It’s not just toys, tech and turkey that are in short supply this Christmas. Rolex watches will be harder to find too. Luckily for bling seekers, there are other ways to get in on the luxury watch boom.
A combination of lockdown savings, roaring markets (until recently at least), revenge spending and a broader interest in alternative assets has sent demand for the hottest watches far outstripping supply. Waiting lists have gotten longer and prices on the second-hand market are skyrocketing.
Interest in iconic models, such as the Rolex Daytona, the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, is long-standing. There’s also fanfare around the skeletal watches made by Richard Mille, the Rolex Submariner and the GMT-Master II. Among the most hyped recently is the Rolex palm print dial, dubbed the “Weed” in some circles.
Of course, there have always been more buyers than available timepieces. Rolex is estimated to make about 1.1 million watches a year, while Patek Philippe makes about 65,000 and Audemars Piguet about 45,000 — hardly enough to satisfy luxury shoppers.
But interest in watches has exploded over the past two years, as lockdowns led people to funnel money that would have gone to vacations and fine dining into luxury goods instead. The first choice for men was a watch, and many buyers reached for the brands they knew best. Record stock markets and soaring cryptocurrencies have not only brought wealth, but also driven a broader interest in investing in alternative asset classes, whether it’s non-fungible tokens or timepieces.
The mismatch became so great that in September, Rolex took the highly unusual step of issuing a statement that scarcity was not a strategy. It simply could not keep up with demand without reducing quality. The group declined to comment further.
Even retailer Watches of Switzerland, which had always been able to secure Rolexes for its boutiques in the UK and US, ran out of stock in about July, thanks to demand escalating month over month. It is now working with Rolex on a new concept, where it carries a range of watches for display only. Customers can come in and try the models, including the Submariner and Daytona, which were rarely in stores before, and then register their interest — a bit like in a car showroom.
Watches of Switzerland doesn’t keep waiting lists beyond two years. Lists for the most popular models would otherwise extend well beyond this limit. Anecdotally, there are reports of waits for the Daytona stretching up to 10 years.
Shortages have also driven up prices in the secondary market, populated by operators including Germany’s Chrono24, Watchfinder (owned by Richemont) and London’s A Collected Man. The Rolex Daytona, AP Royal Oak and Patek Nautilus can change hands for three to four times their original retail price. Other sought-after Rolexes can trade at two times at least.
Perhaps even more frustrating than not being able to get your hands on one of these models is that the three manufacturers are privately owned, so there are few ways for equity investors to participate in the excitement. One is through Watches of Switzerland, which generates 50%-60% of its sales from Rolex, AP and Patek. Its shares have almost trebled over the past year. Meanwhile, interest in watches is spreading from the most supply-constrained brands to those owned by the listed players: Swatch and Richemont.
Omega, owned by Swatch, has a strong following, with the Speedmaster particularly popular in Asia and the latest James Bond Seamaster watch, produced to coincide with the most recent film, also sought-after. Richemont’s Cartier has been relaunching or upgrading some of its classic models over the past five years. The company’s strategy is to keep supply running slightly behind demand, after buying back excess stock in the wake of China’s anticorruption campaign, which led to a glut of timepieces about five years ago.
Online watch platform A Collected Man, which specialises in independently owned Swiss makers, has also seen interest surge in two other Richemont brands: A. Lange & Söhne and Vacheron Constantin. The big question is whether the current frenzy, and escalating values, can continue. Recent market jitters and rising prices for many essential goods could mean their time is running out. Pressure on cryptocurrencies would be another challenge.
Meanwhile, efforts to curb conspicuous consumption in China could mean less demand for top-end timepieces in the region. But with the major issue right now being supply constraints, a slowdown in China could mean more to go around in other booming luxury markets, such as the US. So if you can get your hands on a Rolex this Christmas, it won’t just give you bragging rights, it’ll be a hedge against common prosperity too.
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