You Are There: Horology Forum 8 New York By Dubai Watch Week
Watch events come and go – and over the past three virus-afflicted years, it’s mostly been go – but perhaps we are now on the road back to some semblance of normalcy when it comes to gathering with fellow enthusiasts at venues near and far to discuss our obsession and share watches.
One of my favorite experiences of the past few years was traveling to Dubai to participate as a session moderator at Dubai Watch Week (DWW). So when I was offered the opportunity to represent Quill & Pad at this year’s traveling DWW Horology Forum in New York, I jumped at the chance, and despite the justifiable concerns surrounding traveling with timepieces I took a few favorites with me.
Opening discussion: Horology Forum Moves New York
An obvious opening question: why did Dubai Watch Week come to New York? DWW director general Hind Seddiqi responded that the Seddiqi family felt that it was important to understand the dynamic United States market more clearly, and that DWW’s core objectives of spreading horological knowledge in a non-commercial setting, promoting watchmaking crafts, connecting collectors, and driving provocative conversations are as relevant in New York as in Dubai.
Other portions of the conversation addressed the state of watchmaking and the watch market, in America. Here, opinions varied as you might expect; for instance, marketer Tirath Kamdar of eBay argued for the primacy of “stories over content” and promoted watches as an investment asset class, while watchmaking entrepreneur and Hollywood actor Aldis Hodge suggested that it is a problem that, “We talk a lot about watch brands, but not a lot about watchmaking.”
Hodge also rejected the idea that the job of brands was to react to consumer trends. “We need to create our own trends for others to catch up to,” he said before reflecting on his life’s journey, acting career, and multiyear effort to develop his own watch as a person of color in America. “In this country, they tell me to be less than . . . ” I for one am happy that he has persisted; my only regret was that I didn’t have a longer lens on my camera to get a better look at that prototype on his wrist!
My take: I’m thrilled that DWW is investing in holding events around the world and take at face value the claims that promoting knowledge and building the appreciation for watchmaking makes it worth their while. At the same time, I hope and suspect that the resulting reputational boost increases the organization’s stature with both its home market customers and existing and potential brand partners.
Talking Moser, Hautlence, and marketing channels with Bertrand Meylan
Later on opening day, I spent time chatting with Bertrand Meylan, CEO of MELB Luxe Subsidiaries, the marketing and distribution arm of the Meylan family business that owns H. Moser & Cie. and Hautlence. His thoughts on a variety of topics included:
- Distribution: Moser plans to continue a multi-pronged approach to retail. In addition to the soon-to-open boutique in Hong Kong, we can expect more single-brand outlets across continents, both for sales and to ensure that there are places where watches are available for enthusiasts to see and touch. At the same time, multi-brand retail will remain a pillar of the strategy as will the direct-delivery e-shop on Moser’s website.
- Moser brand personality: “It’s a life cycle. We started as a child, then became a rebellious teenager, and now we are learning to be a young adult.”
- Collaborations: We can expect more cross-category collaborations with sneaker and streetwear makers as well as new editions with other watch companies and retailers. “We learned a lot working with people outside of watchmaking; for instance, with sneakers, how to manage lengthy pre-launch ‘tease’ marketing and how they handle 100,000 requests for 100 items!” said Meylan.
- Hautlence: With two recent introductions and fortification of the Hautlence team, we can look for more from this brand. But don’t expect overlap with Moser or a departure from Hautlence’s recognizable geometric case shapes.
My take: MELB continues to navigate the development of its two brands and its distribution deftly, aided by a buoyant market for independent watches. MELB also seem to be handling the transfer of leadership from one generation to another well – a recurring theme at this forum – with legendary father Georges-Henri [among other positions, a former CEO of Audemars Piguet] acting in an advisory role that allows the younger Meylans to benefit from his wisdom while setting their own course.
Auctions and photos
In keeping with the educational mission of DWW, the forum also included the opportunity to attend classroom sessions. Caitlin Donovan and Rebecca Ross of Christie’s discussed the evolution of luxury goods auctions and illustrated the three big determinants of value: rarity, provenance, and condition, with entertaining examples of each from the worlds of watches, handbags, sneakers, streetwear, and collectibles such as trading cards and event tickets.
