The issue that brands occasionally skirt around is that most luxury watches on the planet, at any given time, are being bought by Chinese people. And this is not limited to the Chinese in Mainland China. For example, the figures you see for watch sales in any given major European capital, are being driven by Chinese tourists.
At the same time, the stellar growth seen in Australia can be attributed to both visiting Chinese, as well as, Australian Chinese. I would hazard a guess that Chinese Americans represent a disproportionately large percentage of local American watch buyers. Singapore, one of the commercial meccas for the luxury watch world, has a population which is largely Chinese.
I have always believed there are two reasons for this. First, it is deeply ingrained into our culture that a watch is one of the most important objects you should own. It is a priority in life to have a quality watch. The second is, of course, our deeply acquisitional nature, which in some ways is profoundly connected to the Chinese concept of mien-tzu or ‘face’. But let’s also be honest… buying things is fun. It just feels awesome.
Although, just a few years ago, there were two types of Chinese buyers. The first was the international Chinese buyer: A person who is ethnically Chinese and grew up in, or was exposed to, the West. As a customer base, they are a dominant force in everything from the booming vintage market (Eric Ku), to Patek Philippe (Zach L.), or Richard Mille collecting (Wei Koh… I wish).
Then there was the Mainland Chinese customer, who for many years was buying a very specific type of watch created expressly for the market. But times have changed. Says Chu — better known as @horoloupe on Instagram — one of the founders of Shanghai’s one and only watch collecting community, Shanghai Watch Gang, “The Chinese all know they bought the wrong watches before. This time, we want what is universally acknowledged as the best. We want to be on the forefront of the watch collecting scene and eventually lead the way.”
Says Francois Bennahmias, the prophet-like leader of Audemars Piguet, “The majority of Swiss watch brands all got it wrong, including us. When we first went into China (when Bennahmias was not the CEO of AP) we were trying to push round, three-hand watches. But the customer was evolving and gaining sophistication so fast, we should have focused immediately on our icons. Today, we cannot keep the Royal Oak in stock, such is the demand.”
Such is the lighting speed evolution that is happening in the Mainland Chinese scene. With the modern collector being a young, wealthy — often, self-made — Western educated individual that speaks more languages than the average UN translator — including accent-less English, Mandarin and Shanghainese — is entrenched in the social and business scene, has an equal passion for Jean-Georges caviar eggs and traditional dumplings, and who knows more about Richard Mille and Off-White than I do. Ok, not Richard Mille. But, you get what I’m saying.
As stories go, the way that the Shanghai Watch Gang met, is about as unconventional as it gets. The commonality that founding members Chu (@horoloupe), Daniel Sum (@dan.sum) and Kelvin Sa (@mr_kelvinator) shared, was that they had all been scammed and ripped off, in some cases for up to USD 400,000, so that the first time they met, they eyed each other with considerable circumspection.
Says Chu, “We had all met this guy named Kevin, who was a fantastic car modifier and race car driver. We became friends with him and he asked us to help loan him cash to buy cars to start a racing school. But in addition, we discovered that he was trying to sell us each other’s cars with forged paperwork.
“We eventually all lent him money because he was such a nice guy and then he disappeared on us.” Chu, Sum and Sa eventually met up to exchange notes and discovered they had another thing in common. They all loved watches. But first, they needed to track down Kevin and get their money back.
Once they located him, holed up in his apartment, they hired men to stand outside and essentially starve him out. Says Chu, “We all went to confront him together and he eventually relented and returned our money.”
Says Sum, “The best thing to come out of it was our friendship and our mutual affection for watches. What’s interesting was that despite Shanghai being such a huge market for timepieces, no one had made an effort to create a collector’s group to share the passion and broaden and deepen our knowledge. So that’s how Shanghai Watch Gang was created.”
Gazing over the array of ticking horological finery present at the micro gathering of the Group’s most senior members, the theme is seemingly random. An URWERK UR-203 sits next to a Blancpain L-Evolution, next to a Patek 5711 next to an AP Double Balance, next to a Richard Mille RM 35-02 Rafael Nadal.
Says Sa, “That’s what’s cool about our Group. That we all appreciate all different genres of watches. From independent watches to watches from the most established manufactures. The common thread is simply that they are cool, that each watch has a perspective. For example, I became an URWERK collector because the first time I saw a UR-110 at The Hour Glass in Singapore, it blew my mind. It was the first time I had seen a watch that reinterpreted time from a civil expression into something artistic. I thought to myself, ‘Man I gotta have that’.
“Until I saw the price tag. Then I decided that when I reached a specific goal in my business, I would reward myself with that. You could even say, watches have been an amazing motivation to succeed in business.”
Chu laughs, “It’s funny that people consider China to be an emerging market. If you go to the Patek museum and look at the enameled, jeweled, high complications made as paired watches, dating back hundreds of years, you’ll see that a very high proportion of these watches were created for the Chinese market. We’ve always had an innate cultural appreciation for craft.”
Sum adds, “The idea of buying less but buying the best quality, so that the object lasts from one generation to the next, really resonates with us in a big way.” Chu, whose father is American and who went to university in New York explains, “In the West, it’s all about the individual. Whereas in Chinese culture, it’s all about the family. When you succeed, you succeed as a family. And the idea of an heirloom, a watch that goes from one generation to the next, is innate to that.”
