runs that make their timepieces so rare. The result is an online boom in the business of buying, selling and flipping pre-owned and vintage watches and a growing number of start-ups competing to become the dominant digital marketplace.

McKinsey estimates that pre-owned watch sales hit $18 billion in 2019, and could top $30 billion by 2025. Pre-owned watch sales will be about half the size of the market for new, retail watches by 2025, up from about a third today, according to the consulting firm.

"The pre-owned watch market is still very much like the Wild West," said Toby Bateman, CEO of Hodinkee, a popular watch collector site. "There are a lot of watch-selling platforms. And customers don't necessarily know who they're buying the watch from. They can't guarantee that it is authentic. They can't guarantee that it's not a 'Frankenwatch.' And they can't guarantee that the watch is working properly."

On Tuesday, Hodinkee launched its pre-owned watch shop, here it will buy and sell watches produced after 1990. The company — which raised $40 million in December from the likes of NFL quarterback Tom Brady, singer John Mayer, Apple alum Tony Fadell and investor Peter Chernin — aims to be the "world's preeminent brand for all things watches."

Hodinkee's pre-owned shop will start with an assortment of 250 pre-owned watches and offer authentication and refurbishing from its state-of-the-art watch facility in Atlanta. Bateman said Hodinkee's advantage over its growing list of competitors is its expertise and history as a trusted name in watches.

Still, rivals are attracting investor attention. Germany-based Chrono24 recently raised 100 million euros ($116 million) from investors including General Atlantic and LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault's Aglae Ventures. The investment valued Chrono24 at more than $1 billion, making it the first "unicorn" in the segment. The company said it carries about 500,000 watches from more than 3,000 retailers and over 30,000 private sellers.

Meanwhile, Switzerland-based Chronext was planning to raise about $270 million in an initial public offering, which would have valued the company at more than $1 billion. Yet Chronext said last week it was postponing its debut due to "adverse market conditions for high-growth companies."

Chronext has put together a star-studded board — including former Facebook marketing chief Gary Briggs and former Barneys New York CEO Daniella Vitale — and aims to expand in the U.S. and Asia.

Companies like Watchfinder, WatchBox and Watchmaster are also expanding and pushing for market share. Even eBay is taking aim at the Rolex crowd, launching an authenticity guarantee program and targeting higher-end watch collectors.

The question is how long can the current watch boom continue, and whether there are enough online sales to go around. The Big Four watch brands that drive most of the high-end collecting are all privately owned and have maintained their low production numbers despite huge demand, in order to preserve their storied quality and exclusivity. According to a report from Morgan Stanley, Rolex sold 810,000 watches last year, while Patek sold 53,000 watches, Audemars 40,000 and Richard Mille 4,300.

Demand is expected to continue to outstrip supply, at least in the near term. With stainless steel sports watches and other popular models all but impossible to buy at retail, with long waiting lists and scarce allocations, prices in the secondary market are rising. A Patek Philippe Ref. 5711 Green Dial, which retails for $35,000, auctioned in July for $490,000. Values for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 15500ST (blue dial) have nearly tripled since 2017, to more than $55,000, while the value of the Rolex Day-Date 40 is up 76% since 2017 to over $50,000, according to Chronext.

Industry executives say soaring global wealth, driven by stocks and crypto, along with a proliferation of online watch collector and information sites have spawned a whole new generation of young collectors buying and selling watches online. Social media has also powered sales, as more collectors like to flash their Swiss status symbols on Instagram and TikTok. For watch buyers and sellers, start-ups and online marketplaces, it remains to be seen how many of those new traders will stick around if pre-owned prices and demand falls.

"There are a lot more people today that consider themselves to be collectors and enthusiasts than there were even just a few years ago," Bateman said.

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