Looking ahead, New York watch head of sales Ross predicted that in our favorite category originality and “untouched” condition will continue to be the drivers of valuation increases and that the trend toward independent makers as auction darlings will persist.
In pro photographer Atom Moore’s masterclass, I picked up some points of theory on the relationships between focal length, extension tube use, and lighting requirements I hadn’t fully appreciated previously, and most importantly learned that I need to buy a bunch of foam core board with black and white surfaces to improve my use of light in the studio.
Day 2: made in America
The first public day of the forum featured a panel discussion entitled “Made in America” that again featured Aldis Hodge and added noted vintage dealer Eric Wind, Parchie founder Cara Barrett, and Shinola product design VP Brandon Little.
For me, Little had the quote of the session during a discussion of the opportunities that acceptance of more daring designs by consumers present for American makers when he observed, “Ten years ago, if you had proposed a watch made from white ceramic, you would have been run out of the Vallée de Joux, thrown in the lake, chased out of Geneva, and ended up in Milan or Paris.”
In this more open environment, what will it take to re-establish American watchmaking on anything like the grand scale of the mid-twentieth century that historian Wind described? Wind himself despaired of U.S. brands emerging to compete with “mass luxury” brands like Rolex given cost and infrastructure disadvantages, but the panelists did have hopes that with continued effort and dedication the number of successful smaller watchmaking enterprises will expand.
My take: Why don’t we have a robust watchmaking industry in the United States? It’s the same reason that there is no Silicon Valley in Albania: the absence of a concentrated and robust ecosystem. It’s one thing to buy a rose engine and turn a few dials; quite another to build the broad and deep infrastructure, skills, schools, talent base, design capabilities, component sources, and culture needed to create a sophisticated industry.
And it might not even matter: Little hit the nail on the head when he described Shinola’s secret of success as a multi-country network. Is “made in America” really an essential objective when “designed in California, made in China” is so widely accepted?
I’ll admit that the artisanal nature of watchmaking makes it a somewhat special case, but perhaps the deep American competence in creating and managing cross-geography ecosystems is really what’s needed here.
The people vs. luxury
“The People vs. Luxury” was a classic DWW panel discussion in that it didn’t really come close to addressing the advertised topic (the influence of clickbait and public opinion on luxury goods), but was very entertaining nonetheless and drew in views from beyond the world of watches. Moderator Jian DeLeon hails from Nordstrom; Mark Cho is a watch collector whose day job is head of fashion retailer The Armoury; Gabe Reilly is a tech marketer who co-founded collector group Collective Horology; and we met Christie’s Rebecca Ross earlier.
The closest the discussion got to the stated theme was when Reilly, when pressed, admitted that the Collective membership model, which requires purchase of one of the group’s project watches and requires a vote of the existing membership, might just not be as completely open and egalitarian as he had initially suggested.
My take: The most comforting line of the session was from Cho, who described his mistakes in buying and selling as “paying school fees.” Reilly’s description of the conceptual model of Collective Horology also struck me: a Venn diagram in which circles signifying limited editions, collaborations in which the fingerprints of all participants are visible and influence each other, and concepts that express new ideas overlap to form a sweet spot.
Debates: sez you!
New to the DWW world this time around were two moderated one-on-one debates, the first on the advantages and disadvantages of family lineage in luxury firms and the second on the wisdom – or lack thereof – of re-launching or revitalizing historical brand names in watchmaking.
The former session featured designer and watch creator Fiona Krüger against Tim Mosso of WatchBox, and the “combatants” agreed much more than they disagreed, with self-labeled “Care Bear” Krüger interrupting her kind remarks just long enough to assert that while the continuity of family ownership made sense in the trust-based world of retail, when it comes to creating new watches, new voices and perspectives are critical.
With some skillful prodding from moderator Barbara Palumbo, the second debate between MELB’s Bertrand Meylan and Brew Watch Co. founder Jonathan Ferrer was a spicier affair.