So what kind of watches are the young successful Chinese buying today? Chu who sold his first company when he was still in his teens, explains, “Look, everyone knows that the Mainland Chinese bought a huge amount of watches, from the mid ’90s to 2013. But now that we are coming back into the market in a big way, everyone knows that they bought the wrong watches.
“There are two reasons for this. The first is that, prior to 2013, a lot of the watches were bought to give away as gifts. So it became all about what was most easily recognizable and what was the most expensive. But now, the Chinese are buying for themselves and they want to please themselves. In so doing, they want to be buying the right watches; the watches that are universally recognized.
“That’s the reason for Patek Philippe’s success right now. Patek did three things right. First, they have a message that totally connects with Confucian thinking: The watch is meant to be passed to the next generation. Second, they opened these two incredible maisons, one in Shanghai and one in Beijing, and these became the only two points of sales, in all of China. But third, the message these buildings communicated was this: That we are investing in China, to serve the needs of the Chinese. The after sales service in these buildings sets the standard. The idea of these emotional homes for Patek, here in China, is super smart.”
Says Sum, “It’s like this. When the Chinese become interested in something they become obsessive. They want know everything about that brand, or that reference, or that complication. At the same time, we are very aware of the reputation of the brand-obsessed mainlander, who gets it all wrong. We are now in a moment of incredible evolution and it’s happening so much faster than anyone thinks. Right now the vintage thing is only starting [Aurel Bacs take note]. Wait until we get fully into it.”
Says Sa, “What takes five years in the West, happens in one year in China. Each time you leave China and come back in a year, it’s progressed. Traffic used to be super chaotic and loud. But we invested in highways and educated drivers to drive in an orderly way. We even outlawed honking your horn. So now, China’s traffic is super-efficient and quiet compared to the West. We move on and we move fast.
“It’s funny because the guys from URWERK came to a get-together we organized and they expected the URWERK collector to be a guy in his 40s, who has already gone through the normal traditional watches. No dude, the URWERK guy here is in his 20s, or 30s. This guys is buying an URWERK as his first watch, because he thinks it’s cool. He’s also done all his research, by talking to me, or through forums, websites and magazines.”
Says Sum, “That’s the other thing about China, there is a respect for knowledge. Remember that the scholar is one of the most revered guys in Chinese culture. And at our get-togethers it’s all about sharing knowledge. That’s why it’s cool that the watches are so mixed.”
Says Chu, “One of the reasons I love my Audemars Piguet Double Balance Wheel Openworked, beyond how awesome it looks, is the idea of creating more concentric breathing by placing the spirals in opposing directions. It’s after the same effect of a tourbillon, but using a completely different approach. When I explain this, people here love it.
“People here are greatly receptive to other kinds of watches, because you want to learn, you want to gain knowledge. An AP guy will still want to learn about De Bethune or Kari Voutilainen.”
Says Sa, “Yes, but brands also have to be aware of what doesn’t play well in China. Like when Kari Voutilainen worked with that Vertu knock-off mobile phone company. We all used to really love Kari and probably still do, but when you see that ad with him holding the phone, it makes you go, ‘Dude, what the…’”
In a very short period of time Richard Mille has laid claim to the hearts and minds of the most elite Chinese watch collector. When asked why, Chu drops the following science: “One major appeal of Richard Mille is pretty simple. It is exactly the same reason for the brand’s success in the West. When you’re in a certain situation, a sort of unspoken competition, for who has the most baller watch, when you have a Richard Mille on, you just win.
Everyone knows you have the most expensive piece, and in many people’s eyes, the coolest watch, on your wrist. The only thing that can beat a Richard Mille is an even more dope Richard Mille. But Richard Mille isn’t about competition. It is about community. If another guy has a Richard Mille on, you high-five him. Because you know you’re going to like him. The other is how light they are. It’s a total inversion of how the Chinese think of a luxury watch. The new generation really connects with this.”
Says Sa, “From a social perspective, the other cool thing about the Watch Gang is that it attracts a certain type of person. Someone who is sincere and receptive to knowledge. What I also really like about watches, is that it isn’t like fashion, where you can just make up some bullshit. With watches, you either know what you’re talking about or you don’t. You cannot wing this stuff. You might not have a lot of specific knowledge about certain watches, and that’s fine. But you can’t bullshit people. And so it attracts very real people.”
Says Sun, “I’m in charge of the vetting process for new members, so I’ll usually meet them first, before they join us at a gathering. I want to make sure they are sincere, that they are passionate and that they handle watches respectfully.”
Says Chu, “What’s cool about the group is that no one rejects any watch or brand. Everyone is open to learn. Everyone is appreciative when another member shares his passion and knowledge.”
There you have it. Evidence. Proof positive that in the blink of an eye Mainland China will totally evolve. This is not to say the pig farmer, who found natural gas on his land and has now turned into an oligarch, whom I sat next to, on my Dragon Air flight to Shanghai,will disappear overnight. But I’m pretty sure there are guys like him in other countries too. And he is the past. The Shanghai Watch Gang is the future.