Ray Grenon, owner of Grenon’s of Newport, came into the watch business organically, his passion for timepieces ignited as a boy, followed by various jobs that led him into watch retailing. Now he is augmenting that with the distribution of several unique brands. I caught up with Grenon in his offices in Rhode Island.
How did you get into watches?
When I was 13 years old I had a summer, job washing dishes and my sister had a summer job at a jewelry store. One day she came home with a catalog from Tissot. It was showing the all new “Rockwatch” collection where the case of the watch was carved out of one block of granite. I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world so I saved up my money, washed a lot of dishes, and mustered up the $250 to buy one. Shortly after that Tissot introduced the “Woodwatch” and the “Pearlwatch.” Many more dishes were washed and the obsession began! I begged my boss for more hours and worked as much as I could so I could buy more watches.
My first job in the business was when I went to college. I took a job at a store that was part of a chain owned by Woolworths called “The Best of Times.” Every employee at the store hated doing watch batteries so I volunteered to do them all. I had no training whatsoever so I just had to dive in and learn as I went along. It was a great education.
Out of college I worked for a high-end watch retailer in Boston. They had a very talented watchmaker there named Jack Maher. When business was slow I’d sneak new watches back to Jack so he could open them up and teach me about them. I owe a lot to Jack because he taught me a great deal.
What do you love about watches?
The art and the history. I’ve always been a fan of various forms of art so the thought of carrying a portable piece of art is appealing to me. When I talk about the art of watchmaking, I’m talking about engraving and enameling but also the art of perfectly polishing a screw or beveling a bridge. I have great admiration for the men and women that have more patience than I to assemble these marvels. Being a car guy, I am also a fan of mechanics. The miniaturization of mechanical watchmaking astounds me. The watch is a perfect combination of wearing something mechanical and artistic.
What sort of watch are you attracted to?
Something that is unique and shows effort in design and craft. Mass produced pieces do not interest me. Something that tells a story and shows the personality of the watchmaker. You could say my range of interest is quite wide. I love the classic timeless design of a Speake-Marin but at the same time I love the old Alain Silberstein pieces with all of the crazy shapes and colors. I like anybody that doesn’t take themselves too seriously! Right now, you are mostly likely going to find me wearing a watch with a hand painted dial. My latest acquisition is a Valerii Danevych with an entire case and dial made out of wood. The dial features a wood marquetry image of a sailboat, and the work is amazing.
You often take on brands that are not very well known and you have been very successful. What attracts you to these types of brands?
After 30+ years of collecting it takes something different to catch my attention. When I go to Basel there are a lot of copycats out there. Every year at Basel I go to every building, every floor, every hallway and look at every booth. Before the show I go to every website of every exhibitor. If it doesn’t jump out at me, it’s not for me. For example, last year when I found L. Kendall, I instantly gravitated towards the multi-level dials done in various shades of mother-of-pearl. Another year, I was amazed by a genuine champlevé dial that was on a diver’s watch by Zannetti. I had never seen that before! Alexander Shorokhoff got me with his playful colors and beautiful engravings. They are all standouts. I can’t be convinced into liking a watch, it is either love at first sight or it is not for me. The added benefit of these brands is the tremendous value they offer. These small independent brands have much lower overhead than the conglomerates and offer a much better value to the consumer and give far better customer service!
Do your customers actively request these kinds of brands?
Yes. My customers are very intelligent, well-seasoned collectors. They have already gone through the phase of owning all the big brands and have now graduated to something different. They come to me to show them something they have never seen before.
Why did you decide to open your store?
I did it because no other store offered the type of watches I was passionate about. Most stores only want the big-name brands that bring in the traffic and are easy to sell. They don’t want to tell the story and educate the customer. I find it much more gratifying to teach someone about the craft involved and help them fall in love with their purchase. It’s just an entirely different experience. We are sharing our interest in the craft, it is not all about the money.
What in your mind makes your store stand out?
PASSION. Even if I am not in the store and you are dealing with an employee, you can see from what is in the store that this is a place for enthusiasts not status seekers. It’s music to my ears when a jaded watch collector from New York, who thinks he has seen it all says “I have never seen anything like this before.”
Who is the customer for the watches you carry?