Arguing largely for effect (it was supposed to be a debate, after all), real-life nice guy Ferrer decried the “slavish reproductions” of Breitling and dismissed Moser’s work of the past decade as bearing no resemblance to the Moser watches of historical times. Meylan countered by saying that with every design, the Moser team asks itself, “What would Heinrich Moser think?” and that the members believe that their work is a true modern interpretation of both the innovative values and emphasis on movement beauty that characterized Moser’s origins.
My take: The debate format worked better, as you might expect, when the participants were willing to stretch their actual views to more extreme positions. As for family vs. newcomers and old vs. new brands, the answer is of course “both”: family management has led to brilliant legacies as well as stale failures, and re-interpreting traditional themes appeals to some buyers as much or more than the creations of recently launched brands.
Whatever happened to NFTs?
Sunday’s “NFT Flip” discussion brought together an artist, art museum manager, NFT marketer, and watch retailer to talk about the broad world of NFTs and their narrower application to the watch realm.
While Mojdeh Cutter, managing director of the upcoming Time For Art auction, stressed the continued role of NFTs in democratizing art and promoting the direct patronage of digital artists, much of the remaining discussion focused on mercantile uses of blockchain technology by goods producers to understand user behavior, track custody chains of sold goods, allow the trading of futures for sold but yet unmade watches, and even claw back royalties on resales of watches over time.
My take: As the minter and seller of the first-ever watch related NFT by an independent artist, I was amazed at how quickly NFTs and blockchain have moved from being paths to market for small creators to serving as yet one more consumer and data management tool for corporations. Such is the nature of modern commerce, I suppose!
Watching with Watch Femme
An event I contributed to, but did not attend, was the women-only “speed dating” session organized by Watch Femme in cooperation with DWW. Participants were treated to Tinder-style descriptions of various watches (including a few of mine) on trays, asked to rate them on several dimensions, say whether they would “date” them or not, and if so what would entail an appropriate first date.
I was both amused and pleased to hear that when it came to my Chronomètre Contemporaine 01 by Rexhep Rexhepi, more than one participant, in the words of one of the event’s organizers, wanted to “take that bad boy home!” on a first date.
Chatting with Hind Seddiqi
A final treat for me was the chance to talk one on one with Dubai Watch Week’s director Hind Seddiqi. Here are a few highlights.
- What the team will celebrate: The ability to stage a successful event in a new market; highlighting American makers; presenting in a retail storefront with public visibility rather than an auditorium or convention space; learning from failures as well as successes; and, importantly, setting the stage for future DWW events around the world.
- Seddiqi’s role as one of a small number of globally visible retailers: DWW serves as a key mechanism to build awareness of – and the trust shared with – the brands Seddiqi represents. As a prominent retailer, there is also an obligation to share Seddiqi’s access to watches and information with consumers, press, and enthusiasts.
- Why topics beyond watches: There’s a two-way learning flow between participants in various luxury categories that benefits all of us; highlighting speakers and goods beyond our own domain allows DWW to attract much broader public interest to the event.
- The future of mono-brand and multi-brand retail: Especially with some mono-brand boutiques having few or no watches to show, there is an opportunity to rethink how mono-brand stores can be most effective. Multi-brand retail remains critical to providing an excellent buying experience for consumers as well as being an incubator for small brands that will be tomorrow’s stars.
- Respected collaborators: Govberg/WatchBox have done an excellent job on YouTube and elsewhere of helping customers to navigate the world of watches by providing informative content. They have been very smart so far and their ongoing media-side expansion will bear watching.
- Building and managing the DWW team: Deep knowledge of watches is not an entry requirement, but heart and a willingness to bring fresh perspectives are. The team has lots of freedom to propose new approaches (including publishing the forum’s discussions on YouTube rather than streaming in real time, for instance) and the entire team is eager to learn from mistakes and improve for the future.
My take: In a paradoxical world of proliferating visibility yet concentrating influence, the Seddiqi organization and Dubai Watch Week are charting new paths to stake out their position. As enthusiasts, we are the beneficiaries of the provocative conversations they host and access to the inner world of watches they provide.
I’ll welcome your thoughts on DWW, the Horology Forum, and the topics discussed in New York in the comments below. Until next time, happy wearing!
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