Well-seasoned collectors that have been through all the big brands already. Then there is the younger crowd that is just learning. It takes a special type of person though. I’ll admit many people come in and ask for well-known brand “X” and if they don’t see any names they recognize they walk straight out the door. I can tell who can be a potential customer in the first 10 seconds. Status seekers walk in and don’t actually look at the watches, their heads move quickly as they scan the names on the displays. My customers don’t look at the names, they look at the watches.
What is your current favorite watch?
Who is your favorite child? It’s a lot like asking what the best car is. I love a good Lamborghini but a Bentley is far better for long distance travel! There are different watches for different things. If I have to name names, I love Roger Dubuis pieces from the 1990s, the Speake-Marin London chronograph, old Alain Silberstein pieces, the Alexander Shorokhoff Babylonian, some of my custom Zannetti pieces, there are too many to list, I can’t pick just one! An honorable mention goes to Romain Gauthier who I think is doing some of the best finishing out there right now.
What was your first watch? Do you still have it?
That Tissot Rock watch and yes, I still have it! I also now have every color in every size ever made of the Rock, Wood and Pearl watches. If you couldn’t tell by now I am obsessed!
hh4>You have been very successful in your career. What are some of the reasons for your success?
I do what I love. I couldn’t do anything else. I was a terrible student and hated school. With watches, I always enjoyed learning. I’ve never strayed from that either. I’ve stayed in my lane and kept my head down focused on one thing. I’ve never had a thought on another career. I research watches more than anyone I know and I enjoy sharing what I have learned. I have much, much more to learn and remain open minded and ready to learn new things.
How is the US market different today from 10 years ago?
The Internet, of course, has made a huge difference. People are very well educated now, but there is some danger in that too. Just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t make something true. There is some misinformation out there so people must be a little careful.
Overall, though, it has been a good thing as it has exposed people to more information so they can appreciate watchmaking.
What has it been like to work with these cool brands?
These small brands give such a special experience. I’ve done business with the big brands, there is no passion there. With the big brands, you go to visit them in Basel and you just talk to some executive that is here today, gone tomorrow. He or she could have been selling swim trunks the week before, they are not there for the love of watches, its only about the money and it is transparent. I can’t relate to that. When I go to my Zannetti meeting, I sit with Riccardo Zannetti, the artist that makes the watches. We come up with ideas together for future pieces. When I visit the Alexander Shorokhoff display, Alexander personally takes me around and explains his inspirations for his work. It’s an authentic experience. That’s the one word I would use to describe these small brands – AUTHENTIC.
What watch do you personally wear and why?
I started collecting Swatches in the ’80s because I thought they were fun. I now have about 850 of them. My collection includes timepieces from antique British to modern Swiss, American pocket watches, and Chinese novelty watches. I have no idea how many watches in total, it is a bit out of control. If Revolution ever does a spinoff magazine titled “Hoarders” I’m your man! I change frequently. Right now, I’m wearing a watch made 20 years ago by Oscar Waldan that still looks good today. It has a rose gold case and a blue dial featuring a triple calendar with moon display. Tomorrow, I’ll probably wear an Alain Silberstein, the day after that my Valerii Danevych, then an Alexander Shorokhoff and so on. I recently purchased a Swiss pocket watch from around 1850 with foudroyante seconds. I’m researching now who might have made it. There is always something new!
What is the biggest challenge facing the watch industry today?
Greed. When you have 50 watchmakers building new watches and only two repairing old watches, that is greed looking for the new sale instead of taking care of the old customer. Customers are fed up with how long it takes to repair a watch. When a manufacturer refuses to sell parts to fix a watch so they can set the price on the repair and gouge the consumer, that is greed. Customers are fed up with how expensive it is to service a watch. When you make a “limited edition” of 5,000 pieces, sell all of them and then make another “limited edition” that looks just like it, that’s greed. The greed of overproduction. Too much inventory which inevitably ends up deeply discounted thereby affecting resale values. It all comes down to greed. The brands have to force themselves to be more patient and focus on customer service.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of watches in the USA?
Yes, there are a lot of enthusiastic collectors here with some great ideas and budding new brands. A few looking to manufacture here in the US which will attract even more US buyers.
If you could offer our readers one piece of advice when it comes to buying their next watch, what would it be?
Stop trying to impress your peers, that will not give you long term satisfaction. Take your time, learn about the different artists. You will get far more satisfaction from your watch once you have learned what has gone into it. When you are looking at your watch, the only person you need to impress is you.